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Review of The Silver Skull – Swords of Albion

The Silver Skull – Swords of Albion
By Mark Chadbourn
Pyr (an imprint of Prometheus Books), 2009

The year is 1588, and an assault has been made on the Tower of London by England’s most implacable enemy – but the foe is not the Spanish, and the goal was not coin or carnage. For twenty years, Queen Elizabeth’s government has kept a mysterious ancient artifact – the Silver Skull – locked up in the Tower, trying to figure out how it works and more importantly, how it could be used against England’s great Enemy, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. But in this eerie nighttime assault, the Skull is stolen by the Enemy – and promptly lost by them. And now it’s up to England’s most renowned swashbuckling spy, Will Swyfte, to retrieve the Skull before it becomes a deadly weapon in the hands of England’s nemesis.

Such is the slam-bang premise and opening action of Mark Chadbourn’s The Silver Skull – Swords of Albion (two perfectly good titles, used in weird conjunction – maybe the author couldn’t decide between them? Or maybe it’s meant to be Swords of Albion Book One?), an alternate-reality Elizabethan novel in which England not only faces the hatred (and rumored Armada) of Spain but also the long cold war with its supernatural Enemy, the war a disillusioned young Christopher Marlowe characterizes bitterly:

“As children we walked in summer fields and dreamed of the wonders that lay ahead. Yet we sold those dreams, and our lives, to defend England against something that can never be defeated, which waits, quiet and patient and still, until we let our guard slip, as it always will, and then we are torn apart in a gale of knives and teeth, unmourned even by our own.”

Chadbourn’s premise is exciting but hardly original (this is by my count the seventh ‘supernatural Elizabethan times’ novel in the last five years), but The Silver Skull – Swords of Albion stands out from all the others on the strength of two things: first, its hero. In Swyfte Chadbourn has danced as close to parody as he can come without tipping his whole story into farce; Swyfte is strong, sure, handsome, endlessly experienced, and cool under pressure. Everyone knows who he is, and melodrama his name invokes is almost worthy of the silent film era:

“If William Swyfte is captured [says Walsingham, the queen's spymaster], we will deny all knowledge of his mission. He has been driven half mad by grief over the loss of his close friend, Grace Seldon, and holds a personal grudge against Spain.”

“You will abandon him?” Burghley said. “He will be tortured and executed.”

“That is the price we must pay.”

“If Swyfte does not reclaim the Skull, all is truly lost!” Elizabeth raged. Even with his caution, Walsingham could see that Elizabeth understood the true situation. “He cannot fail. He cannot!”

All this is saved by the second thing – Chadbourn’s writing. It’s got a good deal more snap and energy than the common run of current fantasy novels; the action sequences (of which this one volume sports hundreds of examples – there’s scarcely time to draw a breath, and that’s wonderful) leap off the page, and the characters are drawn with deft, precise strokes. Almost any amount of old-timey melodrama can be forgiven if it comes dressed in a narrative this adult and assured.

One thing that certainly doesn’t distinguish this book from its competitors is its cover! It features a computer-manipulated photo of professional male model Paul Marron wearing vaguely period clothing and pouting purposefully, and in that it’s virtually identical to about five hundred romance novels currently on bookstore shelves. Don’t get me wrong – Marron is a good-looking young man (although his main claim to modeling fame, his chiseled chest and abs, are totally obscured on this present cover), but his presence on so many covers feels like imaginative bleed-through, an impoverishing state of affairs that could be easily rectified if publishers like Pyr would hire good old-fashioned fantasy illustrators to create their covers.

But provided you don’t judge a book by its cover, The Silver Skull – Swords of Albion is very much worth your time. This book has all the marks of being the first in a series; it’s a hell of a book, so let’s hope it’s a long series.