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Darkest Hour (Age of Misrule, Book 2) by Mark Chadbourn
Cover Artist: John Picacio
Review by Benjamin Wald
Pyr Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781591027409
Date: 23 June 2009 List Price $15.98 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Age of Misrule:
* World's End
* Darkest Hour
* Always Forever

In the second volume of his fantasy trilogy, Marc Chadbourn returns us to a modern day world in which the supernatural, most notable the gods of Celtic mythology, have returned in force to reclaim the world. These gods are divided into two camps. The fomorii are shape shifting monsters who, in fine fantasy tradition, seek to resurrect their dead god Balor and destroy the world. On the other side are the Tuatha de Danaan, beautiful but inscrutable and often almost as dangerous as the fomorii who are their traditional foe. Darkest Hour picks up the story of the five "brothers and sisters of the dragon", normal men and women who have been destined to protect the land from the new supernatural forces which are abroad. In this second book, they continue in their effort to defeat the fomorii and prevent the resurrection of Balor.

The plot of this novel repeats many of the flaws of the first volume. The characters spend most of the first half of the book consulting spirits for lists of tasks to be accomplished and proceeding to complete these tasks in the order assigned. While this structure succeeds well enough in getting the characters from point A to point B, it gets dull rather quickly. None of the individual elements ever feels necessary; one or more of the intervening steps could have been omitted without any significant loss to the story. This is particularly true of some of the low stakes encounters that periodically sidetrack the characters into rather inconsequential tasks. It feels like reading the plot for some role-playing game, complete with optional side-quests. Even more frustratingly, the plot manages to build to a reasonable satisfying climax about halfway through the novel and then proceeds to loose all momentum for another 150 pages. The entire middle of the novel meanders around with no sense of urgency or purpose, and I had to force myself to read through it before the action picks up for the conclusion. Overall, the pacing and plotting of this book are a disappointing muddle.

Chadbourn's poor plotting might be forgivable if his prose kept the reader enthralled through the aimless wanderings, but sadly this is not the case. Most of the writing is pedestrian, with an annoying tendency to inform the reader of facts such as character growth or theme, rather than allowing one to draw one's own conclusions. One of the themes of the novel is clearly the contrast between spirituality and rationality, and in subtler hands this could be interesting. In Darkest Hour, it is mostly explored through characters explicitly commenting to one another on the contrast between the old rational world and the new magical one. Likewise, character development is often commented upon by other characters or else reflected upon in inner monologues. It all ends up feeling forced and hollow.

Despite these flaws, Chadbourn's characters still manage to be interesting. I came to sympathize with the heroes, and he does a good job managing the interactions of the various characters, and avoiding the usual big happy family of most quest fantasies. His heroes don't all get along, and occasionally the personality clashes are quite fierce. Chadbourn also shows an occasionally startling brutality towards his characters, which is a refreshing change from more sanitized fantasy fare. Unfortunately, the effect of this is diverted by his characters absurd resilience to traumatic events. For instance, after being rescued from weeks of torture and abuse, one of the characters proceeds to apologize to her rescuer for being too critical, and later compliments him on his knowledge of the local geography. The heroes bounce back from trauma so quickly that one never really feels the visceral horror of the various trials they are subjected to.

At the end of World's End, the first book in the series, I was cautiously optimistic for the series as a whole. Sadly, Darkest Hour exacerbates the flaws of the first and fails to live up to the potential. While the cliff-hanger ending is thrilling, and the characters remain engaging, this cannot overcome the muddled plotting, pedestrian writing, and wooden dialogue. I recommend against buying this book.

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