Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Release Date: 2016
Spiderlight, is a sword-and-sorcery tale straight out of D&D or Pathfinder, complete with an adventuring party made up of the standard classes (cleric, rogue, wizard, fighter). Our heroes are on a quest to stop the Dark Lord (often called exactly that, with capitalization and everything). This is no standard adventure module, however. Tchaikovsky is incredibly aware of the tropes he's employing, and he spends the entirety of the novel gleefully pulling them apart and tying them back together in unexpected ways.
The main plot of the story is that our heroes must fulfill a prophecy for defeating the Dark Lord Darvezian. The heroes in question consist of Dion the priestess of the Light god, Armes; Harathes the knight, Lief the thief, Cyrene the archer, and Penthos the wizard. The prophecy in questions states that the Dark Lord can only be taken down by traveling the "spider's path," and after accosting a giant spider queen for one of her fangs, they force her to enlist one of her offspring to lead them to Darveszian. To ensure that the spider doesn't frighten the populace and so they can maintain control over him, Penthos the wizard turns the spider into a half-human abomination. Hilarity ensues.
The plot is not complicated, and neither is the world building or many of the characters. But in the end, that's fine. That's not what this story is about. Rather, Tchaikovsky weaves a simple tale to tackle complex issues and heavy topics like prejudice and acceptance, feminism and sexuality, faith and self-doubt, and whether the ends justify the means. Fight scenes are well done and there is barely any detail to their travels, because the focus is more on the interaction between the characters themselves, and how they come to terms with what their adventure is forcing them to do.
Each of the characters gives us a different point of view on their issues. Dion, the de facto group leader and moral compass, is facing a crises of conscience in lugging around the cursed man-spider. Cyrene is increasingly frustrated by being defined by her sexuality and the unwelcome advances from one of her group mates. Harathes toes the line between doing things for the greater good or for self-interest. Lief and Penthos provide a mix of comic relief and support, while at times absolutely stealing the show. But the book is never more interesting than when we see it through Nth's many eyes, as he is torn from his world into the cruel alien world of mankind. At times I had wished we had seen the entirety of the story from his point of view, but the narrative switches between characters throughout the book
The character's struggles are the strength and weakness of the book. Our heroes express emotions, feelings, and desires, but except for a few shallow declarations, we rarely see what makes them tick, meaning they often teeter between two-dimensional and fully fledged characters. This is what makes the character of Nth stand out even more against his peers: his fish-out-of-water story is immersive and interesting, even when the world around him may not be.
Spiderlight is a rip-roaring good time, and more to the point, it's funny. The highlight of course is the supremely talented, intelligent, and pyromaniacal wizard Penthos, who almost has a Sheldon Cooper-esque quality to him: erudite, grandiose, and completely lacking in social skills or empathy. Spiderlight does not, however, want you to feel comfortable: this is a world of moral ambiguity, and the final few chapters are not meant to tie everything up in a nice little package. It is an uncomfortable ending, but it's the kind that fits in well with the world that Tchaikovsky has built. I think the book will do well as a standalone, but I wouldn't mind returning to this world to see how some of the characters are faring.
Before I end this, I wanted to give some credit to an amazing scene in the book, where a lady character's actions leads to chaos among the characters (I think I audibly said "OH SNAP" when it happened). The character defends herself with what I would equate to a parsed down version of the "Cool Girl" speech from Gone Girl, which I wanted to print here.
And it’s always the same... [women] basically can’t talk to a man without him looking us over and deciding whether or not he wants to give us the shaft. And if he does then, whatever else we are, whatever else we do, it’s always there, somewhere in his mind. And if he doesn’t fancy us, then that’s a judgment too, writing us off as a thing without value. You can’t get rid of it. And either way it means you’re always a woman, first. You’re not a warrior, or an archer, or even just a friend to drink with. You’re a woman, and that means you’ve got a place, and a use.
If you're a fan of fantasy novels set in D&D- or Pathfinder-like worlds, and want a quick read with some excellent dialogue and interesting situations, pick up a copy.