All over the country, the ancient gods of Celtic myth are returning to the land from which they were banished millennia ago. Following in their footsteps are creatures of folklore: the Fabulous Beasts, shapeshifters and Night Walkers. Five flawed humans, named as Brothers and Sisters of Dragons but barely understanding what that entails, are drawn together on a desperate quest: to find four magickal talismans needed to fight the powers of old. As time draws short and the modern world falls into twilight, humanity looks set to be swept away in the terrible dawning of a new Dark Age.
This gripping mytho-fantasy isn’t set in some mythological land – this is Britain complete with motorways and actual cities, towns and villages with recognisable landmarks used as the backdrop to this quest. And don’t let the slightly high-flown language and capitals on the back cover blurb fool you into thinking that this is some polite version of a knightly tale brought into a contemporary setting. Chadbourn produces a couple of set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror book with his ability to depict chilling evil in all its bloody violence. However, this isn’t some gratuitous gorefest. As we follow the chosen five protagonists, all with troubled pasts, we get to know them and Tom, their reluctant, cranky guide. In fact, cranky sums up the relationship between these five different personalities as they careen across the British countryside in a desperate search for these ancient talismans, not even fully convinced that what they’re doing makes sense. It is in sharp and refreshing contrast to all those epic tales where everyone was courageously jolly.
There is more than a nod to the past in this tale, though. Even the name of the main protagonist – Jack Churchill – reprises echoes of another time in Britain’s history when her people were fighting for their existence. And that is the other main character in this story – the British landscape. I didn’t have to read that Chadbourn had spent six months tracing the best route for his characters to take from the south coast, right up into Scotland – it sings out of the pages in a hundred details that help depict the story in three-dimensional clarity.
Britain is drenched in history – for millennia our ancestors have roamed, settled, farmed and worshipped here. Placenames, pre-Roman roads, forts and settlements dot the completely manmade landscape. And in Chadbourn, we have an author whose detailed knowledge of the past has used this amazing backdrop to wonderful effect. The only criticism I could find was from an American who commented that he would have preferred some of the action to have been set in another country – which would have had the effect of shifting The Grapes of Wrath to Hawaii.
What Chadbourn doesn’t do with his vivid scene setting and in-depth mining of the Celtic myths, is hold up the action. This plot takes a bit of time to get going, as we learn about Ruth and Jack and what is driving them, but once we have the electrifying scene on the M4 depicted on the front cover, the pace goes on gathering momentum as the stakes are steadily raised.
As you might have guessed by now, I really enjoyed this one. It was wonderful to be able to so clearly imagine the different backdrops to the action with the braiding of Celtic mystery through the modern landscape, shot through with dread and fear. I’ll have to now track down the next two in the trilogy…