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The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn

It’s always pleasing when fiction collides with historical fact because it gives the fiction more heft. When you know many of the details are accurate, it encourages more suspension of disbelief over the fantasy elements. So, in The Silver Skull (Swords of Albion 1), we met Christopher Marlowe, sometime playwright and, by reputation, a spy. The second volume, The Scar-Crow Men (Pyr, 2011), is set in 1593. This means Marlowe has to die and Mark Chadbourn uses this to give us a pleasing mystery story wrapped up in an understanding of Doctor Faustus, one of Marlowe’s best plays. In this, he relies on the art of coding and decoding, using those words both in the literal sense of ciphers and in the more modern sense of semiotics which encourages us to deconstruct text to access the meaning within.

We start with a performances of Doctor Faustus in which a “real” devil appears on stage. This was part of the mythology of the early performances of the play, and interweaving our fictional hero and his team into the middle of an event where a hysterical audience is induced to bolt for the doors to cover an assassination attempt, is pleasingly ingenious. We also have the novelty of a female Molly Maguire emerging from the Irish countryside to rescue our hero and join forces against the Unseelie Court. This ties together factions of the English, the Irish and the French under Henri of Navarre.

Mark Chadbourn looking slightly piratical in an Elizabethan style

So, having been disappointed by The Silver Skull, is this better? The answer is a qualified “yes”. I found two aspects of the first episode annoying. As to the first, we have resolved the problem of scale. In this exciting tale of an Elizabethan James Bond with a sword rather than a Beretta in his hand, we are significantly more realistic in our movements around the countryside and, when we travel abroad, it’s on a more modest and, therefore, more convincing basis. So no more turbo-charged coaches with modern suspension on paved roads. This time we run and walk around with a brief diversions on to horseback, into very slow-moving gypsy caravans, and on to cross-channel ships that sail in real time. We have reached an accommodation between the needs of Will Swyfte to live up to his name, able to react quickly to an enemy that can communicate and travel through mirrors, and the practical limitations of non-magical transport as then available.

However, if anything, the second objection as to the definition of the fantasy elements has become even more annoying. I was prepared to forgive much because of the nature of the magical defence of the realm erected by the perfidious Albion. For once, we were genuinely living up to our international reputation for treachery. Yet this second volume plunges us even more deeply into the supernatural mire without any kind of explanation. I suppose I should not have been surprised when literal devils appeared in the plotting mix. It’s a natural development given Dee’s reputation as an occultist. If we’re going to make the Fay real, why not make black magic real. Except I’m never happy unless there’s some gesture of explanation for the different magic systems and the relationship between them. It seems some elements of the occultists’ activities can represent a defence against the Fay. It’s also interesting to see the gypsies with their own accommodation with the Fay. This gives us several overlapping belief systems, depending on which old gods (or devils) are being worshipped. While there’s still a chance for Chadbourn to pull the fat out of the fire by explaining the origins of the Fay and showing how they relate to the more general supernatural systems, I’m not convinced he can make it all hang together convincingly. Hopefully, he can surprise us all with his ingenuity.

Returning to the quality of this volume, the construction of the plot is far more successful. I’ve always been a sucker for a well-rounded mystery within a mystery and this is particularly clever. Returning to the earlier reference to semiotics, this is central to understanding this book. Marlowe has left all kinds of hints and messages to guide Swyfte. All he has to do is understand them. We start with the text of the play itself. The literal words on the page contain deeper meanings when we know the playwright and understand that what he writes may be informed by his experiences. So this is an exercise is textual analysis and actual decoding when a cypher is discovered physically added to the text. To deal with the first, we must explore Marlowe the man, his history and his motivations. As to the second, we need a keyword to insert into the Vigenère square that Marlowe preferred as his encoding method. Swyfte deduces the keyword and, towards the end of the book, we get the decoded text but, not to put too fine a point on it, this element of the plot is contrived and identifying the keyword is not quite as unambiguous as Swyfte would have his friends believe. Nevertheless, this discovery does give rise to some interesting historical insights and later becomes crucial in identifying who’s doing what to whom and why. When you view the whole plot with the benefit of hindsight, it’s particularly satisfying. Everything clicks into place. I’m also pleased by the meaning of “scar-crow men”. Since we are concerned with finding the meanings within meanings, it’s always good to think about what makes us human.

So, on balance, The Scar-Crow Men is an improvement on The Silver Skull. The plot is far superior and, with Dee playing the part of Q in the James Bond mould, we have not unrealistic gadgets to help our superspy on his way to victory. As a final thought, I am also particularly pleased by the suggestion of why contemporary “experts” might doubt the authorship of works by Shakespeare. It marks a pleasing way to move us on to the third episode when we may see Swyfte crossing to Ireland and finding a woman to fill the hole in his heart.

Good atmospheric artwork from Chris McGrath.

For a review of the final book in the series, see The Devil’s Looking Glass.

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