Book review: Spidertouch by Alex Thomson

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

ARC courtesy Angry Robot Books – release date 14 December in UK and 16 March 2022 Australia.

There are some books that, when you plunge eagerly into them – hope always springs eternal when it comes to each and every new novel – come rapidly alive, so well-expressed and vibrant is their sense of time and place.

Spidertouch by Alex Thomson very much falls into this camp, a novel which from its aggrieved opening lines as an interpreter simultaneously laments the enslaving touch-based language of which he is a leading master and his current place in life, feel like a living, breathing thing.

The city of Val Kedić, in which Razvan lives and works for the hated occupying race, the Keda, all flat noses, enveloping cowls and darkly arrogant disposition, is a medieval-eque urban setting on the sea that feels more like a prison camp for most of those who dwell there.

By starting with Razvan’s silent and by necessity unexpressed fury at the place his talents and limited career choices (he is a child of the slums for whom options were few) have brought him to, Thomson taps immediately into the simmering hatred and resentment that characterises a people who have had to endure occupation from a mute-race whose touch-language, known only to a few, has meant they are more removed and more indirectly cruel than most dictators.

The relationship between the Keda and the people of Val Kedić, if it can even be called that, is purely transactional, a separation that is so pronounced that even those working for them, save for the city’s elite who, quite Vichy-like, have collaborated for the sake of power, money and prestige, have no real connection to the occupying race’s culture or mindset.

“For over a century the Keda have ruled Val Kedić, and yet there’s still so much we don’t know about them. The language barrier keeps us apart, with us translating to maintain a purely functional relationship. The majority of Keda, in their blue robes, have next-to-no contact with citizens; it’s only the councillors and Justices who matter. And the less we know of them, the greater power they have over us. Gender, for example, is a closed book. Someone introduced the pronoun “xe” to describe them a century ago, and there’s been no advance ever since. Their mouths are another example: hidden by their cowls, but thanks to servants’ gossip, we know they do have them – twisted and grotesque, but mouths for eating, all the same. Just not speaking.” (P. 6)

That proves fatal when looming war with a race who, if anything, are even more ruthless than Val Kedić’s current rulers while at the same time, Razvan is approached by a secret, under-the-radar dissident group within the city to join them, meaning that suddenly the forty-something interpreter, whose own son is one of the many kids between the ages of 11 and 18 who have works in the mines of Riona to keep their parents compliant, has some choices to make.

Some very big choices to make.

The brilliance of Spidertouch is that, apart from taking us straight into Razvan’s furiously conflicted mindset in such a way that you feel as if you know, and more importantly, understand him near-instantly, it wastes no time in exploring what life is like for a people besieged by a century-old occupation which has done them no real favours, leaving them effective strangers in their own city and separated from their own children in ways that often prove too long-lasting to repair.

If ever you have wanted to more deeply appreciate what drives someone, with a seemingly cushy existence, to rise up and rebel and seek a new way of life, then Spidertouch is the novel you should read.

Laying bare the casual, everyday but devastatingly impactful cruelties of authoritarian rule, in which decisions are made not on free will but grinding necessity, the novel examines what it is like for someone like Razvan who though he has a better life in some ways that he would have had remaining in the slum neighbourhood of his childhood (known charmingly as The Stain), has also traded away many freedoms, not to mention forgoing watching his treasured son Rico grow into a man.

Alex Thomson (image courtesy official Alex Thomson Twitter account)

The ruthless lack of humanity practised by the Keda, who sound less human and more alien in their looks and cultural touchstones, stands in stark contrast to the living, breathing person of Razvan who from the start sounds like someone who has been waiting his entire life for something to change.

He can’t voice that, of course, but when the opportunity arises and it appears that the old way of things is about to be royally upended, Razvan finds himself falling into the role of active dissenter far faster and more completely than he might have expected.

So well has Thomson crafted the person of Razvan that his actions feels entirely natural and understandable, the product of a man holding his breath for decades who might finally be able to breathe figurative air of his choosing.

It is the observing of Razvan, and by extension the entire city of Val Kedić coming gloriously, if messily and violently alive again, that makes Spidertouch so captivating to read.

The novel amplifies what real freedom feels like and how much it costs to acquire it and that current claims in some quarters of the affluent west about freedoms being taken away look fatuous and senselessly out of touch when viewed through the lens of a novel such as this.

“I’m worried suddenly, for I realise the Dagmari are indifferent to the internal squabbles of the Keda and the Camonites. We need to hold out defences, long enough to get the Camonite army ready and out of the city. I feel a sudden surge of hatred for the supercilious little man in front of me, living among us while he betrays us – and yet, we need all the allies we can find.” (P. 179)

Quite apart from telling a compelling, immersively compelling story rich in characters, time and place and brutally honest geopolitics and the contradictory extremes of human nature, Spidertouch shines a light on what it is like for anyone seeking to live life on their terms.

For those of us who have known nothing but democratic norms and the freedoms, a novel like Spidertouch is illuminating and eye-opening, offering us through the vitally alive and ever more conscious of the weight of history person of Razvan, a chance to understand what it is like to have each and every choice circumscribed for you in ways that never benefit you and only ever assist your oppressor.

While there is great darkness and violence and political duplicity in this audaciously but intimately readable novel, which attempts so much in a deeply human setting and wholly succeeds, it is also infectiously hopeful as Razvan comes into himself and comes to own the tantalising possibilities of a life that looks near-limitless, not just for him but for (almost) all his city brethren.

If you have ever wondered what it is like to watch someone come alive, to go from oppressed and boxed-in to being free to do as they please, albeit after a huge amount of sacrifice, pain and effort, then read Spidertouch, a novel infused with expectant humanity, a sizzling sense of doom than soon morphs into something so much more liberating and exciting, and a protagonist who is everyone in the best possible way, someone who discovers not too late thankfully that change and choice is possible and that its presence is gloriously freeing in ways that the captured mind can only dare to dream about.

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