Review: The Devil’s Looking Glass

Excellent review of The Devil’s Looking Glass in the latest Locus magazine. And they also take the time to praise The Sword of Albion/The Silver Skull:

“These characters tend to peer out from tangles of painfully twisted emotions. The plot can seem just as gnarled, with many turnings, terrors, betrayals, and revelations about its mingling, shifting worlds.”

Finding Fantasy In The Past – The People

There are ethical problems wrapped up in writing historical fiction. Should you use a real, once-living person as a character in your fiction? Their lives reduced to nothing more than plot points and themes? In essence, a human being’s existence shackled to the pursuit of the writer’s own ego?

Would you want some future author to make you the bad guy in their little story, the walk-on joke, the mumbling idiot, the obstacle?

And let’s face it, we don’t even know what the people around us are truly like, never mind those who existed hundreds of years ago. In those cases, we often only have a few scraps of paper to sketch out the things they did, with little hint to their motivation.

This becomes even more of an issue in fantasy, where the historical characters are divorced from the realities of their lives. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with while writing the Swords of Albion books, which utilise a host of real people from the Elizabethan age. To be honest, even after writing I find it hard to decide if it was the right thing to do. I justified it to myself by my attempts to make the historical figures as true to how contemporary accounts described them, but that still leaves a great deal of psychological gap-filling.

The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men are set around the Court and Government of Queen Elizabeth, but she plays only a secondary role. I have less interest in the cosseted lives of Kings and Queens than I do in the men and women who do their bidding.

The stories concern spies, who had, for the first time, become a powerful weapon of the state in this era. And so in the first book one of the central characters is the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a dour, puritanical man who suffered much personal misery in his life, but who gave his all in service to the Queen. His successor in The Scar-Crow Men is Sir Robert Cecil, a clever, cunning politician who battled against prejudice and mockery for his hunchback and short stature – the Queen called him her ‘Little Elf’. These two men represent different approaches to power and control, one quite honorable, the other self-serving. They act as counterpoints to the flawed, vacillating central character, the spy Will Swyfte.

Swyfte’s friend is the acclaimed playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine among other plays. He was something of a rising celebrity at the time. He may have been a spy (there is some evidence); he may have been gay. In the books, Marlowe is another counterpoint to Swyfte, a man slowly being destroyed by the dark business of spying and the demands placed upon him by service to the state. Marlowe allows the reader to see Swyfte’s strengths and flaws more easily.

Despite my antipathy towards the lives of Royalty, the fact that important people play important roles is inescapable in this era. The common man was mainly concerned with simple economic survival. And so, as Swyfte travels the known world in his spying, we encounter James VI of Scotland (and future James I of England), Philip II of Spain and Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France. Each one responds – and responded – in different ways to their regal status, and again, each one allows us to see Swyfte in a different light.

Dr John Dee is a key figure in both books, and the third, to come, and he really is the link between the history and the fantasy. Dee, who tutored the young Elizabeth, was both a scientist and an occultist, an inventor and mathematician who communed with angels and cast magic circles. Many of the themes I’m tackling have Dee at their centre.

There are others – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, the master criminal Laurence Pickering, the King of Cutpurses, who may or may not have been an invention of the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids. Each one was chosen carefully for what they said about Will Swyfte, in the same way that any writer chooses supporting fictional characters.

I hope I did them justice, but know in my heart I didn’t. No writer could.

Finding Fantasy In the Past – The World

When I decided I was going to write an historical fantasy, the attractions of the Elizabethan era were many. It was, for one, a time very much like our own, when society was going through massive changes – a rapid increase in new technology changing the way people lived their lives, foreign wars over resources and in pursuit of power, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated acts against the state funded by foreign powers, heightened surveillance at home, a fear of foreigners among the common man, rising wealth for a few but near-poverty for many, and massive leaps forward in art, literature and music. Not only would we understand the Elizabethan man and woman, there were stark resonances with our own age that would add a nice layer of complexity to any story.

Spain was the sixteenth century equivalent of the US, a global superpower influencing geo-politics at many levels. Under King Philip, the country ruthlessly pursued power and wealth, invading Portugal and putting pressure on France and the Low Countries while exploiting the New World’s resources of gold and silver. Though a devout man, Philip was not averse to using religion as a cover for some of Spain’s more aggressive actions and thereby keeping his subjects firmly behind him.

Beside Spain, England was a small nation with ambition and pluck, but little real power and no great wealth. Thanks to Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church, the nation lived in a near-constant state of fear of either retribution from the Catholic powers of Europe or insurrection within from Catholic agitators. Young priests were being trained in foreign seminaries and sent to England to foment revolution and to spy. The Government feared Philip’s expansionist policy and rumours of an invasion of England began long before the Armada set sail.

This was a dark time of terror and sweat and deceit. Yet in a sequence of stories that were essentially about duality, I could also look to the other, more positive face of the time. This, too, was the English Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and other writers blazing a trail, alongside composers like Tallis and Taverner, and architects like Inigo Jones. There was a great deal of enlightenment after long centuries of moral repression. Brothels were tolerated, including one composed entirely of young men. London was growing at an astonishing rate – faster than it could truly cope – and had become one of the great cities of Europe. So it was an exciting, vibrant time too.

The stories were to be about the point where fantasy collided with reality, but the more I researched, the more comparable and contextual collisions I found – socially, culturally, religious, political. Any fantasy – any story – needs a rich world and plenty of innate conflict. It was all here.

And while England was increasingly embracing what would come to be science, it still had the supernatural fears of past centuries at its back. The Elizabethan era was really the point where the country was caught between reason and unreason, hope and fear, past and future.

With the idea of a country trying to move forward while held back by the hooks of a superstitious past came the opening for my antagonists, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. Their existence was encoded in every myth and legend and folktale; the English had always lived in fear of the Fair Folk. But under Queen Elizabeth, England wanted to break free of their shackles and move into a new, brighter age.

Next time I’ll look at some of the historical characters who populate The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men and why I chose them.

Finding Fantasy In The Past

The Scar-Crow Men, the second of my Elizabethan fantasy novels, is out soon in the US and UK. It’s fantasy noir, renaissance punk, historical fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical urban fantasy or one of half a dozen other labels, depending on who’s speaking. Like some of my other work, the story exists at the point where the fantastic smashes up hard against reality, only in this sequence that reality is in the past, five hundred years gone, among well-documented, pivotal events.

Writing historical fantasy – to adopt the broadest label – has its own peculiar demands. We’re talking about an alien world here, with its own customs, clothes, politics, transport, weapons, social classes, art, music and economy and every aspect needs to be fully realized for the reader to settle into it.

To say this entails a massive amount of research, doesn’t begin to do the job justice. The writer needs to understand everything, both as its own thing and in context within the time period. This involves more than the invention of a secondary world fantasy, more than looking out of the window or Googling or location research for a contemporary fantasy (both of which I’ve written in the past).

Our knowledge of history degrades the further back we go. Characters walk on stage and then disappear. Our understanding of events is based on often-biased accounts. And sometimes there are vast parts of life that are simply missing in contemporary accounts.

The Elizabethan Age is reasonably well-documented, particularly with regard to affairs of state. The lives of the common men and women are there too, but the information is scattered widely. While writing this sequence, I sometimes had to embark on three different strands of research for a single sentence.

The Scar-Crow Men unfolds in the shadow of the murder of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a killing that has all the mystery and intrigue of the JFK assassination. The previous volume, The Sword of Albion (or The Silver Skull in the US), is set at the time of the Armada and the Spanish invasion of England.

Over a few posts here I’m going to be writing about what goes into creating these historical fantasies, looking at the places, the people, the milieu, not only setting the context but also underlining the basic premise that the more reality you get, the more effective the fantasy.

The Sword Of Albion Catch-Up

Lou Anders, my editor at Pyr Books in the US, has done a brief round-up of some of the amazing reviews I’ve been getting in the US for The Silver Skull – out in the UK under the title The Sword of Albion, from Bantam, in May. To say, I’ve been bowled over by the US reception would be under-stating.

Lou has been working up the catalogue copy for the follow-up book, which will be announced in the US soon. In fact, it looks like there’ll be news of the sequel before the book is even out in the UK.

There’s also a new review of the The Silver Skull out today here. Enough blowing of trumpets.

And Another Swords Of Albion Review

Also one of the funniest: “THE SILVER SKULL, by Mark Chadbourn, is one of the funnest books we have read. Period.”

So that would be The Silver Skull in the US, or The Sword of Albion in the UK – same book, different title – just to avoid confusion.

Also, I’ve just seen the cover for the US follow-up to this book, and it is truly remarkable. By Christian McGrath once again.

The Sword Of Albion – Review

Another perceptive review of the first book in the Swords of Albion series:

“Faeries. British Folklore. Alternate Elizabethan History. Magic. Spies. Political Intrigue. Christopher Marlowe. If these fantastic components weren’t enough to get me excited about reading The Silver Skull, the first novel in the new Swords of Albion trilogy, the fact that Mark Chadbourn is the author sealed the deal.”

The Silver Skull is out now in the US. The UK version – re-titled The Sword of Albion – is out in May.

Hitting The “Best Of” Lists

Happy New Year everyone. A quick catch-up post as I get my head back into work-mode after the seasonal festivities, during which I saw and enjoyed both Sherlock Holmes and Avatar amid the usual carnage of what is my favourite time of year. I’m definitely a mid-winter person.

I’m currently snowed-in and watching the reports of Britain grinding to a halt (again). I’m afraid to consider how we’ll cope in a real catastrophe.

My work had a good showing among the usual “Best of…” lists, published at the end of 2009.

The Silver Skull (Swords of Albion) appeared in the favourite novels of Locus magazine critic Paul Witcover, SteveReads, Fantasy Book Critic Cindy’s best of 2009 list, and Fantasyliterature.com.

Meanwhile, Age of Misrule was flagged up in the best of 2009 lists of Rob Will Review, Fantasy Book Critic Cindy’s list (again!), and Nethspace.

Thanks to all.

Best Fantasy Novel Of The Year? Yes, I Think It Is.

It’s Thanksgiving in the US and the start of a retail frenzy that will continue right through the Yuletide season. It’s a brutal time for authors. More books are sold than at any other time of the year. The stakes are high, everyone’s competing for attention so their book doesn’t get lost in the snowstorm. It’s going to be a backstreet knife fight from here on out. Not pretty.

And here’s where I jump into the fray. Look away now if you can’t bear brutal displays of marketing and attention-seeking in a bid to get everyone to notice the first Swords of Albion book, The Silver Skull, which is out NOW in the US. You know the one – Elizabethan spies versus Faerie on the eve of the invasion of England by the Spanish Armada.

And look – new reviews are in. Prestigious site Monster and Critics says “In a year of outstanding fantasies, The Silver Skull may just be one of the best.” Which comes on the back of fantasyliterature.com’s reviewer claiming it’s their favourite book of the year. That sounds like a trend.

That provides a slight silver lining to the book not coming out in the UK until April. UK reviewers can now make it the best book of two years. Go on – you know you want to.

And look – here’s another review, this time from also-prestigious magazine Realms of Fantasy: “Chadbourn’s plot moves swiftly, from London to Scotland to Spain, with surprises galore along the way, and with memorable heroes and villains, especially the Faerie prince Cavillex, who is a worthy adversary for Swyfte, and a promising young playwright and sometime secret agent by the name of Christopher Marlowe. Smart, fun, at times surprisingly moving, and occasionally downright shocking, The Silver Skull is impossible to put down.”

Then there’s the recent review in the – yes – prestigious magazine Locus: “The Silver Skull has such an array of complex characters, deeply involved in their interesting times and guarding so many painful memories and secrets, there’s something here for anyone who wants more than a bunch of cardboard figures going through the motions while the body count keeps rising.”

Sick of all this pimping yet? Get used to it – there’ll be more. Much more…