Jack of Ravens: Kingdom of the Serpent (Gollancz SF S.)
by Mark Chadbourn
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0575078006
Date: 20 July, 2006 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Jack of Ravens begins a brand new sequence by Mark Chadbourn, one of the UK's most stylish fantasy practitioners. I had originally been under the impression that this new work bore no relation to Chadbourn's previous series, The Age of Misrule and The Dark Age (neither of which I have read), and so was surprised when Jack of Ravens seemed a rather inaccessible, difficult to get into piece. Only after finishing it did I find out that Jack of Ravens is intrinsically connected to the story arcs of Chadbourn's previous works – and this is a key factor to the reader being able to see the big picture.
On that basis, perhaps I shouldn't review Jack of Ravens – but actually in spite of a huge gap in my knowledge of the characters and their background, Chadbourn's new novel proves as intriguing as it is mystifying, and it is a stage on which the author admirably displays his considerable talents.
Out of the mist and into the bosom of a Celtic tribe stumbles Jack Churchill, a modern man with no memory of how or why he finds himself out his time and out of his depth. In his hand he carries an ancient magical sword and through some instinct and muscle memory he is, it seems, more than capable of wielding it. Jack's self-knowledge is fragmentary - flashes of his history are there; a woman he loves but whose face he cannot picture, but little more than that.
Chadbourn offers us the perfect in media res opening to Jack of Ravens - he's a no-nonsense writer who gets straight down to business, but I was troubled by the dreamlike shift of the narrative, especially given that I had yet to know much of the protagonist - this is moot, of course, now that I learn that Jack Churchill and his story prior to Jack of Ravens is available to all in Chadbourn's earlier works.
The backbone to Churchill's (or Church as he prefers) predicament is an archetypal battle between good and evil, a battle fought by two opposing energies outside of our reality. These opposing forces are prevalent in Chadbourn's previous works and are embodied here in Jack of Ravens by 'The Pendragon Spirit' - the good guys and 'The Army of the Ten Billion Spiders' - yup, they're the baddies! Such distinctions sound a bit 'cod' when broken down in a review, but Chadbourn uses them well - Church is the embodiment of the Pendragon Spirit, an Arthur-like figure who comes when the land is in danger. His character is flawed however, by self pity, by grief and by guilt and he needs others to help him along on his journey - specifically a band of brothers (or sisters) of which he is the leader. Conversely 'The Army of the Ten Billion Spider' are not just a bag of insects with an impressive sounding name - they are a powerful force that threatens everything, even existence itself. They feed on despair and bring death and darkness to everything they touch.
Chadbourn is playing with some heavy magic here, and this gives his work a weight that precludes much levity. You'll find plenty of gravitas, action, pathos, horror and romance in Jack of Ravens, but not a great many jokes!. Instead there is solidity to the story telling that's very impressive, even more so when one considers that the novel is no fat fantasy, full of stodge and padding. Rather Jack of Ravens is a lean, finely honed piece of writing, very direct and to the point.
The core of the story follows Church through history as he travels forward towards his time. Rather than simply live his way through the three thousand years, he is able to dip in and out, interspersing events with visits to the Otherworld, the realm of god like creatures, specifically the Tuatha Dé Danann from Celtic mythology. These deities appear morally ambiguous in Jack of Ravens, obsessed with their own immortality and often more of a hindrance than a help. However, Chadbourn displays great skill in mapping a genuinely fascinating journey for his main Tuatha Dé Danann character, Niamh, for through her association with Church, she begins to truly understand what it is to be human, to be what she refers to as a 'Fragile Creature'.
Church's journey then is a long haul and Chadbourn takes his readers through a timescape in which he bends history to serve his narrative needs. The ride is a bumpy one in places, for the times Chadbourn chooses to place his scenes tend to be separated by very uneven gaps. From Celtic prehistory, we jump to Roman times, then on to Elizabethan England (where we have an interesting encounter with John Dee that offers a context for the bizarre business of him apparently talking to angels), we move on to the New World and the lost colony of Roanoke (the mystery of which is impressively explained), to Victorian England, World War II and a penultimate stop in hippy San Francisco in the late 60s. Dipping into all these time periods is fun and Chadbourn offers a satisfying taste of each every time the bus stops. At the same time, this approach never allows the story to properly gel in the readers mind, largely because of the many, many supporting characters we meet along the way. Over the course of the story Church has dozens of colleagues who become Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, many of whom meet unfortunate ends - but our acquaintance with them is often so brief that where Jack suffers terrible grief at their loss, we can only sympathise rather than empathise. It's hard to care about people we barely knew.
There is considerable courage and ambition shown by Chadbourn in Jack of Ravens. Certainly it can be read and enjoyed as a stand alone, but you’ll get more from it if you dip first into Chadbourn's earlier work. Though this novel is most definitely a challenge for readers, it is a real bravura display from the author, a very successful attempt to offer readers something truly different from the standard fantasy fare.