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World's End
Mark Chadbourn
Orion Gollancz, 422 pages

Jon Sullivan
World's End
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.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

Horror author Mark Chadbourn turns his hand excitingly to fantasy in World's End, first volume in The Age of Misrule series.

Jack Churchill is an archaeologist who has allowed his grief at the suicide of his girlfriend to bring his life to a halt. Ruth Gallagher is a lawyer whose practical nature and career success hide a host of inner uncertainties. They're brought together one night under a bridge in London by their mutual desire to help the victim of a mugging. Except that this is no ordinary mugging. The attacker isn't a human criminal, but a demonic creature so physically and spiritually hideous that looking into its face causes both Ruth and Church to lose consciousness.

Neither wants to deal with this bizarre experience, but they can't leave it alone, either. At first hesitantly, and then with more purpose, they set out to discover what really happened under the bridge. What they learn turns their lives inside out. The demon -- a being that all their belief and all their socialization tells them should not exist -- is real. And it's not the only one out there. The ordinary, rational world they thought they knew is an illusion: there's something horrifying on the other side, and it is breaking through.

When Church receives an e-mail message from a woman named Laura duSantiago, who says she has important information for them, he and Ruth set out to meet her. On the way, they're ambushed by creatures resembling the one they saw under the bridge. They're rescued, improbably, by an aging hippie named Tom. Tom, it quickly becomes clear, is more than he seems. For one thing, he claims to know what's going on. The Age of Reason has passed, he tells Ruth and Church; a new age of myth and magic is dawning. Technology is dying, and the gods and monsters that walked the world in ancient days are coming back. Unfortunately, the monsters have managed, through treachery, to imprison the gods, and now plan to take over the world. Unless the gods are freed, the forces of darkness will consume the earth, and human beings will become a race of slaves.

It turns out that Ruth, Church, and three others (Laura, the damaged, angry woman who sent the e-mail; Veitch, a petty criminal with a tormented conscience; and Shavi, a conflicted mystic) have a pivotal role to play in this struggle. Together, these five are the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, whose task it is to find four mystical artifacts from the dawn of time and use them to break the spell that holds the gods captive. If, that is, they can figure out where the artifacts are hidden, and elude the various in-fighting factions of the forces of darkness that want the artifacts for themselves.

World's End is an impressively researched book. Chadbourn calls on Neolithic archaeology, Celtic myth and its Christian interpolations, Arthurian legend, and British folklore to craft a complex supernatural structure for his story. His roots in horror serve him well: apart from a bit of mushy New Age magic vs. technology stuff, there's a dark edge to his vision that sets World's End apart from your average Celtic fantasy yarn. Chadbourn's gods, the Danann of Celtic legend, are as bright and beautiful as their enemies, the Fomorii, are dark and hideous -- and every bit as terrifying. They care no more for humanity than the Fomorii do; the Brothers and Sisters of Dragons must ally with them only because the alternative is worse. This emphasis on the alienness of power, on the savage otherness of the supernatural world, is reminiscent of Alan Garner (the highest compliment I can pay to someone working in this mythic mode).

Chadbourn handles characterization with a skill and depth not always found in series fantasy. The Brothers and Sisters of Dragons are damaged people, with serious weaknesses and personality problems. To succeed in their task, they must learn to set aside the selfishness of their individual pain and work as a group -- a personal quest that parallels the supernatural one, and is equally important. But, thrown together by fate rather than choice, they don't trust one another very much, or even like one another. Chadbourn does an excellent job of portraying these prickly relationships, drawing sympathetic portraits of not-wholly-likeable people as they painfully feel their way toward true fellowship. He grapples convincingly not just with the obvious emotional aspects of the story, such as the characters' fear and horror at the life-threatening situations they face, but with a range of tough issues that writers of this sort of fiction often leave aside: the difficulty of accepting the emergence of the supernatural into the ordinary world, the sense of bereavement and dislocation this produces, the loneliness of knowing a truth no one else even suspects.

Necessarily in this kind of book, there's a somewhat repetitive run/find/hide/run structure to the plot. In a novel less well-crafted, this might become dull; but Chadbourn's careful balance of action, character development, mystery, and revelation makes World's End a thoroughly gripping read. He doesn't abandon his readers on the edge of a cliff, either: the ending is a real ending, with important issues resolved and major plot threads tied up. It's clear there's much more to come, though, and I for one will be waiting impatiently for the next installment.

Chadbourn's books aren't published outside the UK, which means that people in other countries may have trouble getting hold of them. Hopefully this is a situation that will soon be remedied. This talented author deserves a much wider readership.

Copyright © 2000 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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