Review: The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn (Bantam)

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Mark Chadbourn is back with a new publisher, new editor and a new storyline. After completing a trilogies of trilogies (The Age of Misrule, The Dark Ages, Kingdom of Spiders) which focus on the present at a moment when magic reappears in the land and a group of heroes called the ‘brothers and sisters of dragons’ are brought together to protect us from ancient and evil forces. The Swords of Albion shows us that even though the sequence is complete the battle never ends.

1588: The London of Elizabeth I is rocked by news of a daring raid on the Tower. The truth is known only to a select few: that, for twenty years, a legendary doomsday device, its power fabled for millennia, has been kept secret and, until now at least, safe in the Tower. But it has been stolen and Walsingham’s spies believe it has been taken by the ‘Enemy’.

And so it falls to Will Swyfte – swordsman, adventurer, scholar, rake, and the greatest of Walsingham’s new breed of spy – to follow a trail of murder and devilry that leads deep into the dark, venomous world of the Faerie. As Philip of Spain prepares a naval assault on England, Will is caught up in a race against time in pursuit of this fiendish device…

Will Swyfte made a brief appearance in Jack of Ravens but it might not be the same Will Swyfte. Chadbourn enjoys playing with time and with the very basis of humanity and our reactions and interactions with each other.

England’s greatest spy (who if he was alive now would doubtless have his own cartoon series, comic book, and clothing line!) doesn’t just fight the Spanish – even though they are a threat to Queen Elizabeth and England they do not represent the true enemy and this is where the thrust of Chadbourn’s trilogy of trilogies comes together in this new story. However, with so many layers of myth heaped upon the ‘brothers and sister of the dragons’ there is sometimes slow movement in terms of action in those books.

Not so with Swyfte’s tale. He is an all out Elizabethan action hero. No time for debating the wonder of the cosmos here. This is a man with a mission. He has to rescue what has been stolen and we breathlessly follow Will for most of this tale as he pursues the Enemy across England all the way to Spain and back again.

I guess the problem for me is that Chadbourn’s skill isn’t necessarily in action but rather in the moments of connection between characters. And those moments seem few and far between in the Swords of Albion. Our action-hero protagonist always has to be doing something. We follow him as he runs across rooftops, hides amongst shadows and impersonates people on sailing ships.

But for all those action sequences, and there are lots to choose from, they feel slightly too pared down, like there isn’t enough space to follow who is stabbing who or what is being set fire to by whom.The other problem is that there isn’t much time for Chadbourn’s characters to grow. We find out more about them and their motivations and some of these are quite shocking, but the characters almost all come away as similar, albeit more familiar, as when we first met them.

And for a writer that has for so long been a champion of consequences, it feels odd not to have more cause and effect on an individual level, though it is certainly present on a grander scale. The door is left wide open for the next in the sequence.

As a long term readers of Chadbourn’s work, there is a huge shift needed as Swyfte is very different from Chadbourn’s other heroes. He is darker and goes above and beyond the level where the ‘dragons’ would have stopped.

So we have a new Chadbourn, new-ish characters, and a new way of storytelling. New readers have nothing to fear here. This a perfect jumping on point. The nature of the Enemy is revealed in enough detail, although old readers will have a greater understanding of the Enemy’s nature and role.

They will be seeing a different side to Chadbourn than has previously been on display. I’m hoping that the next book will add more depth to the detail, so it doesn’t feel as if all the action is whizzing past in a blur.

Chadbourn deftly mixes period feel and modern day, with Swifte gaining a touch of James Bond and Dee getting a touch of Q. He gets the tone and balance just right. I can’t think of any real moments where I was drawn out of the story to question a detail or the tone or feel of the period. It felt convincing that these events could be happening in this way to these characters.

For a change of style Chadbourn has managed to break away from his earlier work, infusing it with some fresh air. Unfortunately , as I mentioned earlier, it feels that he’s taken the work slightly too far into ‘action’ away from  his strengths at delving deeper and peeling away what is seen from what is not.

At this point I’m undecided. I’m hoping that Chadbourn can find a rhythm in the next book, a balance between the depth he’s gone into previously while not speeding along so fast that moments are lost.

He redeems himself in the end, pulling off a moment of brilliance in the revelation of a secret that puts a completely different spin on events. And thus he has left me wanting more.

***

This review was first published last year in SFRevu

The Sword of Albion is out now in paperback and book 2, The Scar-Crow Men is out now in TPB.

 

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