Note: This review originally appeared on my Goodreads page.
Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this novella from TTA Press.
Review: It requires a degree of courage to take an existing story and to then create another based around it. Such endeavours are often met with the immediate prejudice of the reader, who will naturally wonder why the author didn't create their own tale to begin with. (To all the lazy, execrable "mash-ups" currently clogging up bookshelves across the world, I'm looking straight at you at this point.) Yup, these days, if you're going to step into that particular arena, it seems you'll need a rocket-propelled grenade to accompany that trident and net of yours.
To then make your own story work regardless of the original, and when the original story itself is older than most every story in history... well, that requires a hell of a lot of skill too.
Which takes us to "Spin", Nina Allan's aptly-titled take on the story of Arachne, newly released by TTA Press as part of their novella series.
Set in a near-future alternate Greece we follow Layla as she leaves her father, Idmon, a successful dyer, and travels from her small coastal village to the big smoke where she begins to make her own way in the world as a weaver of considerable skill. Along the way she meets an old woman who informs her that she knew her mother, a sybil who died in tragic circumstances when Layla was a child. The old woman informs Layla that she too has the "gift" once possessed by her mother. What happens next... well, you'll have to get hold of a copy to find out.
Of course, those versed in Arachne's story may have an inkling where this all leads. As one who is not up on their Classics to the extent they perhaps ought to be, however, I'm happy to report that "Spin" stands up well on its own terms. You don't need an intimate knowledge of the source material in order to understand and appreciate the story. There is much to enjoy here, particularly for those who like their fantasy and sci-fi stories with a literary bent.
For me, it is in describing and fleshing out her alternate Greece that Allan really shines. Layla's expert eye allows Allan to fill her world with dazzling splashes of colour, from topaz sunsets to "the searing catamite yellow of the robes of choirboys" - a wonderfully barbed line that had me dashing for my Chambers (which is no bad thing). I'm fairly certain that the scorching heat described in the story upped the temperature in my house a couple of degrees, which was no mean feat given that it was close to Absolute Zero outside.
Even the parts of Allan's alternate Greece that initially jarred began to make sense the morning after the read before. For example, the casual mention of drachmas and their relatively low exchange rate clicked once one took into account the technological advancements that the country (or at least the wealthier element) enjoyed. Allan's Greece is a more economically sound country than the one we see today, and yet it is one that still carries chilling echoes of the very real racial intolerance and right-wing politics brewing there.
It is this attention to detail that should give you an idea of the skill and the care that has gone into writing this piece. Allan has an immense, poetic command of language and a vocabulary to die for. This is one for which you will want to pour a drink, pop your feet up on the sofa and to put your phone on silent before heading on in.
Ultimately "Spin" succeeds for me because Allan is not trying to compete or improve upon the Arachne myth, nor is she wilfully offering up a new and jaunty twist. (Meowmorphosis... please.) No, instead what we get is a highly personal piece that was written for and is dedicated to her father. No RPG's were needed in the arena after all, folks. The fight wasn't there to begin with.
In short, I'd heartily recommend "Spin" to fans of literary sci-fi and fantasy, and especially to those already familiar with Nina Allan's work. If you tick any of those boxes then I doubt you'd be disappointed with this.