Last year Mark Chadbourn introduced us to Will Swyfte, spy and adventurer-extraordinaire, his spy companions and their struggle for Queen and country against England’s human and magical enemies. Swyfte is back in The Scar-Crow Men, a novel a tad darker than the first ‘Swords of Albion’ novel, but also better. Swyfte is, like before, a joy to accompany as he fights continuously mounting perils, unravels twisted conspiracies and, yes, saves the day. In terms of historical fantasies, Chadbourn’s books are quickly setting the bar for what defines high caliber fiction.
1593. Queen Elizabeth’s trusted spymaster Walsingham has been dead for two years.
And as plague sweeps through the streets and stews of London, so suspicion and mistrust sweep through the court and government. No one feels safe. Even the celebrated swordsman, adventurer and philanderer, Will Swyfte, is not immune and must watch his back.
It is when his best friend and colleague, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, is killed in a pub brawl that Will decides he must act. The murder has all the hallmarks of an assassination. But in going in search of Kit’s killer, he discovers that there are those in positions of power and influence who are not what they seem...
Against a backcloth of growing paranoia and terror, Will detects the malign machinations of England’s hidden enemy, the Unseelie Court. Now friendless and with these devils at his back, the country’s greatest spy may find that even his vaunted skills are no match for the supernatural powers against him. The choice is simple: uncover the true nature and intention of this vile conspiracy - or face the executioner’s axe...
A return to Will Swyfte’s world is welcome, though The Scar-Crow Men was a bit difficult for me to get into. Thrown directly into the thick of the action, there is very little time to orient oneself. Eventually the characters and certain other familiarities pulled me into the story to the extent that this second novel felt somewhat more gripping than its predecessor. This can perhaps be put down to the more sinister atmosphere of the novel which is at once more intriguing and thrilling.
More than one might expect, Chadbourn’s books aren’t just about fun spy stories in an Elizabethan setting. That would be great, mind, but what he offers the reader in his ‘Swords of Albion’ books is those great spy stories, but coupled with some well fleshed-out characters that have a lot of chemistry in their interactions. In fact, this second novel provides remarkable insight into some of its characters’ minds. The dark mood of the novel impacts the characters - Swyfte especially - and in turn this has affects how we as readers relate to them.
Also, The Scar-Crow Men has a more refined taste than The Sword of Albion, freed of some of the clichés of that novel. Despite still being ‘England’s greatest spy’ it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw parallels between Will Swyfte and that other famous British Spy, James Bond, on account of his growth as a character and the story’s evolution away from its more stereotypical roots. The Scar-Crow Men, unlike the previous novel, feels like it stands as a story of its own right, and not as stand-ins for characters and events we’ve seen depicted before in other fiction.
Part mystery story, The Scar-Crow Men is also possessed of an unforeseen reveal at the end. If a bit convenient plot-wise, this shocking twist elicits a more emotional response from the characters and the reader both. To that end, this final twist helps transition the plot and characters into the next phase of the overarching ‘Swords of Albion’ story. Will Swyfte’s second adventure, then, concludes with a flourish and a great sense of anticipation for the events sure to come in the next installment.
In turns exciting, tense and surprisingly poignant, The Scar-Crow Men is another great fantastical adventure to pull you along. Mark Chadbourn’s Elizabethan saga is one definitely in the process of maturing. If these books can continue to get this much better from one book to the next, Chadbourn will have a hit series in his hands for certain. We can expect, I’m sure, to see more of Will Swyfte and his merry band of spies in the future and we’ll be glad for it! The Scar-Crow Men is already available in both the US and the UK, from Pyr and Bantam Press respectively.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
Mark Chadbourn's Website: http://www.markchadbourn.net/
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