The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn
The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn (Bantam Press, 2012) is the final contracted work for the Swords of Albion series. i.e. this is not strictly a trilogy. It’s left in a way that, should the publishers feel there’s sufficient demand, they can cross the palm of our heroic author with silver and await the continuation of the adventure. Since this is the equivalent of James Bond under the earlier Queen Elizabeth, you can see how our horse-powered, sword-wielding hero could fight enemies around Europe and, when tired of local sport, turn his attention to Russia in the east. Given the inherent flexibility of the format, we could be into a multibook series except. . . This is not to deny the presence of some excellent features, but I’m not sure such a series could maintain itself. The problem lies not so much in the human side of the equation. Indeed, I would say the history in this alternate history is quite pleasingly realistic with the European politics bending to accommodate the outside supernatural input. Half the fun is watching just how perfidious this version of Albion has been and continues to be as the series develops. But the problem lies in the nature of the supernatural beasties.
Perhaps I’m just a natural killjoy but I prefer magic systems to be constructed in a way that treats them as real, i.e. there are rules to be obeyed and recognisable limits on outcomes. The sad fact is I’ve now read all three books and it’s still not at all clear what the context is for this entire conflict. The “fairies” are ruled by the Unseelie Court — somewhat amusingly their base of operation is in the New World. Trust a British author with a sense of irony to make America the source of all this terrorism and potential invasion. As a sticking plaster on this wound to national pride, this is not the New World in our reality — American readers should stay calm. To get to this mirror image version of the New World where the sun rises and falls the other way round, all must pass through a portal. Ah ha! Not only is there a gateway to a transportation system, it depends on a form of lighthouse to guide people from one side of reality to the other. So what we have is the development of an earlier version of life on Earth. Or perhaps this Fay lot came through the portal from this mirror world. Either way, they were here before us and watched us grow up as a species. As in the classic fairy stories, there’s a time dilation effect between our world and the alternate reality occupied by the Unseelie Court. It seems to be about one-thousand of their years to fifteen of ours. When on Earth, they live under hills and in forested areas, generally making a nuisance of themselves. But, at some point, there came a breakdown in mutual toleration. They grew contemptuous of our lack of morals, thinking us little better than animals. Although there could have been a reconciliation, outright conflict was provoked when Dr John Dee built a defensive network of spells to keep the Fay out — the first truly effect immigration controls from the British government.
Why is all this a problem? Well this book seems fairly clearly to signal that the Fey did not create the portal. Although they have natural magical abilities, they fit into a broader system of magic and supernatural powers. Dee is drawing on occult powers and seems to be using a different source of power to control both individual members of the Unseelie Court and as general barriers to movement e.g. the defences built along the banks of the River Thames. There also seem to be other beings around. They may be classic demons or incorporeal beings who can take possession of humans. Not only do we have the transdimensional portal, we also have a real-time communication system through mirrors and a different obsidian mirror with slightly different qualities which John Dee has. So although these three books focus on the conflict with the Fay, there’s absolutely no attempt to give any background on the more general context for working magic, nor is there any explanation for any of the effects we see, e.g. the manipulation of the weather or the creation of different types of land or water-based animals. I have the sense Mark Chadbourn is making it up as he goes along. There’s nothing wrong with this but my money says it’s better for the reader to be able to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the different groups in a consistent way.
Anyway, this novel starts us off in 1593 and England’s greatest spy, Will Swyfte, is caught up in the latest crisis as Irish spy, Red Meg O’Shee, kidnaps Dr Dee and sets off to export him to Ireland. With the help of John Carpenter, Tobias Strangewayes, and Robert, the Earl of Launceston, we ride over to Liverpool where there are interesting developments. On their return to London, we get the best bit of the book as the Thames freezes. We then flirt with matters vaguely piratical, i.e. we get on to ships of the period and sail hither and thither avoiding adverse weather conditions, pirate and Fay attacks, and the misplacement of the Sargasso Sea, until we arrive at the “island”. This entertains us with a short version of Shakespeare’s Tempest and then it’s off to the New World through the portal.
Overall, there’s a lot of ingenuity on display to keep the action going. Indeed, some of the plots and conspiracies are quite pleasingly malevolent. At times, the fantasy shades into horror which is again a positive sign, avoiding some of the tweeness that can afflict stories involving fairies. I like some of the ideas discussed on the nature of honour and the prices both sides in a war pay to make progress, but there’s not much philosophical development. The good ideas are repeated with little added save that, as we might predict, no-one comes out of this mess looking good. To that extent, the ending is realistic. So The Devil’s Looking Glass continues the standard of the second outing as a reasonably enjoyable adventure romp around an alternate history sixteenth century with some time spent on ships and in a jungle (yawn) but otherwise blending swords with sorcery in a moderately effective way. If you enjoyed the first two, you will definitely enjoy this.