Book Review: The Devil’s Looking Glass
The prolific Mark Chadbourne will delight fans with a third instalment in the adventures of ladies man, swordmaster, and spy Will Swyfte, the most celebrated adventurer in Chadbourne’s fantasy-alternate version of Elizabethan England. Several aspects of Swyfte’s 16th Century will seem familiar to any student of Shakespeare 101: the filthy streets of London and Liverpool teem with doxies, cutpurses, and conmen; hunchbacked Sir Robert Cecil covertly runs the country aged Queen Elizabeth and her Council rule; ships still play the ocean – going so far as the still-new New World – in search of plunder. It’s the same backdrop against which the previous two books in Chadbourn’s “Sword of Albion” series, The Silver Skull and The Scar-Crow Men, took place, and like those two books, The Devil’s Looking Glass diverges from history in one key way: for a long generation, this England has been ceaselessly at war with the mystical Unseelie Court, “things that walk with printless feet and cast no shadows on this Earth.” The Court and its terrifying minions, “those who lived by night and treated men as men did cattle,” shun the sunlight and are kept from overrunning England solely by the magical machinations of the Queen’s astrologer, Doctor John Dee.
Such protections as Dee’s enchantments provide (fuelled as they are by the magical energies of the captured Fairy Queen, who’s been England’s prisoner for thirty years) don’t extend to fairy-afflicted Ireland, however, and the chieftains of that country contract daring she-pirate (and former paramour of Swyfte, naturally) Red Meg O’Shee to kidnap Dee. Since Dee’s absence would leave England defenseless against her supernatural foe, Cecil orders Will Swyfte – and his colleagues, John Carpenter, Robert, earl of Launceston, and Tobias Strangewayes – to give chase and get the good doctor back.
The chase takes them a midnight Liverpool already besieged by the creeping votaries of the Unseelie Court:
The moon chose that instant to break through the roiling clouds and as Will glanced up one last time before entering the building, he glimpsed a sight that chilled his blood. Arms and legs spread out, grey figures were crawling across the tiles and down vertiginous walls like spiders, closing in upon the rooming house from all directions.
But before either side can lay hands on Dee, he himself seems to transform into an inhuman creature of sorcerous wrath such as neither friend nor foe has ever seen – with bolts of thunder and lightning he tosses his Unseelie assailants around like rag-dolls, but he’s no more gentle with Swyfte and his allies, and then he disappears, apparently gone rogue and headed for the New World, long rumored to be the home of the Court.
Chadbourn is a thoroughgoing professional at this deliciously enjoyable stuff, and in The Devil’s Looking Glass he’s at the top of his game, spinning an over-the-top sword ‘n sorcery yarn that would have kept Robert E. Howard glued to his seat. His characters don’t hesitate to leap into danger and deviltry in defense of queen and country, and what’s more, they don’t hesitate to say things like “Keep a civil tongue in your head,” or “Who will be the first to feel the bite of my blade?” In other words, this book (and all the others in the series, long may it flourish) is as tasty a fantasy snack as you’re likely to encounter all month, but it comes with more than its share of ham.
Our author writes propulsive action sequences, and he writes them one on top of another – the reader hardly has a chance to draw a calm breath from start to finish of The Devil’s Looking Glass. And always the time is late, the corner is tight, and the stakes are high:
The candle guttered. Shadows fled across the chamber as the storm crashed against the tower like waves against a reef. In the flickering light, Will levelled his rapier and waited for the first of the Unseelie Court to crawl through the holes they had made. He could sense them, clinging to the rain-lashed roof as they waited for their moment. And then they would come like the storm, he knew, teeth and swords and talons, wild eyes and blood.
Yes indeed, by Crom and Mitra!