Book Review: He Drank, and Saw the Spider
Alex Bledsoe’s latest book is the fifth adventure of Eddie LaCrosse, the smart-talking ‘sword jockey’ whose adventures in a quasi-medieval fantasy land have filled earlier novels like Dark Jenny and Wake of the Bloody Angel, and in terms of manipulated suspense and sheer narrative control, He Drank, and Saw the Spider is the best book so far in a sparklingly enjoyable series.
Bledsoe clearly works to make each of those books as self-contained as possible to facilitate latecomers to the series (I was one such latecomer myself and never felt so much as a twinge of exclusion), and the basic premise is invitingly simple anyway: Eddie LaCrosse is a mercenary for hire, plying his trade for twenty-five gold pieces a day (plus expenses) in the service of kings and commoners, anybody with a problem that needs Eddie’s particular style of solution. He Drank, and Saw the Spider (English majors will bridle at that incorrect comma, but then, English majors bridle easy) makes its expository catching-up easier than any of the previous books, because its opening section takes place sixteen years before the time-set of the novels proper, when Eddie was a fresh-faced boy-mercenary still learning the ways of his violent world.
He’s relieving himself in the woods when he encounters a man being chased by a bear. Altruism kicks in, and he rushes to the man’s aid. He kills the bear with his trusty sword (the fact that it takes about two minutes leads me to suspect Bledsoe has never even so much as seen a bear; he should look at some pertinent videos on YouTube), but he’s too late to save the badly-mauled man, who lives just long enough to hand over the precious bundle he’d been guarding when the bear attacked: it’s a little baby girl, Isidore, whom he hands to young Eddie along with a bag of gold coins and a mysterious blue orb, dying before he can shed any light on the mystery of Isidore’s identity.
Nonplussed, Eddie takes the baby to the nearest hamlet, a small sheep-farming town called Mummerset, where he soon finds a friendly family to take the girl in as one of their own. He’s not there long, but it’s long enough to learn two things about the baby: she’s got an intricate tattoo on the back of her neck, and she’s being hunted by a detachment of soldiers with orders to kill her. The hard-headed but good-hearted ladies of Mummerset (one of whom gives young Eddie some wise advice: “Just trust people to be who they are. If you pick up a viper and it bites you, it’s not the viper’s fault, is it?”) protect her, and Eddie leaves town reasonably certain he’s provided as well as he can for little Isidore.
The narrative then jumps forward sixteen years; random chance has brought the older and more seasoned Eddie and his capable, sharp-tongued girlfriend Liz Dumont to the region of Mummerset, and Eddie is naturally curious to know what became of the baby he rescued all those years ago. His curiosity lands him and Liz in a tangle of political intrigue involving a king named Crazy Jerry, a sorceress named Opulora, and a monster named Tatterhead (who easily steals the novel). Eddie and Liz have an unerring knack for finding trouble, and as always, it’s refreshing that Bledsoe refrains from making them superheroes:
I had my Gadshill Marauder sword at my waist, my trusty knife in my boot, and two other swords hidden on the wagon. Liz was no trained swordswoman, but she had a seldom-indulged vicious streak that had claimed more than one would-be bandit. We could make a good fight of it, but that’s all. If it came to blows against professional guards, we were screwed.
Eddie’s instincts have only sharpened in the years since he was that bear-killing young man, and half the fun of the book comes from watching those instincts in action. Bledsoe fills his pages with hairsbreadth escapes, sudden twists, and plenty of violence, but he’s an oddly cerebral writer for all that, and Eddie himself mirrors that trait, staying one step ahead of everybody else mainly because he pays attention to everything, sizing strangers up with speed and accuracy:
His hair was thin on top but long in the back, and he’d combed little points out of his beard on either side of his chin. There was something fierce and wily in his eyes, an intelligence greater than I’d anticipated finding there. I wondered how many men might have met their end, or at least their detriment, because they missed that.
He Drank, and Saw the Spider is in many ways the most ambitious of the Eddie LaCrosse novels to date, but ‘ambitious’ might sound stuffy, and that would be very inaccurate: these are first and foremost fun books, and they deserve the widest possible readership.