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The Burning Man
Mark Chadbourn
Gollancz, 340 pages

The Burning Man
Mark Chadbourn
Mark Chadbourn's writing career began in 1990 when his first published short story won the Best New Author award in Fear magazine. His first novel, Underground, was followed by Nocturne (nominated for British Fantasy Society Award for Best Novel), The Eternal, and Scissorman. He has also written a non-fiction study of the paranormal, Testimony.

Mark Chadbourn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Jack of Ravens
SF Site Review: The Hounds of Avalon
SF Site Interview: Mark Chadbourn
SF Site Review: The Hounds of Avalon
SF Site Review: The Age Of Misrule
SF Site Review: The Queen of Sinister
SF Site Review: The Devil In Green
SF Site Review: World's End

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil


'Church looked from Hunter to Laura, and saw Ruth instead. "Take her. This isn't just about saving the whole universe. Some things are more important than that."'
When he's on form, there is no one writing today that can do urban gritty magic as well as Mark Chadbourn, and this book is very much on form, in terms of its action, exciting storytelling and sheer force. The Burning Man is the penultimate book of a nine book series, and something I'd describe as a lightning rod for the author's barbed dark fantasy. In addition to his favoured base of Celtic mythology, we also get samplings of Norse, Chinese and Egyptian deities, some portrayed in refreshingly different ways to the norm. There's a healthy dollop of otherworldly adventure, as members of the extended Brothers and Sisters of Dragons team cross over to the Bright Lands, including some major changes for the Golden Ones. The one downside of this downhill racer pacing is that it leaves very little room for the haunting lulls, which have been such a vital part of his earlier works. The Burning Man is listed as book two of the series, but is actually book eight in the author's longer sequence. It would be very confusing if read as a stand-alone title. Ideally, therefore, newcomers should begin with Chadbourn's Age of Misrule series, continue with his Dark Age trilogy, and fit in Jack of Ravens before starting this one. Doing so is the only way to acquire the depth of knowledge needed to understand the subtleties and context of what happens here. Without that knowledge, The Burning Man is still a whole lot of fun, but is effectively reduced to an action movie on paper.

Following on from Jack Churchill's journey across time to the modern world, and Ruth, the woman he loves, we find that the entire world is under something called the Mundane Spell. This is one of Chadbourn's cleverest inventions, because it's easy for readers to get a sense that, somehow, it might be true. Created by the Void, the Mundane Spell is what keeps humanity focussed on the greed for gold, endless toil, crushing religious doctrines, and lives that are free only to serve the almighty system. Effectively, humanity is in thrall to something that stops us from ever reaching out potential. Both individually and as a species. In order to break the spell and advance the cause of Existence, Churchill and his small band must locate two keys, both of which are living people. One of whom has the power to create, the other the power to destroy. Yin and Yang, dark and light, good and evil. The patterns always repeat, and Chadbourn ensures we have an interesting time while pondering this concept. The living keys are hidden, of course, somewhere among the world's population, and the search for them awakens old gods. These deities react in different ways to the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, as they make their way around the world with no choice but to trespass into areas the gods consider to be their Great Dominions. Running parallel with the search are the interpersonal relationships, and group dynamics, between the various Brothers and Sisters of Dragons. The end result is a story which combines a Grimmesque fairy tale with Gothic horror, bitter sweet romance, and the techno-bleakness of urban decay.

This time around, the story is tighter, and more sharply focussed than the enthusiastic sprawl of the previous book. Even so, Chadbourn packs in an incredible amount. We discover what became of the massed Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, saved from the traitor, Ryan Veitch. There's a major revelation as to the connection between Church and his nemesis, the Libertarian. A dark and innovative form of emergency transport, known as the Last Train, is used to maximum effect. The eternal triangle between Veitch, Ruth and Church takes a new twist. We get a series of testosterone charged scenes between Church and Veitch, waving their magical swords, and including what I took to be a nod to Moorcock's Stormbringer and Mournblade encounters. There's also a noteworthy and rather nasty scene involving Rhiannon, a tortured and imprisoned member of the Golden Ones. Best of all, for me, was an intensely satisfying sequence, where justice finally catches up with another, utterly immoral magical character, whose activities throughout Chadbourn's previous books have been particularly unpleasant.

There are a few minor negatives. Mostly, the Libertarian, who was never quite as convincing an arch villain as he could have been. Why? I can't quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it's because we don't get to know enough about him and his personal motivations. However, there are indications of a purpose in this vagueness, and I trust that all will finally be revealed in the last book, Destroyer of Worlds. Also, I am still unsure as to why this series is subtitled Kingdom of the Serpent, when the enemy is the Void and its agents are the Army of Ten Billion Spiders! These niggles aside, when I look at what the author has created in his trilogy of trilogies, as opposed to the endless stream of fantasy-by-numbers spewing from the usual suspects, I am reminded of how the Sex Pistols kicked rock'n'roll stagnation where it hurts. With that in mind I say, toss out the twaddle, here comes Mark Chadbourn!

Copyright © 2008 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at

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