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Jack of Ravens: Kingdom of the Serpent Book One

by Mark Chadbourn

(Orion, £10.99, 374 pages, trade paperback, also available in hardback priced £17.99, published 20 July 2006.)

Review by Nick Jackson

cover scanA fantasy quest with a cast of thousands which leaps from one time period to the next with astonishing alacrity.

The story opens in Iron Age Cornwall where the eponymous hero establishes his reputation as a giant-killer wielding a mysterious sword. It turns out that Jack is just an ordinary 21st century bloke who has blundered into the Iron Age through a time warp and has lost a chunk of his memory. His first dilemma is to rid himself of a spider-shaped implant, which is slowly sapping his willpower.

After a drug-induced journey to an ancient source of spiritual energy he becomes the embodiment of the Pendragon spirit and forms the five-part brother/sisterhood of the Quincunx - a band of warriors who ride around destroying monsters and generally putting the world to rights. The first section of the book sets the tone and pace of the book: it's a swashbuckling rampage from one feat of death-defying bravado to the next. Chadbourn piles on the mytho-historical details and slots in a host of flamboyant bit-part characters who glitter through a few scenes before being dismembered by some new force of evil. Jack is pursued by a series of beautiful women but he's not to be diverted from his main quest, which is to return to his 21st century girlfriend, Ruth.

Chadbourn evokes a rich fantasy world, criss-crossed by ley-lines and populated by gods and monsters plucked from mythology. Symbolic weaponry and talismans proliferate: swords, lamps and a crystal skull are gained and lost; the forces of dark and light are pitted against each other in a series of skirmishes of escalating intensity.

Yet, Chadbourn has a way of filling up his pages with a swirl of visual impressions and action sequences that preclude any serious engagement with his main character's predicament: there is never any doubt as to the survival of Jack. Neither is the author interested in the niceties of literary style; his fast-moving plot and cut-to-the-chase sequences do not lend themselves to profound characterisation or nuanced descriptions. At times, however, the writing can get a little plodding, with sentences like: "Church, Lucia, Aula, Secullian and Joseph were shocked by the ferocity of the battle along the front line..." The vivid and gory descriptions of the battle which follow, make such sentences redundant. After a description of a murder we get: "Church was rooted in shock at the brutality he had witnessed..." And, in describing a tortuous journey into catacombs below the Thames, the author feels compelled to remind us that it's 'oppressive' and 'claustrophobic'. Chadbourn should trust more to the power of his writing to evoke moods and settings rather than spelling it out for his reader.

But, stylistic nit-picking aside, Chadbourn moves his characters with admirable swiftness through Iron Age, Tudor and Victorian times; from London during the Blitz to San Francisco at the height of flower power. The story culminates in 21st century Cornwall in a battle between the forces of good in the shape of his hero, Jack, together with a gigantic serpent and the forces of evil embodied by the Army of Ten Billion Spiders. The hero is left in possession of a magic sword and the warning: "Dark times lie ahead... you'll need [the sword] for what is to come..." - I should say a trilogy at least!

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