Mark Chadbourn, The Devil in Green (Gollancz, 2004)

'Even Mallory, who thought he was numb to most things, felt a crackle of fear as he looked up at the ancient image. He didn't know what it was, or tried to tell himself that he didn't, but he knew he could feel the presence of a cold, alien intellect, and the threat it brought with it.

"The Devil's come to town." Someone laughed, though without humour.'

This novel begins the story of what happened after events portrayed in the Age of Misrule trilogy. The Devil in Green is set about a year after what the human survivors have taken to calling the Fall. The original Brothers and Sisters of Dragons have apparently passed their sell-by date, and Existence demands that five new heroes arise to take their place. We get to meet two of them in this book: Mallory, who is a smarter version of Ryan Veitch from the Age of Misrule, and Sophie Tallent, a hippie chick who is also a powerful white witch. The aftermath of the fierce battles between the Golden Ones and the Fomorii have left British towns isolated and struggling to survive without technology or an industrial base and the countryside a lethal place, roamed by supernatural creatures. In Salisbury Cathedral, what's left of the Christian church have gathered with the intention to spread the Word of God, using clergy who will be protected by a new Knights Templar. Mallory, running away from his past, like many of those who enlist, joins up because it's a job with regular meals. Within sight of the cathedral is a large Pagan camp, where Sophie Tallent is based. There's an instant attraction between Mallory and Sophie, but before any kind of relationship can develop, Mallory and his squad of newly trained Knights are sent on a mission to rescue a missing cleric. The mission goes badly wrong, and Mallory is injured. In his delirious state, he wanders Salisbury Plain, and finds himself in the Court of Peaceful Days, one of the Far Lands pocket realms. Armed with an arcane sword named Llyrwyn, he makes his way back to the cathedral, only to find that things have changed dramatically. The entire building has grown into a gigantic, sprawling, gothic labyrinth, and only those of Mallory's squad who were outside when it happened, realise that everything is different. To make matters worse, the cathedral is now under siege from a supernatural army, possibly sent by the Devil.

'Sophie opened her mouth and a sound came out that made Mallory's ears hurt. It appeared to be composed of syllables he had never heard before, alien sounds he could hardly comprehend coming from a human throat. Sophie only uttered it, yet it created a deafening roar that cracked the sky.'

This first book in the Dark Age sequence shares the same earthy, realistic dialogue, and skillful characterisation of its predecessors. Yet it differs in a number of ways, stylistically. The author has chosen to strip down his story, with everything and everyone revolving about the centre. On the plus side, it means that Mallory and Sophie are not competing with equals for our attention, but in the negative column, there is never any real doubt they will survive. This lessens the dramatic tension. One great strength of the Age of Misrule was the feeling that any one of the main cast just might end up as toast. The complete absence of Fomorii and rare appearances of Golden Ones are just about made up for by the new elements. These include lessons on how good intentions can turn to evil at the whim of a fanatic, an almost invincible creature which even the Golden Ones are scared of, and The Devil in Green of the title. Students of Celtic lore will easily identify him. I was a little bit disappointed to find the author deferring the answers to some big questions left over from the Age of Misrule. Such as the thorny problem of what became of the world's vast military and political structures, their stored weapons and fuel reserves. It makes no sense — unless Chadbourn invents a smart enough explanation — that none at all survived. However, The Devil in Green is just the start, so there's time yet for such things to be addressed.

'It was only then that they saw the lines of brothers emerging from the cathedral with armfuls of books, some ancient with crumbling spines, many shiny leather-backed volumes, even modern pamphlets.

"The library," Mallory said. "He really did it, the Nazi."

"Ah, they're only books," Gardner dismissed.

Mallory turned on him. "They're not only books. They're ideas, thoughts, beliefs — "'

The claustrophobia of the cathedral's ever shifting architecture, inside which the besieged Knights are starving and going insane, works well. Especially when the killings start, and it becomes known that something supernatural and deadly is lose on hallowed ground. However, some scenes are rather obvious, and therefore unsurprising. Also, the impact of the beast's actions, and what's done by the new Inquisition is a little less nerve racking than it could have been, due to the trim nature of the plot. Nevertheless, The Devil in Green emerges as a good read, with scenes that easily transfer to the cinema screen of the mind. If you enjoyed the Age of Misrule, then the Dark Age is something you won't want to miss. For new readers, this sequence can be read as a stand alone.

[Nathan Brazil]