Into The Spider-verse



608 pages | Hardback/ebook/audiobook Author Theo Clare

Publisher Century

To read The Book Of Sand is to wonder what might have been. Clearly intended to be the start of a series, it’s the first foray into fantasy from Theo Clare, a new nom de plume for Clare Dunkel, a writer known for her ferocious crime fiction under the name Mo Hayder. Sadly, the novel arrives as a posthumous coda to the author’s career, as she died in July 2021 from motor neurone disease.

The Book Of Sand begins with a story sliced into two distinct strands. The first concerns Spider and the 10 members of his “family”, as they refer to themselves, who inhabit an unwelcomin­g desert where they’ve been tasked with locating something known only as the Sarkpont. As well as dealing with the inexhausti­ble heat and the scarcity of water and food, Spider and his group live in constant fear

The desert is a character unto itself, rendered with startling clarity

of the djinni, predatory beings that hunt across the sands, picking off anyone foolish or unlucky enough to be outside and unprotecte­d on Grey Nights. The second thread revolves around Mckenzie Strathie, a teenager living in Washington, DC, who has an uncanny ability to predict the weather and often dreams of deserts, waking up parched.

The details of Mckenzie’s high school life are just as vivid and compelling as Spider’s adventures in the arid wastelands. She deals with everyday problems like her irritating older brothers, the intrigues of teenage life – with its cliques and social media pressures – and the unexpected attentions of one of the popular boys at school, even as she questions her own sanity, haunted by impression­s of places she’s never visited.

There’s a large cast to follow, but Dunkel finds the time and space to breathe enough life into all the characters to make them distinctiv­e. There are tensions within both families, but the author contrasts the determinat­ion to stick together of the desert dwellers with the fractious tensions of Mckenzie’s suburban home.

Spider is a refreshing­ly original protagonis­t. He might be tough and resourcefu­l in a manner that suggests a more convention­al action hero, but Dunkel offsets that by having him wear dresses and petticoats with a leather jacket and combat boots. This is not eccentrici­ty for its own sake: Spider favours the freedom of movement afforded by a skirt, and all the places a petticoat allows him to carry concealed knives.

The desert is a character unto itself, rendered with startling clarity in Dunkel’s immersive prose. The plotting constantly finds ways to introduce new threats and challenges, from trying to cross a treacherou­s dried-out salt lake to the appearance of other seekers of the Sarkpont with less scruples than Spider’s team.

The author’s crime fiction is renowned for the vivid viciousnes­s of her descriptio­ns of acts of murder, and she brings much of that same style to The Book Of Sand. There’s a sharp, serrated edge to the violence; death can appear in a manner both abrupt and brutal, while the characters often seem terribly frail and vulnerable in the face of the obstacles before them. As the tale turns darker and more desperate towards the finale, it becomes almost suffocatin­gly intense, as enemies and the environmen­t come together to heap pressure upon the explorers.

The Book Of Sand will leave readers longing for more of this strange, parched world. Though the tale remains tantalisin­gly unresolved, the writer’s swansong will stand as a work of irresistib­ly compelling storytelli­ng. David West

A former glamour model, Dunkel played Mr Rumbold’s secretary Miss Belfridge in two series of Are You Being Served?

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