Mark Chadbourn brings back the gods and myths of Celtic lore in World’s End, the first novel in his Age of Misrule trilogy. The novel takes place primarily in England as strangers are drawn together against the dark returning gods. Jack “Church” Churchill is a tormented man, unable to let go of the grief he holds over his girlfriend’s suicide two years prior to the beginning of the novel. When he’s on a late night walk, he witnesses a strange encounter – one man is being attacked by something that can only be described as a monster. Jack isn’t the only witness; disillusioned lawyer Ruth Gallagher also witnesses the attack, but due to its grisly and shocking nature both pass out.
What Jack and Ruth witness is just the beginning of a complete upheaval of society and the world-at-large. Technology begins to break down and the laws of magic slowly return and as Jack and Ruth are drawn closer together, a mysterious man known only as Tom offers them cryptic and leading advice. Jack and Ruth are completely convinced of this world-change when a Fabulous Beast, also known as a dragon, breaks up traffic.
Tom shepherds them to Stonehenge and briefly tells of how the beings they are seeing and events they are experiencing are a precursor to the returning creatures of myth, the Tuatha Dé Danann, Cernunnos, the Fomorii, the Pendragons, and the nightmarish Wild Hunt. Along the way, Ruth and Tom are joined by three other characters, each with their own unique and troubled past: Veitch, the ex-con; Laura, the damaged and jealous foil to Ruth; and Savi, the hippie-like Indian. As it comes to pass, these people were brought together specifically because of their connections in earlier lives through what is known as the Pendragon Spirit. With the mindest that the group is greater than the sum of its parts, these five are the world’s only hope for salvation by Beltane, May 1st.
Chadbourn is doing a lot of things well in this opening volume – he keeps a nice amount of tension and manages to tow a good line in terms of revealing things in slow doses. With Church and Ruth as our protagonists, Chadbourn allows the reader to discover and awe at the great transformation in which the world is undergoing. In one sense, Chadbourn is playing with archetypical characters – Church as the hero, Ruth as the witchy-woman, Veitch as rouge, Tom as the advisor who ‘reveals-the-world-of-magic-slowly’. On the other hand, he throws things slightly asunder, since typically in such stories of characters discovering strange beasts and magic, the characters are youthful and naïve. While these characters are naïve about the myth and magic returning to the world, they are fully formed adults when we meet them so there’s a different contrast between WHAT THEY KNOW and WHAT THEY ARE LEARNING. This novel can also be considered a travelogue of the mythic places of England – and it works quite well in that sense.
By also setting the story, initially, in the here-and-now, Chadbourn gets to really reshuffle the deck by contrasting the two great conflicting forces – technology and magic. Early on, the novel has a slight feel of horror and even urban fantasy. Chadbourn does a very good job of giving an overall unsettling feeling to things. It proves for a fascinating read, but for the characters, this unsettling feeling is transitioned well from fear and shock to understanding and acceptance. He also does a good job of portraying awe in the characters. In some ways, this book reminded me a great deal of Sean Williams’s The Crooked Letter, with the complete upheaval of a world or even Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry with it’s Celtic flavors and how ordinary people are transformed into mythic avatars. In this case; however, Chadbourn focuses the upheaval on returning Celtic gods and monsters and for this story, it works very well.
I thought the pacing was handled really well with one exception. Chadbourn gets a little too clever with chapter and passage endings – all too often, characters; particularly Church, are clunked on the head or blackout at the end of a conflict. Initially, this worked, but as the novel progressed, I found it to be too predictable and rote.
Pyr should once again be commended for bringing US readers a series of books previously unavailable to them on US bookshelves. This review can also not be completed without praising the beautiful cover and book design by John Picaciao. Everything about it, the imagery, the font, and thematic feel of the cover is a perfect fit for the story within the pages. The figures, which I can only assume is Church and company, staring up in awe at an imposing and powerful Cernunnos -like figure captures the spirit of the books.
I can recommend this novel and am very pleased I’ve got the other two in the trilogy Darkest Hour and World’s End ready to read. In fact, I jumped into Darkest Hour, just after finishing off World’s End, which should be evidence enough of just how much I enjoyed the novel.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford