Saturday, May 22, 2010

Treason, action and spies

“…treason begets spies and spies treason…” Will Swyfte The Silver Skull

I’ve been reading good things about Mark Chadbourn’s writing for some time and am glad that Pyr/Prometheus books sent me a copy of the highly entertaining Silver Skull for review. (When the novel comes out in the UK it will be called The Swords Of Albion). The Silver Skull is hard to classify in terms of what kind of novel it is; at times its medival urban fantasy at others military historical fiction. Most often it is a cracking spy yarn set in the era most associated with Shakespeare and the european Renaissance. What I do know is that it would made a great HBO or Showtime series with all the action, drama, sex, and bloody minded death that goes along with great cable TV originals like the Wire, Deadwood and the Tudors.
In The Silver Skull William Swyfte, Britain's greatest spy, fights enemies foreign, more foreign and domestic; he delves into the darker areas of Elizabethan England, ventures onto the lands of Phillip of Spain, and takes to the high seas during the battle of the Spanish Armada. Will publicly plays the part of the flamboyant heroic spy and man of loose morals to the hilt; his fellow spies may follow but don’t necessarily respect him or even trust him. He acts as the figurehead of the defense of Queen and Country and treachery abounds in the course of the novel.
Being the first novel in a series there are some bits of exposition to introduce the players. These vignettes come as bits of memory placed between chapters of action, like fights on the top of a speeding carriage lacking a driver, or intrigue, Will and his companions planning how to escape from a low class thieving mob. These past snippets build and change your opinion of the characters and flesh out the acts that lead up to this point.
The Mark Chadbourn created a vibrant historical setting blending the facts and figures of the day with his great knowledge of english folklore and the farie legends of the land. In found reading The Silver Skull I found myself thinking of historical fiction authors like Bernard Cornwall, C.S. Forester, Patrick O’brian, and Harry Turtledove . Mark’s england is beset by the Catholics of the age and the forces of the “Enemy” - the Unsilee Court - their spare defenses both mystical and martial seem meager and thin at times making for a thrilling suspenseful novel. In creating the setting Mark leaves out nothing in the details; Elizabethan England was a place that was full of unpleasant places, people and odors and though I was thrilled by the setting I would be in no hurry to visit it myself. Travel in the Renaissance took time and though he spends little time describing scenes of endless riding or sailing Mark does a great job building the feel for the setting.

I can see this novel appealing to a pretty wide audience; its elements pulling together the pace of thrillers, a realized fantasy setting and great living historical elements, the great cover by Chris McGrath does not hurt either.

While preparing this review to post Pyr previewed the cover for the next book in the series called The Scarecrow Men. The title seems particularly apt thinking back on the early action in The Silver Skull and makes me wonder how much Mark was setting up in the first novel beyond the pulpy things that hit me as foreshadowing on first reading. Can't wait to see what is up Marks and Will's sleeve next time around...

Readers unfamiliar with Mark’s writing should check out his website at and get a taste of the setting of this Elizabethan era spy romp look for the short story ‘Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast’ which saw print in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy and later in The Years Best Fantasy 8: the story is well worth a tracking down. Will Swyfte, the main character of that tale and the Swords of Albion series, also appears in Chadbourn’s Jack of Ravens that I hope to pick up before leaving the Netherlands this year.

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