The Spider Dance by Nick Setchfield
I would like to thank Sarah from Titan for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Titan
Published – Out Now
Price - £7.99
The true cold war is fought on the borders of this world, at the edges of the light
It’s 1965 and Christopher Winter is trying to carve a new life, a new identity, beyond his days in British Intelligence. Recruited by London’s gangland he now finds himself on the wrong side of the law – and about to discover that the secret service has a way of claiming back its own. Who is the fatally alluring succubus working honeytraps for foreign paymasters? What is the true secret of the Shadowless, a fabled criminal cabal deadlier than the Mafia? And why do both parties covert long-buried caskets said to hold the hearts of kings? Winter must confront the buried knowledge of his own past to survive – but is he ready to embrace the magic that created the darkness waiting there?
Warning – there will be mild spoilers for The War in the Dark, but the series can be read as standalone adventures
A criticism of fantasy and horror is that they can be seen as limiting we have the same old myths and creatures repainted and released every few decades; ooh look another Halloween movie is about o be released, the next version of Dracula is a coming - it all can feel stale. What I prefer in my reading is evolution can a writer take the myths and create a very different tune and mood with it. Nick Setchfield impressed me with his debut tale of spies and magic in the days of the cold war in The War In The Dark and I’m pleased to say I think an even stronger second novel in the series has been accomplished providing some very intriguing spins on some of the classics.
Christopher Winter is a man who doesn’t really exist. Formally a notorious mage known as Tobias Hart who was fascinated with magic and also worked for the government in WW2 in the event events of the novel, we saw Winter as a cover identity that eventually rebelled against his inner persona. He wants to be himself (whoever that is) had lost his magical knowledge and has quit the secret service and put magecraft (the use of magic to spy on other countries) behind him. Unfortunately, spies don’t make it easy to get good references and the only jobs that appeal/are available are providing his skills to support London’s gangsters. Thanks to his contacts in Europe Winter gets involved in trading a not quite so dead heart to some mysterious buyers but are interrupted by something definitely inhuman, powerful and able to kill armed gangsters with hands and teeth; plus summon all the rats…. Winter then finds his previous government employers have decided he needs to extract a woman from Hungary who specifically asked for his older identity. Slowly Winter is sucked into a tale of competing empires across Europe and finds that no one appears top be quite what they seem.
I found this story deliciously inventive. On the one hand this very much a gritty spy novel spread across Europe. There is a theme of decay with locations such a Budapest that survived the plague, Naples and the volcanoes or Venice and the waters trying to drown it. This acts as a reminder that post-war Europe seems to be in a state of uncertainty as the new powers of Russia and the US start to stretch their influence, but we also see the world of magic and the creatures born from it appearing to reach an impasse. Into this Winter is more a hired gun rather than a spy; many foes/friends are frustrated he no longer remembers magic, but that older persona opens doors for him, and Winter is again confronted with Hart’s legacy and also his earlier taste for cruelty. Winters isn’t an angel he’s happy to kill when required but not perhaps with the same relish as the man he used to be. I was also really much happier that the female characters in the book were not love interests but all competent people in their own right more likely to use Winter rather than be tools to serve his plot. In particular I liked the young North London agent Libby who is reckless, dangerous and has a sense of humour contrasting with the taciturn older Winter.
I shall avoid saying too much about the groups that Winter meets. This time we see monsters of the past in a different yet surprisingly logical group using their powers. How they force others to pay them is surprisingly inventive. Not all are bad but working out who you can trust in a world of grey is harder than you’d like. Another aspect here is there are just some fantastic moments of sudden horror – items of glass, plants and a house can suddenly turn into something nastier and the foes Winter faces are hard to stop once they’re riled. The magic feels dark and nasty which suits this feeling of a world in twilight.
For me a stronger book as it is much harder to work out what is going on. By expanding away from simply games of the old human empires Setchfield really has widened the potential scope of what he could do with this series, it’s inventive, atmospheric and keeps you guessing who is behind all these games until its final dramatic act. If you enjoy Le Carre and darker fantasy horror this would be right up your dark and mysterious east European cobbled street.