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Book Review: World’s End by Mark Chadbourn

# Genre: Fantasy, Apocalyptic Fiction
# Paperback: 415 pages
# Publisher: Pyr
# Publication Date: May 26, 2009
# ISBN-10: 159102739X
# ISBN-13: 978-1591027393
# Author Website: http://www.markchadbourn.net/

British author Mark Chadbourn describes his Age of Misrule series as an “offer [of] something distinctive, an extra choice for the reader. What I’ve done with Age of Misrule is to take certain fantasy tropes and try to consider them in a different way. There are two stories going on here – a high adventure, foot-to-the-pedal yarn on the surface, and a secondary one below the surface for those who want to delve. If you just want a fun ride around Britain’s mythic landscape, you get it. If you’re interested in symbolism, Jungian archetypes, and a “quest for meaning”… you can have that too. “(from an email to potential reviewers).

And different it certainly is. A reader’s expectation might be that World’s End, the first novel in this dark fantasy trilogy, is nothing more than a Celtic version of Terry Brooks’ Shannara series or Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence. It does have a lot in common with Brooks’ story of a modern world that slowly becomes more and more rife with magic. The Shannara series begins as an urban fantasy, moves into pure epic fantasy, and ends in something akin to steampunk.

World’s End is something of an urban fantasy, though it ends with hints of an epic fantasy hiding in the next volume. In the story, five heroes (who until now were just average people living in the 21st century) must find five artifacts in order to free the Tuatha De Dannan, a race long banished from the world, so that they can fight the Fomorrii, an evil race bent on the destruction of all that is good. The setting is modern Britain, and the plot is a race against time, as all the artifacts must be found and a ritual performed to release the Tuatha De Dannan from their imprisonment before Beltane, just scant weeks away, even as technology slowly breaks down.

The story, while having good and evil, does not allow itself to be painted simply in black and white, nor is it simply an apocalyptic tale with Celtic elements. Chadbourn is writing a spiritual quest novel. This quest is set over and against the modern world, and as technology slowly dies, the ancient beliefs are brought more and more the forefront. But great things happen when Church, the primary protagonist realizes that “Magic was alive, and it wasn’t just the providence of the dark side; good people could make a difference too, lighting a beacon that would shine out in the coming night.”

World’s End is full of high adventure as the five companions brave the Wild Hunt and the evil machinations of the Fomorrii. The story covers the length and breadth of the British isle, and draws in a great deal of its mythos to build the narrative. The plot barely pauses for breath, and the scenes and chapters are written at a brisk, clipped pace that heightens the send of danger and speed of the narrative. This is a thrilling novel in its breakneck plot speed.

But the story fails in one respect. The characters, while interesting, are developed by proclamation rather than subtle growth. Chadbourn has a way of simply stating that a character has learned something new or become someone a little bit different, rather than allowing the reader to infer the changes in character from the text. The end result is to make it seem as if Chadbourn is unsure if the reader quite gets that the characters are changing both towards the magical environment they find themselves in and in their relationships to each other. This causes the characters to seem rather flat (though they are not), as if they simply move instantly from one stage of their development to another instantly, rather than through the slow process that is more like the truth of the human experience.

The story is, however, so exciting and riveting that that the abrupt changes in character are quite easily glossed over. Chadbourn writes a tale that twists the tropes of fantasy into something unrecognizable. The chase to find the artifacts has some of the feel of The Da Vinci Code as the companions race to unlock the clues. And the hideous descriptions of the Fomorrii are so well-wrought that they will turn the reader’s stomach almost as much as they do the characters. I found this story to be unusual, and different, not something that fits into any of the holes fantasy has traditionally cute for its ilk, and one I recommend if you are looking for something in genre, but completely different from what you might usually expect. World’s End is a grand adventure, having as much in common with the myths and legends it twists to its own ends as it does the best of modern fantasy.