Friday, August 13, 2010

Cursing the Spider King

Curse of the Spider King: The Berinfell Prophecies Series - Book OneCurse of the Spider King, book one of the The Berinfell Prophecies Series co-written by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper, is the story of a daring rescue to thwart a racial genocide. The world of Allyra is a parallel world to the Earth that humans inhabit. Elves and Gwar--strong and squat humanoids with a love for spiders--are it's primary inhabitants along with some other strange creatures, including Drefids (ghoulish humanoids with retractable claws in their knuckles), giant spiders that can be ridden like horses, Cragons (walking trees), and Wisps (vaporous shape shifters). Although the cause is never explained, the Gwar and Drefids have a long-standing grievance with the Elves and the antipathy is so strong that the ruler of the Gwar, the Spider King, mounts a devastating, surprise attack against the Elves in the hope of eliminating them as a people.

The assault almost succeeds. Some of the elves escape to an underground sanctuary to fight again another day. Even more troubling to the Spider King are the children--now orphans--of the seven elven lords. Each of the lords possessed some special powers which have been passed onto their children. The Spider King hopes to kill the infants and put an end to the elvish threat. However, there is a nasty curse that will inflict generations of torment on anyone who kills any of the seven children before they reach the age--thirteen in Earth years--that their powers become manifest. The Spider King, wishing to avoid the curse, tasks the Drefids with dispatching the infants, but the Drefids devise their own plan to satisfy the Spider King while avoiding the curse. There are portals between Allyra and Earth. The Drefids slice off the pointed ends of the children's ears and abandon them on Earth to die or be raised as humans.

Curse of the Spider King introduces us to the seven lords on the eve of their thirteenth birthdays. All have been adopted and are leading more-or-less typical lives as young teens in the United States, Scotland, and France. None of the children or their parents are aware of their real history. The Elves learn the fate of the children from a Drefid commander who "changed." In the words of one of the Elves, "'One day, Sarron Froth was a brutal and bloodthirsty assassin; the next, he was changed.'" (pp. 241-42). The Elves send an elite force to Earth through the portals to find the lost children and bring them back.  The Drefids send their own force to Earth to find and kill the children as soon as their gifts are manifest and the curse is no longer in effect.

The story is told principally through the eyes of the seven children as the chapters and points-of-view shift between them. Several of the children are also given a magical book--The History of Berinfell: The Chronicles of the Elf Lords and Their Kin--that tells the history of the Elves on Allyra. The history recounts the Spider King's attack and the Elves's escape in detail. The children, with the help of the Elves sent to find them, narrowly evade the forces of the Spider King on numerous occasions and there are many casualties along the way. Ultimately, the Elves must rely on the children's gifts to defeat a force of Drefids, Gwar, Cragons, and Warspiders sent to Earth to block their return through the portal to Allyra.

Curse of the Spider King is an exciting story. The book within a book technique--a variation on a frame narrative--works well. However, the plethora of protagonists is hard to follow, almost like reading seven interrelated books at once. The authors provide a glossary to the characters which readers should consult frequently if they do not want to be hopelessly lost when all the characters come together in the final chapters. I have two problems with the plot. The first is the bit about Sarron Froth, the Drefid informant. The whole story hangs on one individual's confession to the Elves. I found it hard to believe that the Elves would not have other means to find out what happened to the children. There are some Gwar who are on good terms with the Elves. Wouldn't they have spies at the Spider King's court? Also, the story of Sarron Froth's confession is given in less than a page of text. I wanted to know more about the miraculous "change" that occurred. Why not dramatize it as part of the story in The History of Berinfell. Second, we receive some vague hints as to why the Gwar and Drefids loath the Elves. Apparently the Elves mistreated them at some time in the past, but we have no details, no chance to make up our own minds about the motivations of the villains. The themes of self-sacrifice and nobility play a prominent role in the story. Curiously, despite his prominent placement in the title, we never meet the Spider King. We hear about him and his commands drive the plot, but we never encounter him in a scene.


  1. I had very mixed feelings about this book. It is a good, fun read. The cast of characters is large, and I agree takes a bit of concentration to follow, but they are all well-developed. And I've found kids tend to be able to follow large character casts much better than adults. If they can memorize the names of 18,000 Pokemon characters, their powers and point values...well, those little sponges have no problem with keeping track of a couple dozen book characters.

    What I didn't like was that I felt like the whole book was an introduction. It's not a complete story on its own. I have no problem with series--I love them, in fact--but I prefer that each book have a real beginning, middle and end. Spider King was all beginning. Exciting beginning, well-written beginning, fun to read beginning...but it's a bit irritating to come to the end and feel like you've been left hanging and the next book isn't due out for months.

    Good review, Jeff!

  2. Hi Jeff,

    This sounds like an interesting book; I'll have to pick it up. I was wondering if there is a way to contact you about reviewing a book that I think you might really enjoy, based on what I've seen on your blog?

    Meg Wilson