Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Silver Skull - Mark Chadbourn

It all started in the bookstore. Borders bookstore, to be exact, back when it still existed. My friend Amy and I were bravely fighting our way through shelves of spinoff vampire romance and formulaic sword-and-sorcery in a quest for literary treasures of the science fiction and fantasy variety. I picked out a book with a man in Elizabethan dress on the glossy cover; he was holding a sword and looked to be in the midst of an exciting scene.

“Meet Will Swyfte -- adventurer, swordsman, rake, swashbuckler, wit, scholar and the greatest of Walsingham's new band of spies,” the back cover proclaimed.

Amy glanced over and laughed.

“He sounds like exactly your type,” she said.


Will Swyfte is, after all, exactly the type of character that women (including me) tend to develop literary crushes on. He is a bitter, disenchanted figure with a dark past, yet on the inside he hides a heart, a heart that once loved and suffered terribly. And now, he has become a hero with a mask of cynicism. We women have a weakness for our anti-heroes with a heart of gold (and his wits about him), and I admit that I spent a large part of the novel with a minor infatuation with Will Swyfte.

That’s not to say that Mark Chadbourn’s The Silver Skull has nothing else going for it besides its main character; it simply means that it’s a novel for people who like a certain kind of story with a certain kind of character. In some ways, Will Swyfte is like the Elizabethan James Bond, with John Dee as his Q, and the scenes in which Swyfte gets his latest “gadgets” really do mirror those of the Bond movies. It’s a story whose hero is unheroically heroic: he’s really good at saving the world, and despite all the cynicism, he’s going to be the Hero who does Right in the end.

And he’s going to become famous for it. In fact, he’s going to become known as England’s greatest spy.

But what is the point of a spy who is famous for being, well, a spy?

The already-intriguing back cover has an answer for that, too:

“Swyfte’s public image is a carefully-crafted facade to give the people of England something to believe in, and to allow them to sleep peacefully at night. It deflects attention from his real work — and the true reason why Walsingham’s spy network was established. A Cold War seethes, and England remains under a state of threat. The forces of Faerie have been preying on humanity for millennia. Responsible for our myths and legends, of gods and fairies, dragons, griffins, devils, imps and every other supernatural menace that has haunted our dreams, this power in the darkness has seen humans as playthings to be tormented, hunted or eradicated.”

Mark Chadbourn has a talent for intertwining mythology and history to create a unique setting and a unique story, and he’s certainly done it here. It’s not uncommon knowledge that Walsingham was several centuries ahead of the MI6 when he created his vast spy network; it’s quite probably the first secret intelligence service in the modern world. But Chadbourn adds another defining part of Britishness to the Elizabethan era – Britain’s mythology. He is extremely well-versed in both history and mythology, and he intertwines two worlds intricately, seamlessly, and with fastidious attention to detail and accuracy.

Of course, that makes it very easy to say that he allows the reader to truly plunge into a different world and live in it – after all, isn’t that what fantasy is supposed to do? But Chadbourn’s book does more. It’s engaging and well-researched to such an extent that it’s amazing how much one can learn about Elizabethan Britain. Reading it is, in a way, reassuring – it’s not necessary to worry about whether somebody actually dressed like that or if some minor event actually occurred. The accuracy with which Chadbourn writes of his time period makes the story as real as the best of fantasy worlds.

The plot itself is part Indiana Jones, part spy story (rather more Mission: Impossible than James Bond, though), and part fantasy. There are labyrinths, riddles, gadgets, sword fights, and all manner of magic. There are also some really scary bits – it’s not just fog and darkness, but a feeling of foreboding about a mystery that Will Swyfte spends the book hunting for. But saying any more than that would be spoiling the story.

A swashbuckling fantasy spy story in Elizabethan England – you know you want to read it.

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