November 2009, 425 pp
Mark Chadbourn shifts his storytelling 500 or so years to the past in The Silver Skull, the first of a series of Elizabethan fantasy/mystery hybrids. The story features Will Swyfte, a royal spy and all around adventurer, who is charming and enigmatic. Swyfte made an appearance in the short story Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast, so a novel-length (and series length to be fair) story featuring him is most welcome.
The story here concerns finding a missing weapon that can possibly turn the tide of the war in which England is embroiled. Although the novel takes place in the 1500s the enemy in question is not quite Spain, it is the Unseelie Court and the world of faerie. This has mostly been a hidden war for many years, but Swyfte is at the forefront of the battle lines. Swyfte has a bit of James Bond, and maybe with his sidekick Nat, something of a Holmes/Watson feel. In other words, Chadbourn hits some familiar notes with his protagonist, but he adds enough to make Swyfte more than a rehash of his fiction spy/sleuth peers.
Though not explicitly stated, this novel and the series which it launches, Swords of Albion, seems to be set in the same world as Chadbourn’s earlier novels –Age of Misrule. In that series set in modern day, the protagonists attempted to thwart the emerging threat of magical beings like dragons and fae creatures.
The novel fits the mold of a mystery very well – an object, one might say a MacGuffin, sets the plot in motion when it is lost / stolen. The object is the Silver Skull of the title, yet what Swyfte and his compatriots discover is that the Skull is just one of three powerful object sought after by the Faerie Folk creatures that will help them to come to full power in the real world.
Swyfte’s characters are plausible and he sets scenes fairly well. A particularly effective and creepy scene involved the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. The “true” manner of her death as revealed by Swyfte’s boss Walthingham through a secret letter provided a nice emphasis to how dark the consequences were for our heroes.
In pulling my thoughts together on the novel, I couldn’t come to a clear reaction to the connection between this novel and Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule. In one sense, I see the connection as almost too much of a reliance on something Chadbourn has already established. On the other hand, and stronger side of the scale, the connection shows how much of a scope Chadbourn has for his over-reaching saga. The threat of the Faerie Folk is one that is quite encompassing and difficult to quell.
Although this novel is set in a series, the novel does stand on its own. The underlying threat of the Faerie Folk is not something that will go away, especially given the connection to Chadbourn’s other novels of an emerging Faerie threat. I found Swyfte to be an enjoyable character, but the narrative was not quite as strong as I would have hoped. Although the novel was not bad I was still a bit let down by it. As mentioned above, I thoroughly enjoyed Who Slays the Gyant, Wounds the Beast and was looking forward to a novel-length adventure featuring Swyfte. In that I was a bit disappointed, but still thought the novel quite strong. I had a tough time staying focused on the story on consistent basis, which is odd because I enjoyed the Age of Misrule.
Swyfte is a strong enough character that his exploits can carry future novels and indeed, that is just what Chadbourn plans. The series has a good deal of potential and Chadbourn seems up to the task – both in skill and ability to deliver in a timely manner. These are both good things indeed.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford
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