Incy, Wincy Spider…. “The Spider Dance” by Nick Setchfield
Magic and Spies
Adventure and derring do
Stiff upper lips and knuckle dusters
Secret doors and agendas
Double crosses and suprises
Room for more books!
Over too soon
Sometimes it's a little too stark, and some of the characters were sketched in, in service to the pacing and scope of the book.
Reading more like Harry Palmer than James Bond, the Spider Dance is memory of a simpler time, when World War 2 was a recent memory, and the Iron Curtain carved the battered, burgeoning and caged chaos of the late 40s and 50s asunder. But it’s also a reminder that we shouldn’t take things for granted – things were rarely as cut and dried as we have been told. So many things are being declassified and revealed, but so much more is unsaid, or forgotten. It’s not so hard to believe there might have been space for magic in the chaos of war, whether hot or cold?
While there are touches of glamour in winter’s travels, they’re more of the mystical and deceptive kind. Scenes are painted against a background of grimy, cluttered London streets, and damaged European cities trying to rebuild from the recent rains of bombs and artillery. Wedged into the corners are clutttered, forgotten old churches and graveyards, pregnant with secrets.
The author, Nick Setchfield, is probably best known as an editor and writer for SFX magazine and Total Film, though he has also been a script writer for the beloved, and departed British satire show Spitting Image.
Setchfield’s hero, Christopher Winter, is both more, and less than he seems. We find him working in the London underworld, having separated himself from the service of Queen and country. Trying to figure out who he is to become from a shabby little hired room in Wembey, he has only some sour milk milk for company. He once wore another name, but the same face – he just can’t remember who that was. But that name refuses to stay dead – like a number of other things!
A chance encounter with something too fast, ugly and deadly to be human sees Winter dragged back into the ordit of his former boss. Just one last job behind the Iron Curtain – except it’s not him that was requested, but the man he once was. Meeting people from his past, and learning things he isn’t sure he wants to know, he finds himself embroiled in a world he had forgotten about – Something older, stranger and both more brutal, and yet more civilised than the one he, and we, know.
He stared up, blinking the soot from his eyes. Something had disturned the rafters of the old station. There was a shape there – but barely there, almost indistinguishable from the darkness that hid the rotted joists. A coiled, compact mass of shadow, as if the dark had contorted itself into something solid.
The darkness uncurled and dropped from the rafters as a man.
While he bounces back and forth across Europe and Britain, things are never quite what they seem, and he unearths secrets, buries friends and makes new ones. He slowly finds a new place for himself in the world – if a little loose and unconstrained. Along the way he learns that the ‘real’ world has a lot in common with the world beneath, and about the edges – it can be beautiful, it can be shabby and petty, and sometimes the only way to solve a problem is with a knuckle duster and a large dose of stubborn.
The writing is clean and clear, sometimes stark in common with the brutalist architecture that was so beloved of the 50s and early 60s – harsh and grey and with deep, straight edged shadows against the grey of concrete. Yet things look back at you from the shadows, and it’s worryingly easy to look into them, and step too close. It has a very cynical view of magic and religion that fits well with the shabby, worn appearance and spirit of the time, but it never forgets to show glimmers of optimism. There are slivers of wonder & beauty, even dulled down by the grubbiness and pettiness of jealousy, greed and despair. But sometimes it’s easy to forget what rot and danger can hide behind beauty.
I enjoyed the book overall, and once I started it, I found myself reaching the end a little to early for my liking. For all it’s grime and weariness, there’s a glimmer of passion and wonder hidden about the edges of the world, and more to see. The pacing was well judged, and varied appropriately as the story moved around and forward. If it had been flat out from start to finish, it wouldn’t have been enjoyable at all, and the reader would become exhausted partway. Our hero is only human, after all, and so he has to take things at a varied pace – sometimes driven by his enemies, sometimes taking it slow to make sure we understand what he’s gotten himself into. We ride his coat tails, dodging his enemies and seeing familiar places in a new light. His allies and enemies occupy a range of well-defined tropes – the noble villain, the wronged but promising colleague, the honourable, vicious gangland boss, and many more, but they’re engaging and work well as foils and challenges to Winter.
I look forward to seeing where Setchfield can take Winter, next. There’s a whole wide world for him to look at, on both sides of the Iron Curtain! With a number of secrets unearthed already, there are many more left. Whether we move forward, or we step back to learn some more about his past, there’s a lot of potential here.