Last week I finally finished Mark Chadbourn’s The Devil’s Looking Glass, the third (and final) book in his Swords of Albion trilogy. Set in mid-16th century Elizabethan England, the Swords of Albion tells the story of England’s “greatest spy,” Will Swyfte. While the public at large reveres him as a hero against Spanish aggression, this is all an elaborate ruse put on by the crown as Swyfte and his cohorts battle against a much more sinister and dangerous foe: the Unseelie Court of the Fey.
I began reading the series at the recommendation of a friend. The first two of the series were good, but fell a bit shy of the greatness they aspired too. The Devil’s Looking Glass was no exception. In fact, while the third installment was certainly the most action packed and “weird fantasy” of the series, it was also the hardest to finish. It felt like it was full of speed bumps.
The story The Devil’s Looking Glass attempts to tell is quite ambitious. London is suffering under a terrible enchanted siege by the Unseelie Court while Swyfte and his coterie of spies race to rescue Dr. John Dee, alchemist and sorcerer who alone holds the key to protecting England from the otherworldly predations of the fey. Unfortunately, the doctor has fallen into madness under the influence of an enchanted mirror and has set off across the sea towards the New World. Ultimately, our journey takes us across the Atlantic to the otherworldly den of the Unseelie Court in a mad gambit to defeat them once and for all and tie up as many loose ends as we can along the way.
Ambitious. And therein lies the problem. To do justice to any one of the stories it presents, The Devil’s Looking Glass would have to be nearly three times as long. So the siege of London gets barely a chapter here or there, enough to tell the reader, “yeah, it’s bad.” Most of those times, it’s to remind the reader of some terrible secret the minister of spies is keeping from Will Swyfte (that pretty much everyone else in power seems to be aware of, coincidentally) – a secret that could drive the man to murder those he cherishes most. Without giving away too much, that terrible secret turns out to be pretty…uncomplicated, shall we say, as are the effects of its revelation. But hey, we get a big sword fight with the King of the Unseelie Court.
Speaking of which, there is never any mention of a Seelie Court of the fey. This was something I always found annoying about this whole series.
The novel really amps up the “weird” aspect of Will Swyfte’s world. From the terrifying mermaids to the glassy Sargasso Sea, to the bizarre defenses of the Unseelie fortress, the novel dips much deeper into the fantasy aspect of the series, though it still remains rooted in alternative history.
In the previous books, there has always been some historical event to provide a foundation and a backdrop to the events in the novel (The Silver Skull, for instance, featured the battle against the Spanish Armada), giving them a sort of secret history vibe. The Devil’s Looking Glass pitches all that for a race against time that doesn’t really feel that urgent. Our heroes are chasing Dee knowing that England is under siege by a force they cannot hope to match, but the story doesn’t give it that much weight. In fact, most of our heroes seem confident they will never return, giving their lives in the battle against the Unseelie or, in Will Swyfte’s case, uncovering darker, more personal mysteries. And frankly, if the characters are going to care so little about what’s going on at home, why should we, the readers?
By denying the book a terrestrial foe, say France or Spain as in the previous books, the world feels much more narrowly defined and two dimensional. Such a gross display of power by the Unseelie is not going to be answered by anyone else? This makes the events of the novel feel shallow. Again, if no one else is going to care…
The interpersonal conflicts feel a bit two dimensional too. None of them really resolve themselves. Sure, everyone has something of an “oh shit!” moment, but nothing that forces them to really reexamine themselves. The closest we get to that is the Earl of Launceston, who in addition to being a noble and a spy is a compassionless serial killer. But Launceston has known what he is since the first book. Ultimately, the sun goes down on Will Swyfte and the other characters much as it rose, with only one question of importance being answered. I don’t really expect hard-core character driven stories from genre fiction, but this time around Chadbourn doesn’t even seem to be trying. He’s just things off his outline as he goes.
And the threat of the Unseelie court? Likewise swept up with lukewarm satisfaction. Consider, if the fey live in a dimension where a decade or a century passes for each of our years, exactly how long can you hope to occupy them with even the best of intrigues. It’s a numbers game that doesn’t add up.
So there you have it. While at once the most ambitious book of the series, The Devil’s Looking Glass falls farthest from satisfaction. It never really delivers on its promise, and leaves this reader more satisfied with the effort of actually finishing the book than the conclusion of events. Two out of five stars from me.