|Enter the Dark Age: An Interview with Mark Chadbourn
|conducted by Sandy Auden
A Mark Chadbourn novel always delivers more than expected. For those willing to look between the lines, there is wealth of
abstract symbolism and social comment to be discovered, as well as a multitude of profound philosophical insights. This depth
has always been present in Chadbourn's novels -- augmenting his earlier Age of Misrule series, and continuing
to underpin his new series, The Dark Age.
Set in the same universe as the Age of Misrule series, The Dark Age opens with Devil In Green and picks up events nearly two years after the return of the Old Gods with a completely new set of characters. Mallory is heading for Salisbury cathedral to become one of the new Knights Templar when he rescues Miller, an idealistic young man also hoping to join the Knights. Together they start their grueling training but it's not long before they notice that the Templar Elite Guard appear to be running some dubious missions and the religious leaders are turning somewhat fanatical. When the cathedral is besieged by hordes of supernatural creatures, their food supplies start to dwindle and the Christians are forced to turn to the only people who can help them -- the Pagan encampment just outside their gates...
Devil In Green challenges the reader's religious beliefs at a very fundamental level. It's not a book that is likely to be found on the Pope's bedside table and it's not difficult to assume, at least superficially, that Chadbourn is criticizing Christianity in favour of Paganism...
But when religions are filtered through human interpretation they often turn into the opposite of what they profess, filled with repression, bigotry, deceit, lies and corruption. The problem is that people who want power -- whether it is in politics, business, or in this case, religion -- should not be allowed to have power, because the simple act of wanting it is a signifier of a particular pathology that works against the betterment of humanity.
We all know on a very fundamental level that the solutions to big problems are relatively easy. We say, 'I can't understand why they don't do this, or that. The world would be so much better'. But people who seek power will never do that because they have a different agenda to the rest of us. Me, I'm behind the Basques, who choose their leaders by public lottery, like jury service!
Without the Pope, the Priests, the Archbishops, the Imans and Rabbis, religions would be a good thing. Unfortunately, we're stuck with a bunch of people who think they can translate their particular supreme being's Word for the rabble. And look how many times they've got it wrong -- with terrifying results -- in the history of civilisation. One of the points I was making in the book, is that paganism does not have leaders. As a religion, it all comes down to individual interpretation so there's no base for the power-seekers to pervert it.
And I don't bother about offending anyone with my opinions on this. If people don't like what I write, no one's going to force them to read it. I always attempt to write the 'truth.' It's a particularly nebulous concept, but in my terms, it means that I don't do propaganda. I attempt to paint things the way I see them, using historical fact.
Now governments, businesses and religions are in the market for propaganda, it's the essence of what they do. Readers should make their own judgments based on that principle. But I will say that any religion that can't take dissenting or controversial views of its conduct can't be a very strong religion.
One area of historical fact that Chadbourn gives some particular emphasis is the consumption of Paganism into Christianity.
All of these themes are, once more, slotted into a complex story structure but Chadbourn is frugal with the details.
Coating this complex structure is a rich layer of Celtic history. There are numerous references to facts and mythology through out the novel and it can be fun trying to spot them.
And balancing this richness are some pretty bleak experiences.
The second book of Dark Age is The Queen of Sinister, set in a Britain where magic has returned to the world, and modern
technology has become useless. A new order of good and evil has taken hold of the country -- thugs rule the urban
landscapes, terrible creatures terrorize the villages with their blood-lust. And now humanity has another enemy: a plague
is spreading across the country and once contracted, death swiftly follows. Dr Caitlin Shepherd learns that the cure
for the plague lies beyond the veil, in the mystical Celtic Otherworld. Driven by grief and pursued by the fearsome
Lament Brood, she enters the world of dreams and nightmare to petition the Gods to help save humanity. But there are
other things in motion that she doesn't know about yet, and any one of them could bring about her death.
Again, the duality aspects of Chadbourn's writing follows through into The Queen of Sinister.
Again, the duality aspects of Chadbourn's writing follows through into The Queen of Sinister.
This duality is merely one strand of a plot that flies along at a rapid pace. There are no long descriptions to endure and no obvious info-dumps. Words have been selected carefully to produce their vivid images but how does Chadbourn achieve this sleekness of phrase?
Even if you feel it's the best writing you've done, you have to be brutal if it's not serving the story. I think that harks back to my days as a journalist where you're always taught not to waste words. Journalism is about precision and an understanding of character -- because that job is about much more than just writing; it's about getting into the heads of people and finding out what they really think as opposed to what they say. Journalistic training helps you to edit yourself, and to use as few words as possible to get where you're trying to go.
Then there's my film and TV writing work. That gives me the ability to think visually and shape stories efficiently. Film and TV programs never ramble and are rarely padded, unlike many books. Again, you have to be very precise in your use of words because there is so little time available -- every second is valuable and needs to work towards telling the story or defining the character. When I approach a novel, it plays out in my mind like a movie and I attempt to break it down into acts and scenes to get a structure that works. When the first draft is done, the brutalist, hard-nosed journalist comes to the fore and I hack out anything that's wool-gathering or irrelevant. Authors love their worlds so much they'd happily tell you every aspect of them, but that will, sooner or later, make for a dull experience for the reader.
And a lot has to do with passion for what I'm doing. I immerse myself fully in my story -- I'm there with the characters, in the thick of battle or trying to uncover a mystery. When you reach that state, you delve into the deepest parts of your subconscious and ideas come hard and fast. Some of them are so left-field you'd never have found them otherwise, and you really don't want to lose them so you try to get them on-screen as quickly as you can. That tends to keep the story throbbing along.
The Queen of Sinister is Chadbourn's first novel to spend so much of the story throbbing along in the Otherworld rather than in Britain.
The non-pretentious reason for using Otherworld so much is that the previous books I've written were predominantly set in our contemporary world and I relished the opportunity to do something completely different, create new landscapes and take full advantage of what fantasy fiction has to offer -- no barriers.
The pretentious reason is that the Otherworld is symbolic of Caitlin's fracturing state of mind. It's a place where rationality and reason do not exist, where madness and chaos is the norm.
All of my Otherworld has been dreamed up by me and I have a very clear idea of its topography. But the Otherworld in myth is -- pretension alarm again -- symbolic of the subconscious, as I've said, the flip side of reason. The subconscious is the place where all those Jungian archetypes live, and what I wanted to do with my Otherworld was give it lots of archetypal settings -- the primeval forest, the great river -- which is why it probably seems new and unusual and familiar at the same time.
As well as landscape, The Queen of Sinister has a strong focus on character too. Each person goes through five shades of hell and high water before the end of the book, and those who survive are changed by it.
We are all changed by the things we go through in our lives, whether its the mundane fact of starting a new job with new people, or the big things like the death of a loved one, or the birth of a child. Once you've passed through that experience you're not the person you were before and can never go back to being that person. If characters are not altered in a story, the book is not being 'true' in any real sense and, personally, I think it's just bad writing.
It's unusual for the character of a Sister of Dragons to be so deeply flawed. What themes is he trying to explore using this premise?
The bad things continue to plague the characters in the third book of the series too. In fact, in Hounds of
Avalon, events get even worse. We finally meet the remaining two people that make up the mystical five Brothers
and Sisters of Dragons. Their role is to save the world from a creature who is the very essence of anti-life, the
opposite of Existence, the Void.
As the Void's minions sweep across the UK destroying all life in their path, the British government has retreated to
Oxford to await the final battle. In a desperate attempt to find an effective weapon against the dark hordes, the
government seek out and capture Mallory, a Brother of Dragons but accidentally shoot and abandon Mallory's partner,
Sophie, a Sister of Dragons. Helped by someone from the government ranks, Mallory escapes to search for the first
group of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, seeking their waning powers to fill the gap in their ranks and help them
face the end of Existence.
Not happy with creating a host of new characters for Hounds, Chadbourn has also roped in several characters
from the original Age of Misrule series.
As the Void's minions sweep across the UK destroying all life in their path, the British government has retreated to Oxford to await the final battle. In a desperate attempt to find an effective weapon against the dark hordes, the government seek out and capture Mallory, a Brother of Dragons but accidentally shoot and abandon Mallory's partner, Sophie, a Sister of Dragons. Helped by someone from the government ranks, Mallory escapes to search for the first group of Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, seeking their waning powers to fill the gap in their ranks and help them face the end of Existence.
Not happy with creating a host of new characters for Hounds, Chadbourn has also roped in several characters from the original Age of Misrule series.
The two main characters in Hounds are civil servant Hal and soldier Hunter. Hal is certainly not your stereo-typical hero but Hunter manages to fulfill that role with a high level of aplomb.
Our history books are filled with tales of kings and politicians who are supposed to be the heroes of our culture... like Winston Churchill, for instance. Well, frankly, he wasn't out getting limbs blown off. The real heroes were the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers who had to give up their regular mundane lives and families to do the right thing, whatever the cost.
Where Religion got a good kicking previously, in Hounds the Government takes both barrels.
Religion and politics are essentially control systems. To operate, both demand a wide, middle-ground which is deemed 'the norm.' If you are on the fringes for whatever reason -- political thought, spiritual belief -- those systems will attempt to subsume you, and if they fail they will attempt to destroy you. I feel like an outsider most of the time so naturally I'm not going to be comfortable with either of those control systems.
On a more general note, the title of this sequence is The Dark Age, and the machinations of Church and State were big in our own dark age. The Queen of Sinister is about disease, or plague, which was the other big concern of that time.
This is yet another fact that illustrates how hard Chadbourn has planned to create stories with many layers. Plans which are decided well in advance...
Those next three books form The Kingdom of the Serpent series.
The first book is called Jack of Ravens. The central hero, a modern day man, walks out of the mist into the Celtic landscape 2,300 years ago. He doesn't know how he got there. All he wants to do is get home to the love of his life. But there's an evil force in our modern times that will do anything to stop him returning. My publisher calls it 'massively ambitious,' which probably means they expect me to crash and burn. They also call it 'the ultimate fantasy' which is kind of nice, and kind of a lot to live up to.
Jack of Ravens is due out from Gollancz in 2006.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; a diligent interviewer/reviewer for The Third Alternative and Interzone magazines and a combination of all the above for The Alien Online. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. Visit her site at The Auden Interviews.
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