Sword of Albion / The Silver Mask (US)
By Mark Chadbourn. Published by Bantam Press (UK)
Published May 2010 (Review copy received)
Review by Mark Yon
(Reviewed by RobB as The Silver Mask HERE in April 2010.)
It takes a special kind of book these days for a jaded reviewer like myself to make specific time for – ignore the family, go to bed early, that sort of thing.
And having read a few of these with a similar theme over the last couple of years – Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come, Dan Abnett’s Triumff, for example – you might expect this one as a result to move down the ‘to be read’ pile a fair way.
However, this is perhaps the best of those books mentioned and a great read that I read much faster than I thought I would.
It is, in essence, a romp, a fast-paced Elizabethan tale of the antics of one Will Swyfte, a whirling dervish of a James-Bondian type hero, whose job (after drinking and entertaining women) is to defend the mighty realm of Elizabethan England in 1588 against the might of an unseen enemy, the Fae. The theft of a man wearing a silver mask from the Tower of London has implications for Will. For this is no simple mask, it is a relic from which the Seelie (Unseen) world hopes to bring down the Elizabethan Empire. Will is further sent to discover two more items of value which would work with the mask: a shield, hidden in Edinburgh and a sword.
Much of the book is spent acquiring those objects, entering lost chambers and uncovering secrets , all the time competing against the Fae.
What with that and shielding England from the impending threat of the Spanish, Will is a busy man.
Where this one scores is that the tale is told with enough pace not to get bogged down with political and historical detail, nor too humorous to disengage readers from the gravitas of the plot. There is a real sense of menace and evil here, which Mark uses with full relish. Parts of it are most unpleasant. Will is also a character with a bit of depth and not always as clear cut as the reader would perhaps expect him to be.
As well as Will, there are a great number of background characters which fill out the picture, all of which show other aspects of themselves and Will. Nat is Will’s mentee; initially unknowing of the supernatural dangers they fight but loyal throughout, regardless. Grace is his loyal girl friend, bonded not only by her love of Will but also through the disappearance years ago of Will’s first love and Grace’s sister.
There are also a sprinking of real characters in all of this: from Elizabeth I’s spymaster Lord Walsingham to alchemist Doctor John Dee, from King Philip II of Spain to friend Christopher Marlowe, these together with their fictional counterparts make an enthralling tale. Think Elizabeth with added fantasy horror. As with his previous novels, Mark manages to convincingly mix traditional English folklore with a series of fast-paced set-pieces that keep those pages turning.
There are issues – I’m not sure that a man so famous could work effectively as a spy, as Will does, for example (though this is something Mark himself addresses in the book), and I did laugh at the concept of Will as an Elizabethan celebrity. I also had a wry smile at the improbability of characters being named Will and Grace. Nonetheless, the book moves at such a pace that such minor distraction is not always noticed.
This is one of the best historical magick books I have read for a long time. Not as bogged down with detail as some, nor as frivolous as others, it nonetheless a speedy jaunt through a time of English history that is as entertaining as you might expect. Recommended.
Mark Yon, May 2010