The Sword of Albion: Bk. 1
by Mark Chadbourn
Review by Gavin Pugh
Bantam Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780593062470
Date: 27 May 2010 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The Elizabethan era is an attractive one to both writers and readers of genre. There's plenty of gold to mine whether it's the geography, the culture, the history or the folklore. In the hands of the ever-capable Mark Chadbourn it is the swash-buckling adventure of Elizabethan espionage that will not only delight his existing fans, but also doubtless win him a whole host of new ones. The Sword of Albion is published in trade paperback by Bantam and we're delighted to welcome Gav "Nextreads" Pugh to the SFRevu staff with his review of this one elsewhere in this issue.
"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, safe in the Tower. But it has been stolen and Walsingham's spies believe it has been taken by the Enemy. This Enemy is not who we usually think of as our traditional opponent. No, this Enemy has waged a brutal war against mankind since time began, and with such a weapon they might take terrible toll upon England's green and pleasant land...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... "
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 Ďbrothers and sisters of dragonsí who 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 (reviewed back in the August 2006 issue by John Berlyne) but it might not be the same Will Swyfte. Chadbourn enjoys playing with time and with the very basis of humanity - our reactions and interactions with each other.
Englandís greatest spy (who if he was alive now would doubtless have his own cartoon series, comic book, and clothing line!) doesnít 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.
Swyfte 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 Chadbournís skill isnít 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 isnít enough space to follow who is stabbing who or what is being set fire to by whom.
The other problem is that there isnít 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 Chadbournís other heroes. He is darker and goes above and beyond the level where the Ďdragonsí 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. Iím hoping that the next book will add more depth to the detail, so it doesnít 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 canít 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 heís taken the work slightly too far into 'action'. This leaves little space to accommodate his strengths at delving deeper and peeling away what is seen from what is not.
At this point Iím undecided. Iím hoping that Chadbourn can find a rhythm in the next book, a balance between the depth heís 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. Book two, The Scar-Crow Men will be published in February 2011.