Mark Chadbourn’s AGE OF MISRULE trilogy is the first of three connected trilogies and it was the first set of his books to make their way to the US. As I’ve indicated in previous columns, the imprint Pyr made a nice splash in its early years through a combination of brilliant new voices (David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy) and bringing books to US readers previously only available in other countries. I recalled reading about Chadbourn’s Celtic-flavored apocalyptic series and was curious about the books so I was very pleased when Lou Anders signed Chadbourn and published these books. What’s more, he had the three books wrapped in stunningly gorgeous artwork from John Picacio.
Enough preamble don’t you think? On to the books themselves …
As the series begins with World’s End (quite an ominous tone-setting title for the first of a series), strangers in England are drawn together against the dark returning gods. Jack “Church” Churchill is a tormented man, unable to let go of the grief he holds over his girlfriend’s suicide two years prior to the beginning of the novel. When he’s on a late night walk, he witnesses a strange encounter – one man is being attacked by something that can only be described as a monster. Jack isn’t the only witness; disillusioned lawyer Ruth Gallagher also witnesses the attack, but due to its grisly and shocking nature both pass out. What Jack and Ruth witness is just the beginning of a complete upheaval of society and the world at large.
Technology begins to break down and the laws of magic slowly return and as Jack and Ruth are drawn closer together, a mysterious man known only as Tom offers them cryptic and leading advice. Tom shepherds them to Stonehenge and briefly conveys that the events they are experiencing are preamble to the returning creatures of myth, the Tuatha Dé Danann, Cernunnos, the Fomorii, the Pendragons, and the nightmarish Wild Hunt. Along the way, Ruth and Tom are joined by three other characters, each with their own unique and troubled past: Veitch, the ex-con; Laura, the damaged and jealous foil to Ruth; and Savi, the hippie-like Indian. As it comes to pass, these people were brought together specifically because of their connections in earlier lives through what is known as the Pendragon Spirit. With the mindset that the group is greater than the sum of its parts, these five are the world’s only hope for salvation before Beltane, May 1st.
Chadbourn is playing with archetypical characters – Church as the hero, Ruth as the witchy-woman, Veitch as rouge, Tom as the advisor who ‘reveals-the-world-of-magic-slowly’. On the other hand, he throws things slightly asunder, since typically in such stories of characters discovering strange beasts and magic, the characters are youthful and naïve. While these characters are naïve about the myth and magic returning to the world, they are fully formed adults when we meet them. World’s End can also be considered a travelogue of the mythic places of England – and it works quite well in that sense. My only problem with the first installment of the trilogy is that Chadbourn gets a little too clever with chapter and passage endings as characters tend to get clunked on the head or blackout at the end of a conflict.
In the second installment, Darkest Hour Chadbourn focus on the details but happily not at the expense of moving things forward and just settling things into a typical middle book. We get to know the characters better and see them interact. The world change isn’t as much of a surprise at this point in the storyline and the characters bloom into distinct individuals. Furthermore, they each come into their own as modern avatars of their mystical ancestors – Vietch as the dangerous warrior, Church the reluctant leader, Shavi the mystic, Ruth the Triple Goddess, and Laura…Laura’s role is somewhat ambiguous through most of this novel. Laura is my only problematic character in this series. She is an extremely unlikeable character, with very few redeeming qualities. Her mean-spirited and selfish attitude provides some balance to the spiritually accepting Shavi although Laura’s romance with Church is at best is awkward and forced.
Tom continues to provide cryptic advice to Church and cause some flare-ups in the group, but his knowledge and will to do the right thing redeem him as a character. Although Chadbourn does delve deeper into the characters in this novel, he doesn’t do so at the expense of the mythic travelogue he’s been undertaking in this series. Each landmark along these character’s journeys is steeped in real world history and Chadbourn mines much of that for great mythic resonance in the novel and trilogy’s storyline as a whole.
The characters in the book have continually remarked about the true nature of the Formoii and the Tuatha Dé Danann as creatures and beings humans can barely comprehend. In fact, the characters have said perhaps a better way to think of these ancient beings is as aliens. In essence, the Golden Ones, Formoii and many of the other creatures are operating on a world-awareness not akin to human understanding. Chadbourn captures this disorientation quite well throughout the series, especially in the second novel.
One of the running mysteries throughout the three novels is the identity of the traitor in the group, which comes to a head here in Always Forever, the final novel. Each character had been played as the potential traitor, with a red herring thrown in towards the end, but the resolution is logical. And that’s one admirable thing about Chadbourn’s writing and storytelling as the trilogy progresses; characters and events flow well together as the plot progresses and is logical within the context of what came before.
One of my problems in the second installment, the character of Laura, becomes less grating in the third volume. Shavi’s fate near the end of the second book seemed rather decided, but one archetypical journey from Vietch helps to change that and change Vietch physically as well. Perhaps the least surprising development is how close Ruth and Church become, especially considering they were the first two characters to meet in World’s End.
The series as a whole ranks quite well in today’s current crop of fantasy literature. Chadbourn’s writing is both evocative and clear, the imagery he conjures is resonant, while still being original. At times, the plot throughout the trilogy does have the video-game feel of it in that the characters must find an object to keep going. By the end of the trilogy, Chadbourn seems to have grown out of this habit as well as the aforementioned chapters ending with characters blacking out. In that sense, it was very nice to see Chadbourn’s writing and storytelling skills grow and mature as the story progressed.
Flavors of Horror, Dark Fantasy, Mythic Literature, and Epic Fantasy blend very well and that might be the strength of the trilogy. Early on, the series has a slight feel of horror and even urban fantasy. Chadbourn does a very good job of giving an overall unsettling feeling to things. It proves for a fascinating read, but for the characters, this unsettling feeling is transitioned well from fear and shock to understanding and acceptance. He also does a good job of portraying awe in the characters. In some ways, this book reminded me a of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry with its Celtic flavors and how ordinary people are transformed into mythic avatars. Chadbourn doesn’t sacrifice one of these elements for the other and balances the subtleties of each subgenre very well throughout the three books. In the end Mark Chadbourn has told an entertaining and evocative story, with the balance between originality and homage, as well as the journeys (most of) the characters helping to make this a standout trilogy. With all three volumes together, John Picacio’s art and design make these books as enjoyable physically as they were to read.