Wednesday, 31 March 2010

‘The Sword of Albion’ – Mark Chadbourn (Bantam Press)

If you’re living in the US (or couldn’t be bothered to wait for the UK edition) then you may have already seen this book, courtesy of Pyr, going by the name of ‘The Silver Skull’. I never got round to reading this last year but heard lots of good things about it and resolved to wait until its UK release before grabbing myself a copy. It won’t actually be published until May but I was lucky enough to get hold of an advance copy to take a look at. I still haven’t got round to reading the ‘Age of Misrule’ series but I did enjoy Mark Chadbourn’s ‘Lord of Silence’ (still ‘not so secretly’ hoping for more to come from this series, will another publisher pick it up?) and was hoping for more of the same from ‘The Sword of Albion’.
Being an historical fantasy (as opposed to a fantasy in an imagined world), ‘The Sword of Albion’ is very different to ‘Lord of Silence’. Having said that though, ‘The Sword of Albion’ is very much Mark Chadbourn doing what he does best. I’m hoping for more books in this setting as well…

What use is a spy when everyone knows his face and who he is? Such a spy is of great use when he’s being employed for entirely different reasons to those that everyone else thinks. Such is the case with Will Swyfte, swordsman, scholar, rake… and England’s last hope against an enemy that has stalked humanity since time began. It’s 1588 and while the Spanish Armada gathers sail in Lisbon, Swyfte’s mission is to counter the otherworldly forces that lend their support to Philip of Spain. A weapon of deadly force has been stolen from the Tower of London and is in the hands of the Faerie. Swyfte must steal this weapon back before it is put to use in the worst possible way and England’s green and pleasant land become a festering charnel pit…

I don’t know about you but whenever I read any kind of spy novel (which isn’t very often, I’ll admit) I always find myself looking out for the ‘James Bond Moments’. You know the ones I mean, those moments where the author decides to tip their cap in the direction of film and literature’s greatest spy. Sometimes this works very well but sometimes these moments can come across as a little forced and they detract from the story itself. Unfortunately this proved to be the case with ‘The Sword of Albion’. The scenes with Swyfte being kitted out for his mission (by the alchemist Dr John Dee) were a little too reminiscent of Bond being kitted out by ‘Q’, right down to having Swyfte poke fun at Dee’s inventions in much the same way that Bond would have done.
The dialogue was quite humorous but didn’t provide the comic relief that it was aiming to, at least as far as I was concerned. Instead, it seemed totally at odds with Swyfte’s ability to fully focus on the job at hand (especially when the stakes were so high) and made the pace falter at a time when it really needed to be building up a good head of steam. It really didn’t work for me…

It’s a good job then that this came very near the beginning and was got out of the way relatively early. The rest of the book is more than a little bit special.

‘The Sword of Albion’ is an unashamed swashbuckling romp through a time when England stands firm against invaders both without and within. If there is a rope to be swung from, a dark alley to be chased down or a burning ship to have a sword fight on then you can bet that Will Swyfte and his friends will be doing just that. This makes for some glorious spectacles that punctuate a generally fast moving plot with scenes of real action and adventure. These moments are worth the price of admission alone! Chadbourn occasionally gets a little too involved in the world that he is painting, describing the scenery when the story needs to be moving along. Balancing this out though is the fact that he proves to be a dab hand at setting dark and gloomy scenes for the inhabitants of Faery to make themselves known in. The streets of Alsatia and Edinburgh were among my favourite moments, simply through how very murky they were. Also, Chadbourn sets the stakes so high for Swyfte (both personally and professionally) that the story can never stay still for long… When this happens, you can expect Chadbourn to raise the tension and let it explode in a flurry of action.

Swyfte is fighting a war on three fronts and this makes for some gripping characterisation that I found to be very engaging indeed. If fighting the Spanish and the Faery Realm wasn’t enough, Swyfte must find his own way through the ensuing politics to satisfy his own ends. Here is a man who will stop at nothing in order to defend that which he loves, his country and his friends. This results in a character that is unscrupulous and prepared to sacrifice his soul for ends that justify the means. Swyfte is not a clear-cut hero but he is a hero nevertheless and one whom the reader will have fun following. Swyfte may take centre stage but Chadbourn takes care to make his supporting cast just as enjoyable to read about. Characters such as Carpenter and Launceston add some real depth to what is going on in the background, making the whole experience one that you can really sink yourself into.

Chadbourn’s swashbuckling plot is full of the twists and turns that are needed in order to bring the action scenes to fruition. Betrayal is rife and it’s all credit to Chadbourn that he manages to surprise you with this every time. The way that it all comes together at the end is pretty special too, this is a picture where all the gaps have been filled in and there is still room for more to come.

If ‘The Sword of Albion’ is anything to go by then I’m very much looking forward to the continuing tales of Will Swyfte. While I found that the book faltered very early on, this proved to be a trifling matter and I’m glad that I stuck around for the rest of the ride. Bring on the sequel!

Nine and a Half out of Ten

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