The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn
Book 2 of the Will Swyfte, Swords of Albion series
Published by Bantam, April 2011
Review by Mark Yon
When The Sword of Albion/The Silver Skull came out last year, I was very impressed: so much so that I rated it as one of my favourites of 2010. Fast paced, nicely scary and good fun.
In Book 2 things move on apace. It is now 1593, five years after the first novel. It is clear that things have changed since we last saw Will Swyfte and his compadres. Sir Francis Walsingham, the old spy master, has died and been buried in relative obscurity. In his place is Sir Robert Cecil, seemingly a less effective leader, or at least one that is beleaguered by other factions and political groups.
Things are clearly not well in Elizabethan England. This is a darker tale than The Sword of Albion. Plague spreads across London’s streets and the Queen has moved her court out of London for fear of catching the disease.
This one starts off fast: there’s a grisly death involving big spiders in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, followed by the death of one of Will’s closest friends. Will is seen as someone clearly upset by this and also under suspicion of becoming more susceptible to atheist ways. Will is convinced his friend’s death was not in a common bar brawl but seems to be being covered up. Convinced that the murder was caused by men who wish Will no good, Will investigates why his friend was killed and by whom. And there seems to be a scheme to kill England’s spies: with Will being the best known spy in England, he’s a major target. The Unseelie Court seems to be making a move, and Will seems to be in line for assassination.
Now accused of being Britain’s biggest traitor, Will’s escape leads him to have to deal with occult magic, secret societies, zombie-like enemies and rooftop battles. Fortunately he’s got the help of Grace, his long-lost beau’s sister, and his friends John Carpenter and Robert, Earl of Launceston amongst others.
This one is darker and more troubled than The Silver Sword/The Sword of Albion, but it’s all exciting, well written stuff, with its fast pace intertwined with dark deeds and betrayal. Again, Mark wins me over. His eloquent phrasing is combined with detailed research that enhances, yet does not overpower, the tale. The streets of Elizabethan London are nasty, dirty, smelly places, filled with refuse, death carts and disease, and our hero traverses them, facing both expected villainy and unexpected supernatural danger.
There is a nice sense of ‘being there’ in this novel. Mark has always created a great sense of place in his novels, and this is no exception. The world-building is as ever excellent as we go through lots of lovely set pieces, from St Paul’s Cathedral to the plague pits of London, the Bedlam Asylum and the rooftops of Elizabethan England. Interestingly, this time Mark broadens this sense of place by involving an international element as the French are involved in trying to upset the stability of the English society. Paris is quite sinister.
Similarly, Mark usually does ‘nasty’ very well. As well as spiders and things that scuttle in the dark, the social hierarchy of the Fay are given a not too unsympathetic perspective here, if uncomfortable. Mention here must be made of an apparently possessed character that Will goes to for information who is one of the creepiest people I’ve read in a book for quite a while.
The dialogue is also great. In James Bondian fashion, Mark is never afraid to throw a quip in, yet wisely is able to rein it in when necessary and does not over-egg the pudding.
The ending is as exciting as you expect it to be and the scene is set for the next book in the series.
By the end, with some interesting setups for the next book in the trilogy, it was clear that the read was worth it. Another cracking, and (dare I say it), a ‘Swyfte’ read, Mr Chadbourn!
Mark Yon, June 2011