Mark Chadbourn: World’s End / Darkest Hour / Always Forever

Nathan Brazil wrote this review.

The taller man, who must have been at least 7ft 6ins tall, turned suddenly, although Church was sure he hadn’t made a sound. The giant had a bald head and long, animalistic features contorted by a snarl of rage. In the shadows, his pale hooded eyes seemed to glow with a cold, grey fire. Church shivered unconsciously at the aura of menace that washed off him in a black wave. — from World’s End

Mark Chadbourn is the anti-Tolkien. His Age of Misrule trilogy grabs standard fantasy fodder by its danglers, and squeezes hard. What would really happen if the gods of Celtic mythology returned, straight into modern British life? The Age of Misrule answers this question, throws us head first off the fantasy bandwagon, and still comes up with a story that is impossible to put down. For anyone sick of noble elves, kitchen boys made good, and returned kings, the cure begins with World’s End. The prophetic title is a description of what’s to come. The story details the gradual incursion of a new world order, where physics is replaced by magic.

From the start there is a sense that reality wears a new face, which we glimpse quite literally, when two human strangers encounter one of the returned Fomorii, a creature of dark magic. The pair have no idea what they’re seeing, partly because their minds and bodies rebel against the sight, human perception never having been designed to comprehend what such creatures actually look like. As it turns out, all of our supernatural legends are based on either the Fomorii, also known as Night Walkers, or the Golden Ones, remembered in Irish legend as the Tuatha Dé Dannan. A new war between these forces of darkness and light is brewing, and humanity is an irrelevance, caught in the middle. Jack ‘Church’ Churchill, Ruth Gallagher, Shavi, Laura DuSantiago and Ryan Veitch are brought together, seemingly by chance, and set to the task of finding four mystical objects — sword, spear, stone and cauldron, or Grail. All they have to help them in this task is the Wayfinder; a magic lantern with a flame of blue fire which points in the direction of the artifacts. These objects can be used in concert to free exiled Tuatha Dé Dannan. The Golden Ones are the single force strong enough to repel the Fomorii hordes.

Chadbourn takes these fantasy clichés and freshens them up with faerie politics, interspecies racism, and a simmering pot of uneasy relationships that evolve between the main players, both human and Faerie. World’s End concludes with a cliff-hanger centred around the Fomorii master plan, for the reincarnation of their god, Balor.

‘Guerrilla warfare,’ Ruth said. ‘I like that. We turn our weakness into a strength. Move fast, strike hard and be away before they can respond.’

‘Excuse me? Are we living in the same world?’ Laura said. ‘These are things that can crush us faster than you can get on a high horse.’

Darkest Hour continues the story. The five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, as Church and his group are known, are working toward a common goal. But their motivations and personal sub-agendas are in constant flux. A great strength of these characters is that they always come across as real people trying to cope with decidedly unreal situations. More often than not, both Fomorii and Golden Ones prove to be smarter and more devious than humans, and the five are battered from pillar to post. We learn that their coming together was not simple chance, and their lives have been engineered to make them who and what they are. Similarly, the apparent luck they’ve had has often been the result of deliberate manipulation, either by use of Caraprix, small shapeshifting symbiotic creatures which both Fomorii and Golden Ones install to control humans, or via the machinations of the supporting characters. Among these are Callow, an eccentric wanderer and part-time psycho; Tom, the legendary Thomas the Rhymer; Niamh, one of the elite Tuatha Dé Dannan; Cernunnos, once the lord of the Wild Hunt; Calatin, a half-breed Fomorii chieftain; the Bone Inspector, last of those who guarded the countries’ ancient sites; and Mollech, a rival Fomorii sorcerer whose life force is kept together by a murder of crows flying in a tight pattern around the space his body once occupied.

In Darkest Hour we find that technology, the magic of mankind, is dying. Sometimes things work, more often they don’t. The replacement of science by magic is handled in a credible fashion, with the most noticeable effect being the loss of main power. Electrical products are now far less useful, and mass communication is a thing of the past. Petrol, and all other consumable products made via industrial processes are increasingly rare.

Three Fomorii had the Wave Sweeper’s Master bound across the enormous desk, where several monstrous implements appeared to have been used to torture him. It was impossible to tell the exact use of the instruments, which resembled bear-traps and hand drills, but they had obviously had a profound effect on the Master. He had lost his familiar shape. The body was blurred and pulsing, leaking light in dazzling beams, and the face was like a running mixture of oil and water.

The story concludes in Always Forever. The world we knew has been radically altered, with the end of government, and a breakdown of law and order. Society is being redefined, with small communities taking care of their own needs. The five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons have proved themselves to be more than Fragile Creatures, as the Golden Ones refer to humanity. But their group is broken and scattered, in the wake of a serious defeat. More than ever, Church needs powerful allies. However, in order for him to stand any chance of enlisting the aid of Golden Ones against the coming Night Walker carnage, Church must first rid himself of Fomorii corruption. To do this, he has to travel to the fabled home of the Gods, known in legend as the Western Isles.

It is on this journey that we learn more about the long lives, and social order, of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, their relationship with time, and the truth of what part Niamh has played in Church’s life. Church and Ruth board the fabulous Fey vessel, Wave Sweeper, which is something like a floating Tardis: bigger on the inside than it looks from without. On its decks we encounter all manner of supernatural creatures:  the Walpurgis, Will o’ the wisp and Afanc, to name but a few. There’s even time for a whodunit sub-plot, when one of the Golden Ones is murdered. Meanwhile, other members of Church’s band are involved with their own adventures, most notably Tom and Ryan, who have to contend with the evil and sadistic Tuatha Dé Dannan Queen of Heart’s Desire, in the Court of the Yearning Heart. It was the Queen who, in the distant past, captured and remade Tom, literally taking him apart and rebuilding him for fun. Now it’s the turn of Ryan Veitch.

In the course of The Age of Misrule, the characters experience loss, redemption, love, honour, friendship, guilt, change and rebirth. This is the glue that holds the vast story together, making us care for the characters. Their interactions, conversations and distinctly British frames of reference turn them into friends we’ve never met. Church and his companions take memorable forays into otherworldly territories, but the main plot is always returned to what’s left of their ravaged homeland. The Golden Ones and Fomorii are equally well drawn, making their actions human enough for us to understand, but never so close that we forget how different they really are. The end result is a deadly bright clash of cultures, which I have no hesitation in calling seminal dark fantasy.

(Gollancz, 1999; Pyr, 1999)
(Gollancz, 2000; Pyr, 2000)
(Gollancz, 2001 ; Pyr,2001)

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