Jack of Ravens is an ambitious book. This fast-moving adventure tale trawls a time period from the Iron Age until the present day, and pulls in a bursting net of characters—historical and mythical—from ancient Rome, Renaissance Europe, the Lost Colony in America, Victorian London, Haight-Ashbury, Vietnam, and Woodstock. We meet Emperor Maximian's son Maxentius, John Dee, Timothy Leary, Virginia Dare, Thomas the Rhymer, Loki, Apollo, Lugh, Janus, Puck, the Green Man, the Tuatha de Danann, and Victorian urban legend Spring-heeled Jack, in addition to the fictional characters who are the main players in the story. The novel overflows, spilling mystical concepts, conspiracies, time travel paradoxes, and metaphysical conundrums across two millennia.
The action begins with Jack Churchill, nicknamed Church, a modern man who finds himself in ancient Cornwall with no memories of the events that preceded his transportation to this distant time. He carries the sword of the Celtic god Nuada. He soon learns that he is one of five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, mortals who carry the Pendragon Spirit that makes them champions of existence. And all of the Pendragon Spirit's champions are engaged in an epic struggle against the forces of Anti-Life, the Army of Ten Billion Spiders. Church, and a good many other characters in this story, appeared earlier in Mark Chadbourn's two previous trilogies, The Age of Misrule (1999—2001) and The Dark Age (2002—2005). These works also explored the themes that are seen in Jack of Ravens—the human world in conflict with Faerie, and Existence opposed to the Void.
Without knowledge of why he has been hurled into the past, Church is a befuddled hero who has a nebulous, at best, sense of purpose—he is guided by hints and pushes from other forces that he often does not comprehend, and he has little understanding of what specifically he should do. The novel succeeds best in its creation of incident and action. There are frequent alarums and excursions between Church and his allies and the many-faced antagonists, and the story breaks easily into smaller pieces of action, suitable for quick reading. The reader may, however, acutely feel the absence of a sense of purpose in the story—for, when the hero lacks this sense, the reader also does.
Chadbourn's writing, while capable, can at times be clunky or thoughtless. Surely he should have noticed something wrong with "Feeling invigorated, Church slumped down at the foot of one of the stones" (p. 127). And he too often tries to evoke emotion with barren description of feeling that the reader cannot share: "His grief coalesced into a physical pain in his chest" (p. 53). Sometimes, though, he creates a striking image, such as the sudden appearance of a giant, a description that is satisfyingly concrete and vivid:
Looming above him, the top half lost in the reaches of the mist, was a giant figure that Church estimated must have been at least twenty-five feet tall. Yet it was not, by any description, a man. The legs that shook the ground were made of branches, rocks, creepers and clumps of gorse. With a sound like the ground being torn open, the thing bent down rapidly and Church was confronted by a face constructed from a similar jumble of organic and inorganic matter. (p. 3)
Not much is resolved at the conclusion of Jack of Ravens, which is identified as Book One of The Kingdom of the Serpent. A head's-up is therefore warranted—if you find your reading pleasure in a long immersion in a story and mourn when you come to the end, you will be pleased that you can anticipate still more to come. If, however, you want a sense of purpose in a story and look forward to a climax and resolution of conflicts, you will not find them here. For all its abundance of characters, settings, and action, Jack of Ravens is parsimonious in its rewards.
Donna Royston lives and writes in Fairfax, Virginia. Fantasy, with its grand adventure and themes, is her literary love. She has written a novel, The Unmaking, which is in search of a publisher.
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