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The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

The Devil's Looking Glass

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.

Mark Chadbourn looking like a Renaissance Man

Mark Chadbourn looking like a Renaissance Man

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.

For reviews of the first two books in the series, see:
The Scar-Crow Men
The Silver Skull

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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