Spiderlight is a 2016 fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Church of Armes of the Light has battled against the forces of Darkness for as long as anybody can remember, and their campaign against the Dark Lord Darvezian is the latest in their long history. It has been foretold that a band of misfits, led by a priestess of the Light, will bring about the end of this latest Dark Lord, armed only with their wits and an artifact retrieved from the wretched Spider Queen. The group’s conviction is put to the test, however, as they are forced to take Nth into their party, a spider from the Queen’s hideous brood. Without him they cannot find the “spider’s path” to the Dark Lord, as foretold, but can servants of the Light utilize the Dark in such a way without being corrupted by it?
I love how, almost to a fault, the back cover of this book makes it sound like a very stereotypical fantasy novel. In some of the most well-known franchises in the world bands of misfits are taking on Dark Lords, and this has been emulated and iterated upon time and time again across media. It is this very familiar formula that the novel plays with, juxtaposing the summary at the back with the opening chapter.
Before we get to know our heroes as individuals, we come to know them as an unstoppable force. They make their incursion into woodland lair of the spiders with a holy disc of Light at their side, which hurts all creatures of the Dark, and the overwhelming fire magic of the group’s mage. We behold all of this from the perspective of Nth, one of a multitude of giant spiders residing in the forest, who is horrified at the destruction being wrought upon him and his kin, who try in vain to stop the intruders.
The very idea of giant arachnids is horrifying, but Tchaikovsky gives these uncanny creatures a nuanced perspective and a unique way of communicating. This in itself contextualizes them for us as more than things of malevolence, but creatures that act intelligently on need and instinct. They feed on humans when they happen to wander into the forest, but they do so as they would with any other prey and otherwise keep to themselves. Champions of the Light, of course, cannot even fathom sympathizing so. With all this, he does a great job of setting the stage for the book’s major themes in just the first chapter.
The heart of the entire story is Nth, the spider yoked to their quest, who is soon transformed by the mage, Penthos, into grotesquely human-like form for the sake of easier travel (try staying at an inn with a giant spider in tow). Much of Nth’s time is spent miserable, adjusting to the strange new sensations his body affords him and restrained by Penthos’s magic into obeying his captors. This creates a dual role for him in the novel, as his transformation is something he has to come to terms with over the course of the story, yet he also has a largely flat arc that is more about the effect he has on the rest of the party.
The best parts of this novel had to do with the ways the group has to adapt to how the world will treat Nth and how individuals in the group itself choose to treat him. A couple of them are lost causes, as the knight Harathes is too bullishly devoted to the church to see him as anything other than a monster, and Penthos the mage is so aloof that he struggles to connect with any other people, let alone something inhuman, but with the others we are left with some hope that their minds can be opened.
They each fill fairly archetypal roles—priestess, ranger, knight, rogue, and mage—yet we come to know each of them in turn as complicated people, especially the priestess Dion, who begins to have a crisis of faith. The tension over whether they can learn to see that the world is not so black and white as it appears firmly held my interest throughout. Though my sympathy always laid with Nth, none of the human characters were irredeemable and I wanted to see if they could change. The Light and the Dark are literal forces that can be quantified in this world, after all, so it’s hard to blame them for believing the dogma when the division can stare you so starkly in the face.
Aside from the journey of the characters themselves, I marveled at the tightrope the novel walked between telling a parody of a fantasy world and a straight-faced one. Though in never spent too much time in the weeds about the minutiae of the world-building, it is still richly detailed in a way that takes itself rather seriously; their campaign and the black and white dichotomy of the world never came across as farcical, nor did it ever compromise the seriousness of the situation with Nth. The villains are a very real threat and lives are at stake, yet there’s an irreverent way that people speak that betrays the fun that the author is having with it all. When Dion speaks to the figurehead of the Church of Armes, for instance, he remarks about how fortunate they are that the power of Light is so apparent: “Would there even be a church, if it was all based on faith?”
The novel’s parody of fantasy mixed with its very serious premise were balanced all but perfectly, with only the ending of the story compromising a lot for me. In a way, the conflict around Nth and the party’s ultimate goal did come together in a meaningful way that certainly had its impact in the moment. But the more I’ve thought about the ways the climax and conclusion turned so many things about the world on its head, the more I became troubled by it. As I said, the matter of Nth is the heart of the story and Dion was the major character I was waiting for the other shoe to drop with. She’s not cruel, but her faith in the Light made it uncertain if and how she might come around. The ending took the easy way out on this, when for me it was the most important thing yet to be resolved in the story, and this hurt the overall story.
Spiderlight is a great novel that I’m very happy to have read, regardless of my feelings about its ending. Plenty of stories explore the shades of grey in a world of Black and White morality, but I’ve seen few do so with such a blend of humor and thoughtfulness. I knew from the get-go that I’d be pulling for Nth and his poor lot in this quest, and he is crafted wonderfully as a character, but it was the richness of character in those who subjugate and initially despise him and the ways they come around that made it truly great. The ending is a definite thorn in my side, but it’s still meaningful and definitely impactful in a way that other readers may appreciate more about it than I did. If you have any love of fantasy, it is absolutely worth checking out.
My Rating: 4 out of 5