Science fiction and fantasy are the genres of ideas, the stories we turn to in order to be shown something we’ve never seen or imagined before. But every new idea slowly becomes familiar, and then cliché; there was once a time when an epic quest to defeat a Dark Lord was a startling concept, but those days are long past. And yet, that’s actually just the first—and most metafictional—way Adrian Tchaikovsky, best known for his expansive 10-book Shadows of the Apt fantasy series, uses our expectations against us in Spiderlight. The whole book is a master class in subverting our expectations to surprise, engage, and deliver a fantastic story that works even when it isn’t pulling the rug out from under us.
Paperback $15.30 | $17.00
Making the old new again
The greatest trick Tchaikovsky plays in Spiderlight is also its most basic. Instead of coming up with some new twist on the fantasy genre—something the author of Empire in Black and Gold knows something about—he instead uses shopworn fantasy elements in new ways. Yes, there’s a mysterious Dark Lord (slightly silly name—Darvezian: check) slowly overrunning the land, his fearsome minions (the Doomsayers), a religious prophecy, and a group of adventurers straight out of an old D&D handbook (a rogue, two warriors, a magician, and a cleric) who seek to fulfill it and finally defeat the evil one.
But these tropes aren’t being used out of laziness—Tchaikovsky putsa postmodern spin on each. The Dark Lord is just one in a series of them, each of who,m has risen up, been defeated (generally via prophecy), and replaced. The prophecy itself is almost uselessly cryptic. Each member of the adventuring party is flawed—the magician Penthos is smug and dim and solves most of his problems by burning them to a cinder with his magic fire; the rogue Lief consistently prioritizes beer and taverns over intelligent decisions; the warrior Harathes believes his companion Cyrene to be his girlfriend, despite her resistance to the idea, and reacts jealously to any contact she has with other men; Dion the priestess is racked by doubt in her faith, her purity, her every decision.
The final member of the group is Enth, a giant spider—until Penthos transforms him into a man-like creature (a feat of magic he doesn’t think earns him nearly enough credit)—designated by the Spider Mother to be the party’s guide to the Dark Lord’s evil lair. Enth is a fantastic character, as his POV sections allow Tchaikovsky to explore the story from an angle never considered by classic fantasy: how such a transformation might affect an actual creature. To put it mildly, Enth is horrified to find himself minus four legs, and quickly becomes the most sympathetic—and enjoyable—character in the book.
The fumbling darkfriends
Many fantasy novels explore a shadowy secret society of “darkfriends” who have sold their souls in exchange for power. Usually they’re presented as fearsome, useful idiots: men and women who of course will regret their decisions the moment their Dark Lord is in power, but who, in the mean time, are formidable enemies—Mini Bosses to be defeated before the encounter with the Big Bad. In Spiderlight, Tchaikovsky applies a simple rule to the Doomsayers and their servants of evil: they’re as flawed and frequently stupid as anyone else. As one exasperated Doomsayer says to one of his servants, “You know how much I get laughed at, because of you? I could have had a bandit chief doing evil in my name, or a notorious assassin. Instead I’ve got a coward of an innkeeper.”
The fine line
Unless your name is Terry Pratchett, being funny in a fantasy novel isn’t easy, not without allowing your story to slip into something akin to parody. Tchaikovsky hasn’t written a parody, though; his subversion is better than that. This is a real fantasy story, with real stakes and real conflicts, explored by an author with a cocked eyebrow and a quick wit. His descriptions of Penthos the mage’s inability to comprehend why his own jokes never get a laugh are hilarious—but when Penthos unleashes his magic fire, there’s nothing funny about it. Impossibly, this is both a deft comedy and a wickedly entertaining fantasy, with all the evil servants, monsters, and plot twists you’d find in a more serious (and probably less entertaining) novel.
The orc problem
Tchaikovsky packs in serious soul-searching for any fan of epic fantasy, and is unafraid to question the tropes fantasy long favored without question. Anyone who’s ever wondered why it’s okay to passionlessly murder thousands of orcs or other sentient creatures in a fantasy novel will find Tchaikovsky’s answer brilliant.
And any book that includes the phrase “Have it, you turd!” during the epic final battle is automatically worth reading.