Fiction Reviews

The Devil's Looking Glass

(2012) Mark Chadbourn, Bantam Books, pbk, £7.99, 444 pp, ISBN 978-0-553-82022-5


Generally I like alternative history, and this one looks promising: Elizabethan England at war with the Unseelie Court of Faerie, John Dee a key player and abducted… and the stronghold of the Faerie Court is in Venezuela, up the Orinoco and Caroni rivers. I had visions of a culture like the Aztecs or late Maya, with a bloodthirsty religion based on really nasty deities, forced to extend its wars across the Atlantic to find a new supply of captives for sacrifice - but in that I was disappointed. This version of the Faerie realm is more like Shakespeare's vision in A Midsummer Night's Dream, shorn of any delusion that the Fay mean us well. I have seen the play done that way, with Puck in terror of an icy, sadistic Oberon, and that's the type of enemy we have here.

Will Swyfte, the central character, is a master spy, and this is his third appearance in print in the 'Swords of Albion' series. Reviewers of the first two novels about him have compared him to James Bond, so conspicuous by his actions that everyone knows his name, but not his true mission to defend England from Faerie – a little hard to believe when the Fay stalk the land more or less at will, the Queen is effectively a prisoner in her own court, for her protection, and the Faerie Queen is a true prisoner in the Tower, kept alive at the royal pleasure rather like Mary Queen of Scots, but a far more valuable hostage. I have heard that Walsingham, who was Swyfte's original spymaster, was the originator of Ian Fleming's 00-numbers, as in 'the eyes of the Queen', but that is not mentioned here, though at the end Swyfte does address Cecil, his new master, as “the Queen's eyes-in-the-shadows”.

In previous books Dee was his provider of gadgets, and others have pointed out the resemblance to Ian Fleming's 'Q'. There are references here to the use of a 'tele-scope', 13 years before Galileo's, but the principle of the reflecting telescope was described by Roger Bacon and there is a suggestion that Leonard Digges constructed one, or possibly a refractor, about thirty years earlier. It is virtually impossible to use a Newtonian reflector even from the deck of a large boat at anchor (I have tried it), and although this one is used on a larger ship in a flat calm, presumably it is a refractor.

Mark Chadbourn has commented in interviews on the amount of research these books require, and I am glad that I looked up 'galleons' before commenting. I knew they were heavily armed but, perhaps influenced by John Masefield, I had always thought of them as slow and stately. I did not realise what a range of ships the term covered and that Drake's Revenge, and other English ships used against the Armada, were race-galleons built for speed. It makes it more plausible that in crossing the Atlantic Swyfte could use one to catch up with a carrack, which was larger still. But it is less clear why Dee's abductor would use such a large ship when trying to get away inconspicuously, especially when at first she is only taking him to Ireland.

Swyfte is haunted by the loss of his true love, Jenny, captured into Faerie and held outside time – for a thousand years, we learn. (She has not aged and he does not have her portrait, though at the end she has his.) Reviewers of the previous books have remarked that this plotline seemed to be 'marking time rather than going anywhere, and anyone hoping for a resolution in this book will be somewhat frustrated – having learned that she is still alive, he ends up back where he began. To say more would give away too much of the ending.

It is not the only such frustration, though some may have been answered in previous books or be preparing for the next ones. Walter Raleigh's brief appearances are clearly in anticipation of a big part next time, but where are Drake and Frobisher? On his way to South America Swyfte passes an Unseelie fleet heading for England, but we never learn what happens to them. 'The devil's looking glass' is important enough to give the book its title, but hardly seen or used until page 356, where it falls into enemy hands and is dismissed as 'for now, of little interest'. Retrieved and returned to Dee, it is locked away as too dangerous to use. For all its alleged power, it has not served as anything but a kind of mobile phone.

It seems major factors like these have been overlooked in the rush of page-turning action, and there is a great deal of that. Readers who have enjoyed the previous books will surely not be disappointed. Yet that headlong pace has another unfortunately effect. Writing convincing dialogue for another historical period is never easy; the best technique is often to write in plain English, with just the odd word or turn of phrase to remind the reader of where and when we are. It works for Louise Welsh's Tamerlaine Must Die, set around the death of Marlowe, featured in the previous Swords of Albion book; in No Bed for Bacon by Brahms and Simon, and for Norman and Stoppard's dialogue for Shakespeare in Love, which was compared to No Bed… when the film came out. Read at speed, Chadbourn's Tudor dialogue seems relentless, as if nobody can say, 'Where are you going?', it has got to be 'Where do you go?', probably adding, 'To the stews in Whitechapel, I'll wager', and for good measure, 'to roll with the doxies', in case we've forgotten what stews are. On rereading, the 'period' wording is actually not that intensive, but it is in virtually every passage of direct speech at some point, and that means there is a lot of it.

The book did not work for me, I am sorry to say. I can see the research that has gone into it and I know how much effort that takes, but it did not result in an alternative Tudor England that I could find convincing, or a threat that was characteristic of the Americas at the time. Knowing that Swyfte's lost love is central to all three books I found it diffiult to see why he makes no headway in regaining her? I do not feel inclined to go back and find out why, and if I had started at the beginning of the series, by now I probably would not care whether he had or not. Going back to my teenage years, I remember being disappointed when I found out that James Bond had a different love interest in each book, but I had have been more disappointed if he was still after the same girl, unsuccessfully, three books on. Given the popularity of the series so far, however, and the ongoing page-turning action, I feel sure that regular readers will find a continuation of what they like about 'Swords of Albion' series.

Duncan Lunan

[Up: Fiction Reviews Index | SF Author: Website Links | Home Page: Concatenation]

[One Page Futures Short Stories | Recent Site Additions | Most Recent Seasonal Science Fiction News]

[Updated: 13.9.15 | Contact | Copyright | Privacy]