In an enslaved city under siege, who is the real enemy?
When he was a boy, Razvan trained as a translator for the hated Keda, the mute enslavers of his city, Val Kedić. They keep a tight hold on the citizens by forcing their children to work in dangerous mines until they turn eighteen.
By learning fingerspeak – the Keda’s touch language – Razvan was able to avoid such punishment and has etched out a quiet life for himself as an interpreter for the Keda court. He does not enjoy his work but keeps his head down as the Keda reward any parental misdemeanors with extra lashings for their children.
But now the city is under siege by a new army who might be even crueler than the Keda. At the same time, a mysterious rebellion reaches out to Razvan to utilize the incoming attack to defeat the Keda once and for all. Razvan must decide which side to fight on, who can be trusted, and what truly deserves to be saved.
After getting an Angry Robot Newsletter in the email, I jumped right on to NetGalley to request an eARC of this book. I was approved and got right into it! Thank you for the swift approval and I hope that you find my review acceptable.
Spidertouch is the first book in a while that had me excited upon reading the synopsis. The promise of a new world to explore with a unique twist to its fantasy setting, the investigation in the intriguing plotline, and, most delicious of all, the desire to learn a new language. Spidertouch is the debut novel of author Alex Thomson and is laden with wonderful world-building, action, and revolutionary narratives that draw the reader in completely.
Spidertouch follows the story of Razvan, an interpreter for the oppressive rulers, the Keda, of the city of Val Kedić – they are a mute race that relies on the complex language of fingerspeak – that only a handful of citizens of the city are able to master. The Keda is a cruel race that, in order to keep the adult population in line, has sequestered the youth away to work in terrible conditions in the mines until their coming of age. Presented in a first-person manner, the lead character Razvan works as an interpreter and as such is awarded a higher-living standard for his achievements, but due to the control they have over him via his son – the resentment towards the Keda are sewn deep and he joins the mysterious Camonite Revolution.
While I enjoyed the, relatively simple, plot of Spidertouch where it absolutely shined for me was in the world-building and creature-crafting. I applaud Alex Thomson for his ability to imagine such a strange and unknown race as the Keda – their mannerisms, interactions, and appearance were so unknown but left such a detailed image. These are a race that’s so completely alien that it would be difficult to truly understand them and their motivations; and, generally, this goes unexplained. They simply are and Razvan has to work for them – there’s nothing deeper than this, but it helps to keep the race as alien as possible, and the use of Xe/Xer pronouns adds another level to the vast unknown about them. How they communicate is at the very heart of this novel, their clipped speech-patterns being presented through touch, and how they are written, as is wonderfully imaginative. It is the absolute high-point of this novel.
I’ve touched upon the novel’s plot is somewhat basic – tropes include, overthrowing oppressors, living during a siege, the enemy of my enemy, and betrayal – but they are well put together in a manner that allows for the characters to grow, developing in ways that adhere to the advancing narrative. I also feel like this simplicity allows for the novel to come across easily without it feeling difficult to read; the complexity comes from the language barriers between the protagonist and his keepers, to add anything more would over-complicate the novel and make it feel bogged down.
As a protagonist, Razvan is clear-cut in his motives. He wants the best for his enslaved son, he wants a way out from Keda rule and will do all in his meager power to get it. He is driven, but divided; the people of Val Kedić see him as a puppet for the Keda and the Keda don’t see him in any value other than to reiterate their words to the general citizenry. There is a conflict of interests among the population and Razvan has to navigate a clear path through to reach his goal; the plot offers enough surprises to keep his overall goals interesting to read about. Razvan isn’t your standard hero-type and struggles as events throughout the book shape around him; I found him a breath of fresh air compared to the usual hero-types and having a linguist as a protagonist offered a unique perspective to the genre. As events unfold around him, his character shifts and adapts along with his plights; he ends up doing things that would seem quite out of character for the Razvan at the start of the novel, but considering all he has been through, they’re quite understandable and add a wondrous element of character development.
Likewise, there are supporting characters that have their own merit and differences in the story. Characters that interact with Razvan – friends and Keda alike – have personalities of their own. They add a different voice to the narrative, and keep the story progressing in different ways; backstory is filled, inter-politics in the city are managed and dominated and even additional antagonists are established, each with their own personal flavour.
Interposed between the main story is the sub-plot featuring one of the Guards of the Riona Mines, where the children are sent to work. These serve as a break in the main narrative and allow for time breaks, as much as an illustration of how hard life is under Keda rule. The characters here have their own personalities and they help to bridge the gap between the Keda and the general citizenry of Val Kedić. It also serves as an epilogue setting for a further novel in the series, which I am hopeful for!
While I enjoyed the whole book I took particular delight in the language side of the story; coming up with a new language must be exceptionally difficult but Alex Thomson has made the feat seem effortless. And I can foresee this novel being used as an example of how language can put, and break, barriers between different fictional races.
In short, I adored this book, it’s a simple but rapidly advancing plot. The well-crafted and utterly alien finger-speak language and the vile Keda. How utterly alien the antagonists are and the calm, endearing nature of the protagonist. If you like languages, world-building, and something that little bit different from normal, I highly recommend this novel.