Unsung Genre Heroes: Mark Chadbourn by Daniel Brown
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Every genre has its heroes; it goes without saying (even though I just said it) and each genre is quick to point to its own heroes when discussion arises on such matters.
I don't care about those writers.
The blockbusters and the hidden gems can both go and hang, for the length of this article at least. This is about the mid-lister, the journeyman (or woman) writer who toils away selling just enough copies without ever truly breaking big. The writers who turn out example after example of high quality work for far lesser rewards than the big guns and to unfairly ignored acclaim.
Today, we sing the praises of Mark Chadbourn.
Mark Chadbourn, born in the east midlands in 1960, is one of Britain's finest purveyors of fantasy. A former print journalist with a degree in economics, Mr. Chadbourn currently has sixteen novels to his name, along with numerous short stories, novellas, a foray into comic book format with his 2006 offering The Books of Shadows and a long stint writing for the BBC's perennial daytime soap opera Doctors; it might be fair to say “This bloke seems to be doing all right for himself, why is he being heralded as an Unsung Hero?” If you are wondering that, ask yourself how many of his novels you've read, how many of your friends read his work and how visible he is in bookshops. This piece seems a little more on target now, doesn't it?
Since the release of his first novel, Underground, in 1992, Mr. Chadbourn has been acknowledged by those in the know as one of the most reliably high quality fantasy writers working in the UK today, but it wasn't until his fourth novel, 1997's Scissorman, that he came to a slightly wider prominence. This was followed by the trilogy for which he's still most widely known, The Age of Misrule, a stunning achievement, which effortlessly marries contemporary fiction, high fantasy and horror. Since then, he's written two more trilogies set in the same universe, one of which explores the aftermath of modern society's war against the Old Magic and one which follows the main character from Age of Misrule, as well as the (currently) standalone Lord of Silence and a series of historical fantasy novels The Sword of Albion trilogy. All well received by critics, all loved by his small but fiercely loyal fanbase and all virtually invisible in bookshops after being out for a month or two.
While British writers such as Pratchett, Rowling, Gaiman and more recently Joe Abercrombie hoover up shelf space, mainstream articles about their successes and interviews with supplements or entertainment sections, Mark Chadbourn carries on as always, producing character driven, action packed novels that are able to thrill and terrify in equal measure. If the above praise for his work isn't enough to convince you that Mr. Chadbourn is the writer you're looking for, then let's look at his style in a little more detail.
From the very beginning of his fiction career, Mr. Chadbourn has written in clean, lyrical, contemporary prose. While comparisons are odious, if I was pushed to compare his work to another authorial style I would say he comes from the same school as Robert Holdstock, Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman. He relies far more on the simple power of his imagery to convey a sense of scale or wonder than on a furious barrage of adjectives, simile or overblown sentence structure. His sentences contain an almost blank verse rhythm, so that any emotion or atmosphere he wishes to elicit becomes a matter of lengthening or contracting his sentences, or subtle alterations in structure from one passage to another. He's also developed the nifty trick of staying almost completely internal to the character he's writing about, so that when he slips in a more visceral passage it shocks far more than you would expect from such comparatively tame description.
Speaking of characters, Mr. Chadbourn's are always well rounded and realistically flawed, sometimes deeply and damagingly so, to the point that as a reader it's almost impossible to predict with any certainty how a character will react to a situation or what impact an event, or even something as small as an idle conversation with someone else, will have on them. It would be fair to say that he specialises in creating people who are, to a certain extent, broken. It's rare that he hammers this point home with anything other than a character's actions and reactions, sometimes taking the credo of show don't tell to an extreme which can have you gnashing your teeth in frustration as someone you want to take the right course of action fails in a realistic and truthful fashion.
Most pleasingly, he allows his characters the room to learn from their mistakes slowly, if at all, and to become both better and worse people than they began as. He shows a refreshing willingness to forsake growth for mere true to life change. Even his epic heroes and heroines feel as real as the everyday schlub from a Tony Parsons or Jodie Picoult novel, which adds to their appeal, rather than diminishing it.
Thematically, Mr. Chadbourn is most often to be found treading the well worn, though never uninteresting, ground of heartbreak, grief, loss, isolation from society and the lack of deeply held beliefs, whether spiritual or secular, in modern society. His uncluttered prose, ability to draw a character intimately within a paragraph or two, sometimes even less, and habit of letting the character's actions speak for themselves means that often the thematic elements are subtle enough to only become apparent on rereading; something a lot of far more didactic writers could learn from.
It wouldn't be wrong to put Mark Chadbourn into that category of British writers whose subject matter can be summed up as “peculiar”, rather than outright weird; his work fits seamlessly alongside that of Kim Newman, Christopher Fowler, Neil Gaiman, Robert Holdstock, Diana Wynne Jones or Michael de Larrabeiti, although sometimes tending to a slightly more bloody and earthy tone than the others. Like the company he keeps, he writes fantasy with a strong horror tinge. He writes the wonder and awe of the magical, without ever forgetting the terror that underpins it. His immaculate research into the folklore and myth surrounding the fantastic elements he uses, ensures that no matter how removed from everyday life the supernatural elements he weaves into his stories are, they retain a primal appeal which touches the same part of lizard brain that the old tales he so obviously loves lived in.
The very definition of an often unfairly overlooked genre veteran, despite his award wins and nominations, any fantasy collection is enriched for having a few Chadbourn novels in it. With that being the case, where should a person begin going about introducing themselves to his work?
The Age of Misrule trilogy: The most obvious place to begin with his work is with his most high profile work so far. The tale of what happens when the Old Magic, as written about and told of in Celtic and Gaelic myth and folklore, comes back into the world, supplanting and rendering useless the science and technology which once pushed it to the edges of the world. A dark, emotional, character driven retelling of the classic quest tale, which at times veers into outright horror. Available as individual volumes or in an omnibus edition containing all three volumes.
Scissorman: A carefully woven, unsettling tale of the urban myth of the Scissorman. A thoroughly enjoyable example of the new wave of British fantasy-horror which came about in the late nineties, leaving behind the overcooked monsters of yore and tapping into the collective unease which surrounds urban legend, old wives' tales and childhood memory.
The Sword of Albion: The first volume of a trilogy, this is the kind of historical fantasy the phrase “rip-roaring” was invented to describe. A swashbuckling, fantasy-tinged, alternate history version of a spy novel set in Elizabethan times, with some nice retro-futurist touches that will appeal to the gadget lover in everyone.
Underground: If you can find a copy, this early horror novel is worth seeking out. When a spate of unexplained deaths occur in a coal mine, the investigation reveals an ancient evil reborn into the world. Short, sharp and brutally effective.
Lord of Silence: Currently a standalone, although one gets the impression sequels most certainly aren't ruled out, this is Mr. Chadbourn's first foray into true secondary world fantasy. Equal parts murder mystery and action thriller with some nice touches of horror blended in. A bit of a departure from his usual style and subject matter, a fast paced, thoroughly enjoyable fantasy novel.
You can find out more about Mark Chadbourn and his work at his own site as well.
Daniel Brown, Dan the Funky Scarecrow in comments, is the geekiest chav (or chavviest geek, if you prefer) you're ever likely to meet. Under-educated, under-paid, terminally under-ambitious and prone to wearing polo shirts, hoodies and baseball caps. You can find him on Twitter where he tweets lame jokes and general nonsense or at his own, infrequently updated, blog, where he posts lame jokes and general nonsense in a slightly longer format.