The Silver Skull is absolutely smashing. It is not without flaws, and yet these are less the fault of Mark Chadbourn — who has slathered as much craft, suspense and pure action into this one book as many writers are lucky to manage throughout an entire trilogy — than they are endemic to the lore he's chosen to work with. Consider what we are asked to believe about the Unseelie Court: that they are incalculably sadistic and evil magical beings with an insatiable appetite for destruction, the mere awareness of whom can drive the average person into suicidal despair...and yet, you can protect yourself from them simply by sprinkling a little salt across your doorway. If this is all it takes, why isn't salt the weapon of choice in our heroes' arsenal in this book? If Dr. John Dee, here recast as Elizabeth I's chief sorcerer, knows that the Unseelie are certain to try a direct assault on Whitehall, why doesn't he just buy up every bag of salt in London and encircle the palace with the stuff?
The answer, of course, is that if he did that, then Chadbourn's story would be robbed of everything that makes it such an electrifying, adrenalizing read. Sometimes it's a good idea not to be such an anorak about the picky details of your lore. It's a testament to the skill at work in this novel that I noted the above logical hiccups, yet couldn't care less about them once the plot shifted into high gear.
The Silver Skull is the first in a series of Elizabethan fantasy adventures about Will Swyfte, England's greatest spy. Yes, the James Bond comparisons are there, and made much of in this series' promotional materials. (Dee functions as Swyfte's own Q, providing him with magical surprises and gadgets to aid him in his missions.) But beyond that, Chadbourn, with an impressive lack of didacticism, structures his story as a metaphor for the contemporary War or Terror. (In one scene, Swyfte even gets waterboarded.) Here, the Unseelie, led by the spectacularly psychotic Cavillex, seek the utter destruction of England by obtaining the titular artifact. The Silver Skull is a magical bio-WMD that will spread devastating plague throughout the kingdom. And yet, two other elements, the Shield and the Key, are needed to protect the Unseelie themselves from the blight they intend to spread. The story involves Swyfte's tireless and frantic attempts to keep the latter two out of their hands, while recovering the Skull, which the Unseelie have managed to steal from the Tower of London in the prologue. Finally, to keep everything from boringly simple-minded moral clarity, we are given more than enough hints that England isn't entirely blameless for its woes.
For an action hero, Swyfte is a satisfyingly complex character. He has enough of an ego to enjoy his reputation as a national hero, but when it's time to get to work, country, not personal glory, comes first. He has a personal stake in battling the Unseelie, as he believes them responsible, many years before, for the disappearance of his love Jenny. But even his determination to find her is something that must take a backseat to the mission at hand. Swyfte must also take care not to expose too many state secrets, particularly the true nature of England's supernatural enemy, to his own assistant, Nathaniel. Knowing too much about the Unseelie can drive an unprepared man mad. And yet matters are coming to a head, and certain secrets will become harder and harder to keep.
Swyfte has operatives working with him. Two of them possibly cannot be trusted: John Carpenter, who holds a deep grudge against Swyfte over something that happened on a past mission, and Matthew Mayhew, whose own mind appears to be unraveling at the horror the Unseelie present. But they are the only men Swyfte has at his back as they all venture to Spain, where King Philip has been turned into the Unseelies' catspaw, manipulated into sending his navy against England.
Chadbourn carefully structures his narrative in the book's early chapters, so that readers (especially those not familiar with the times) are not overwhelmed with historical names and details. His world building is so vivid and textured you can practically smell the dung clogging the Elizabethan streets and feel the icy rain drenching the cobblestones. Atmosphere is off the scale. And just when you think the prose is getting a bit too talky and threatening to tip over into an expository rut, the action shifts to Edinburgh, and Chadbourn twists the knob right up to "Awesome" and never turns it back down. We get to settle in for a rousing bout of hair's-breadth escapes, swordplay, frantic midnight rides, more swordplay, skullduggery, betrayal, foreign espionage, one chapter-ending cliffhanger after another, and finally a monumental sea battle that would make Patrick O'Brien hoist his pint in salute.
Historical fantasy is the sort of thing that can all too often bog down in "look at all my research!" torpor and self-seriousness. But Mark Chadbourn has mined both the past, and his country's bountiful mythology, to produce what can only be called pure entertainment. The Silver Skull is one fantasy spy saga that's worth every moneypenny in your purse.
Followed by The Scar-Crow Men.