The Sword of Albion
By Mark Chadbourn
Will Swyfte, Mark Chadbourn’s protagonist in The Sword of Albion, has been widely compared to James Bond. An emphatic, smooth talking bachelor with fierce fighting skills and a place in the Queen’s palace, it’s easy to liken this spy to the most famous fictional agent of the 20th century. But there’s more going on here than just watching someone untangle themselves from the varied and dangerous situations they get themselves into for the sake of Queen and country.
Set it 1588 just a short time before The Spanish Armada, Chadbourn’s novel takes us swiftly (no pun intended!) into the past where we get to relive history from a slightly different angle. Rather than defending against only the Spanish in the forthcoming invasion, Will and his companions are tasked with protecting the country from a much larger threat – the Unseelie Court. Wrath-like figures with hypnotic powers and a serious grudge against Albion, they work to unleash a serious weapon of mass destruction - 16th century style. To do this though, they need three items: a silver skull, a key and a shield. If they get their hands on all three, the British Isles are doomed to fall.
Chadbourn’s description of the historic British Isles is one of the book’s best assets. You quickly fall head first into the past as the streets of London, Edinburgh and Seville (to name but a few) come alive off the pages. Like in Pierre Pevel’s The Cardinal’s Blades and Paul Kearney’s Corvus, real historic figures play their part in this swashbuckling adventure and it’s a real pleasure to delve into the thick of it.
Main man Will Swyfte is great fun and easily likeable. He has his own ‘Q’ in the form of Doctor Dee and an amiable and trustworthy friend in Nathaniel Colt. There is however something missing from his ensemble. While not as irritating as he could’ve been (the last thing we need is another smarmy, quick-with-a-knife ladies man) Will lacks the depth and charisma that makes it easy to truly invest in his plight. Because of this the extended chapters following his various antics can run slack and are only infrequently broken up by the supporting characters activities. Chadbourn certainly makes an effort to lend Swyfte more credence through his history with ex-love Jenny, but it never really rings true and it’s only in the final few chapters that the tragic nature of his occupation really emerges, scraping the surface of the more complex persona hidden behind the façade.
The author sculpts worthy adversaries in both the Spanish and the Unseelie Court, though the latter are perhaps too similar to Tolkien’s Dead Men of Dunharrow to garner too much praise. Their varying corporeality is never really explored, nor is whether Swyfte’s ability to kill them is unique to him (as Aragorn’s is in The Return of the King) which is disappointing. Don Alonzo makes for a troubled yet interesting adversary and the leaders of the Unseelie Court - Malantha and Cavillex – both inspire just the right blend of fear and fascination.
The novel often feels its length and at almost 500 pages can occasionally drag, but the battles are brilliant (particularly the clash of British and Spanish ships in the English Channel) and the characters generally involving. There are some superbly emotive moments, whether of love or of horror (an episode with a scarecrow is surprisingly shocking) and with an ending that is as moving as it is intriguing, there’s plenty to look forward to in the next instalment: The Scar-Crow Men.
Written on 5th September 2011 by Alice Wybrew.