THE SPIDER DANCE by Nick Setchfield
Titan Books, p/b, £7.99
Reviewed by Michael Dodd
The sequel to 2018’s The War in the Dark, Nick Setchfield’s The Spider Dance continues to meld 60s-era globetrotting spy stylings with dark magic and an occult underworld with great effect. Having distanced himself from the troubling history (and soul) of Tobias Hart, ex-British Intelligence operative Christopher Winter is making a seedy living as hired muscle for a notorious London gangster. When he’s lured back into the field by the service, what should be a straightforward mission quickly turns dangerous and Winter starts to realise that whatever he wants, the memory and magic of Tobias Hart hasn’t finished with him.
With a simpler structure and a single consistent narrative, and Winter’s character more clearly defined, this is if anything even better and more entertaining than The War in the Dark, broadening and deepening this intriguing world of vampires, demons and paranormal secrets in the Cold War-affected Europe of the 60s. Winter is maybe a bit more relatable this time – a man caught in the middle of something he doesn’t quite understand while trying to deal with no longer being the man he was and reclaim his identity. He’s looking to distance himself from his past – and the service – and move on, but inevitably finds his history catching up with him in the shape of hidden secrets and lost memories, troubling powers, and old allies and enemies.
Once again it beautifully captures the feel of those vintage James Bond-esque spy thrillers, albeit with rather more modern sensibilities. There’s (thankfully) none of the casual bigotry that so dates at least some of the originals, and in fact, it’s interesting to see how Winter is anchored and given direction by some of the strong women around him. The archetypes are there – the femme fatale, the inexperienced field agent – and are entirely era-appropriate, just written with a contemporary eye. Combined with a richly-textured historical backdrop, there’s an enjoyable sense that Setchfield is plumbing social issues of the time for subplots, weaving them in with the more esoteric thrust of the main narrative to add depth to both the story and the setting.
Setchfield paints a tremendously evocative picture of this world and the characters in it, beautifully weaving magic and historical accuracy into his locations, from the down-at-heel outskirts of London to Budapest, Naples and the faded grandeur of 60s Venice. It really is a lot of fun from start to finish, with just enough humour to avoid feeling too cold or clinical – Winter is, after all, a pretty buttoned-up kind of character – and a plot which grips from the outset and doesn’t let go. It’s a pacy, action-packed thriller first and foremost, and you could happily enjoy it on that level alone, but add in the compelling occult elements and the sense of a character balancing on the fringes of two worlds, and you’ve got the recipe for a story that’s as dark and mysterious as it is exciting and entertaining.