One of the things I admire most about British Fantasy Award-winning novelist, Mark Chadbourn’s writing is how fully realized the worlds of his books are. Chadbourn flawlessly melds myth, fantasy, fairy tale, legend, and allegory with real-world atmospheres and never fails to consider the countless potential impacts on the people and the planet that would result were these events to actually occur–on an emotional level, a philosophical level, a religious level, an economic level, a political level, a technological level, and so on and so forth. Although he is primarily a fantasist (with shades of horror), he weaves his flights of fancy into verisimilitudinous settings with the meticulousness of a hard science-fiction writer. It is rare to find anyone writing in fantasy today who knows quite so much about mythology, religion, philosophy, history, and the thematic links between the four, and who can use his vast knowledge to craft such vital, compelling stories that entertain enormously while surreptitiously compelling the reader to learn more about these topics without a hint of pretentiousness or condescension.
In his Age of Misrule series, composed of World’s End, Darkest Hour, and Always Forever, Chadbourn demolished the modern world as we know it, positing what would happen if the gods and legends of ancient times returned to reassert dominion over our realm. People of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century era suddenly found themselves stripped of all of the societal and technological comforts of their everyday life and besieged by gods and monsters they had previously believed to be strictly imaginary. Through this brilliant series, Chadbourn explored all of the aforementioned effects that such revelatory, world-shattering events would have, while simultaneously presenting the reader with an exhilarating, suspenseful, and moving tale that transplanted the plot of a Tolkienesque, secondary world quest novel into a modern day gone suddenly primitive.
The Devil in Green, newly released from Pyr Books in the United States, is the first in The Dark Age trilogy, the second of three trilogies set in Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule universe, a number of years after the events of the first. Whereas Age of Misrule was an epic, sweeping saga that took its enormous cast of characters all over Britain, The Devil in Green is a far more intimate affair that maintains a tight focus on a smaller number of protagonists, rarely if ever leaving the point-of-view of Mallory, a well-educated and cynical man who nevertheless decides to join a new rebirth of the Knights Templar movement, in order to be granted a relatively safe place to live and food to eat. The novel very purposely creates a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere within the Knights’ compound that grows increasingly uncomfortable and oppressive as the story proceeds. It is a much darker work than Age of Misrule and often a very disturbing one.
In Age of Misrule, the characters are awestruck by the Tuatha Dé Danann and assume that it will lead the world to reevaluate their stances on religion. After all, isn’t it difficult to remain adamant in one’s core religious beliefs when suddenly and directly faced with proof that they are misguided at best, wrong at worst? Chadbourn, however, doesn’t allow events to proceed exactly as expected. While in a perfect world, these revelations might cause greater unity among mankind, his novels aren’t set in a perfect world, but our world, where even when confronted with certain truths, people often remain stubborn and polarized. Many people certainly have come to accept the world the way it now–meaning when The Devil in Green takes place–but others have felt a loss of faith. Some have come to cling to new gods. In a beautifully realized moment, Chadbourn depicts a few people praying to a shrine dedicated to George Clooney, a simple moment that says so much about human psychology and the deification of celebrity.
Meanwhile, the Church is desperately trying to retain its hold over its parishioners. The higher-ups have responded to the irrefutable appearance of magic in their world by spinning it in their favor. All of these returned presences are not gods at all, according to them, but the work of the Devil, who is bringing about the end days and attempting to damn people to Hell by swaying them from their beliefs through false images and evil practices. Over the course of the novel’s handful of months of story time, the centuries-long history of religious repression and oppression takes place in microcosm. Chadbourn incisively exposes the dark side of human nature that causes people to attack others in the name of their religion simply because these others process the same information the universe provides them with in a different way, and charts the inevitable progression from identifying certain actions as sinful to murdering those who sin to holding witchhunts and inquisitions among one’s own people in order to weed out evil. Historical echoes abound, from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust. If Lord of the Flies is an exploration of the savagery that exists within humanity that comes out as soon as civilization is stripped away, The Devil in Green is an exploration of what occurs when religion is added to that mix.
As one might glean from what I’ve said so far, The Devil in Green isn’t a light read but it is an important one, not only because it clearly sets up events for later in the trilogy but because it confronts the reader with uncomfortable truths, as well as fascinating information about the origins of numerous religious beliefs and how Christianity and Paganism are not as fundamentally different as the former might like to admit. Most significantly, however, it is also a superbly crafted exercise in mounting tension and suspense, as well as a deeply stirring character study of a hero who emerges from the shell of a man who had all but given up on life, and an evocative love story featuring witches, ghosts, dragons (or Fabulous Beasts), and even the Devil Himself–or some incarnation thereof. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book as a first introduction to Chadbourn’s work, particularly because it documents the aftermath of past events that inform this series a great deal, but for fans of Age of Misrule, it is both a fascinating return to and a different, darker perspective on its universe. I eagerly await the next installment in the series.