Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: The Scar Crow Men - Mark Chadbourn

It’s been said once, it’s been said a million times: sequels are hard.

Mostly, that’s because the author has to compete with his own originality. A first novel of a series often introduces a stunning magical world that will whisk the readers away by its very originality. In a sequel, however, the novelty of a faraway land fades away; the unexpected becomes familiar. Hence, the characters, plot, storytelling and humor in a sequel need to be pretty damn amazing to make up for what’s lost in novelty. The author can’t just do the same thing – he has to do something twice as good.

That, unsurprisingly, is the problem with Mark Chadbourn’s The Scar-Crow Men. It’s a sequel. 

It's set in the same intricate, but now familiar world, a magical Elizabethan England, and continues the story begun in The Silver Skull of Will Swyfte and Walsingham's band of spies (though Walsingham is dead by this point) in their fight against the Unseelie Court. Chadbourn's originality in the ways he intertwines history and myth is still stunning: the Plague becomes the doing of the Unseelie Court, Marlowe's Faustus actually conjures up a devil...but the characters and plot are less engaging this time around, and that, coupled with a familiar world, is a death sentence for a story.

In my previous review of The Silver Skull, I explained the kind of characters that we women like to develop infatuations with (and who are heroic enough for men to probably like reading about them too). We like our bitter, cynical, disenchanted yet heroic men...we really, really don't like it when those men whine about it. Perhaps two hundred years ago, back when Romanticism was all the vogue, and writers from Byron to Chateaubriand were inventing being emo, that would've been cool. Nowadays, an occasional bitter line is quite attractive, proffered tantalizingly here or there. Mark Chadbourn, however, has treated the readers to very large helpings of such lines. This is true not only of Will Swyfte, but of all the protagonists of this novel. They complain disenchantedly about their happy past, about what they've lost, about how they can't be happy, about their sacrifices. Oh, shut up already, and actually do something interesting. 

It's not even that the characters are unlikeable, or pretend to be heroes when they're not, or that I"m a terrible, heartless person who doesn't care (I am a terrible, heartless person, but fictional characters have been known to melt the ice that I have in place of a heart). It's that they'd be much more interesting as characters if they actually did things instead of complaining about things. After all, with the first book, the reader signed up for reading a book about Bitter, Cynical Heroes doing Heroic Things (and not for reading The Sorrows of Young Werther). In this book, the bitter and cynical is there, but the heroic seems to have gone for a walk somewhere.

That's why I'm rather hard-pressed to summarize the plot of the novel. It begins with London being stricken by the Plague, and Marlowe getting murdered. After that, there's a lot of angry Will Swyfte running away from things and blundering about, only to then conveniently be informed of the enemy's plot by an ally a few chapters from the end. An appearance is made by Red Meg, a feisty, red-haired Irish spy, who strides her way confidently through the story and rescues Will on more than one occasion. She brightens the story with her flaming red hair and fiery personality, but it's certainly not enough to make the tale colorful and engaging.

It may be universally agreed that sequels are hard, but it's also universally agreed that the third time's the charm. The question remains: will the next book be just the sequel of a sequel, and hence even less up to par, or will Chadbourn work his magic again?

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