The Spider by Leo Carew
Headline £18.99 hardback; £8.99 paperback; £4.99 ebook
Reviewed by Richard Webb (@RaW_writing)
The Spider is the sequel to Leo Carew’s 2018 debut, The Wolf and is Book 2 in his Under a Northern Sky series.
The front cover says ’The next George R.R. Martin.’ Ignore that. It is neither particularly true or fair on either author. The Spider has many merits but comparing it to ASOIAF is inaccurate. Yes, it is also set in a sort-of version of the British Isles. Yes, it features large-scale conflict. But those are really the only similarities.
The Spider continues the story of Roper Kynortasson, the Black Lord of the Anakim, a race of outsize (7ft tall) humanoids famed for their ‘bone-plate’ armour, living in the North of the island of Albion. Theirs is a warrior culture with a formal army and harsh training camps, with future soldiers recruited in childhood. Think ‘Spartan-like,’ but in colder climes. Whilst Roper is ‘The Wolf’ of the previous book, The Spider of the title is Bellamus, disgraced former spymaster of the ‘Suthern’ armies (the warmer, human occupied dominant territory within Albion) and Roper’s primary antagonist. He featured heavily in the previous book, as did most of the large cast of characters.
For the most part, they are all well-rounded enough as individuals to be recognisable when they appeared on the page, even when having been absent for several chapters. That said, Roper (itself a name at odds with those of his contemporaries) is at times a little thin in characterization—he is strong in his superficial characteristics of leadership and lateral thinking but is not particularly nuanced beyond this. As such he could come across as a somewhat unemotional personality that not every reader will warm to. This not a deal-breaker by any means as Bellamus is, by contrast, a more complex and character—vain and flawed but cunning and courageous in his way. His arc is well developed and a compelling element of the story.
The plot moves along at a brisk clip, drawing in political power-scheming, divided loyalties, military stratagems, assassination attempts and uncovered knowledge about the past. The narrative point of view alternates between several characters and plotlines this is deftly handled without jarring jumps; also, the ‘reveals’ later in the story carry a few nice surprises. Initially, there is little time spent on recapping with seemingly few threads pulled through from the previous book—the author preferring to forge ahead in establishing new plotlines. This is not a bad thing though it does take a while to ‘tune back in’ and reconnect with previous characters, some of whom do not resurface for some time. (To be fair, this is an inherent challenge for any book following another in a series).
With regards to the worldbuilding, this is never less than adequate in dimension and detail though the book certainly does not attempt the granularity of much saga-type fantasy writing. Again, no bad thing, depending on your preferences. The fantastic elements are kept low-key; historic detail regarding the setting is sketched in and only filled out as necessary. Mostly this is positive, keeping overload back and plot to the fore; occasionally, more colour would have added a greater sense of immersion to the world.
A small quibble: the world is a little harder to get a handle on because the terminology can be rather fragmentary at times, flitting across a quirky combination of reference cultures. For example, the Anakim use some older Scandic names, some Saxon names, (even one Welsh name) but use Roman military terms (legions, centuries), and other terms that sound vaguely Icelandic. A minor thing but odd for a culture depicted as so insular.
The writing style is economical and readable with occasional poetic flourishes. The predominant tone is as brooding as a Northern sky, and does not pull punches in the more violent passages but is leavened by lighter touches when needed. The hardships of war are depicted without flinching, as are the consequences for those caught up in it, but the camaraderie of comrades and the moments of hopefulness are not neglected either. And really it is here, in the action set-pieces, that the real strength of the author is to be found. The small skirmishes, large-scale battle, chases and charges are very well evoked, with pace and precision and much satisfying blood and blades grimdarkness.
Overall the book takes a few chapters to gather itself together, despite some swift-moving but slightly fractured sequences, but once plotlines are established The Spider carries you along and draws you into its world, as effectively as The Wolf had done previously. There are characters and causes to root for on both sides of the central conflict, as well as a couple of nicely-done nemeses, eschewing any obvious black-and-white morality. This gives The Spider a more ambitious feel to its predecessor and bodes well for what comes next in the series. An enjoyable read for fans of secondary world fantasies that are big on battle.
Thanks to Headline for providing a review copy to the BFS.