The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn (Sword of Albion: Book 2)

After his friend Kit Marlow is killed in a pub brawl, Will Swyfte makes it his mission to track down the killer and uncover the mysterious circumstances surrounding the playwright’s death. With the plague ravaging London and the Unseelie Court poised to strike their most vital blow yet, Swyfte becomes an enemy of the state and must work in a race against time to protect the Queen and deliver justice for his friend’s death.

The second novel in Mark Chadbourn’s Swords of Albion series is a perfect example of how fun historical fantasy can be. With a plot that’s the very definition of adventurous and prose that displays the perfect balance between characterisation and action heroism, The Scar-crow Men is a brilliantly fun romp that will have you gleefully asking all the right questions and basking in the ensuing answers.

This instalment surpasses its predecessor in more ways than one. Chadbourn makes much better use of his supporting characters this time around, spreading the action more evenly among Swyfte’s collaborators by way of Launceston, Carpenter, Nathaniel and newcomer Red Meg O’Shea who, although the token femme fatale, often surprises and makes for a worthy and charismatic new addition.

The pacing of the book is also steadier, maintaining a better balance between serious spy work (decoding ciphers and uncovering clues), hand-to-hand combat and touching moments of inner personal conflict. Stronger attention to this final point in The Scar-crow Men makes England’s Greatest Spy more accessible here than in The Sword of Albion, a point that is particularly well presented through his grief over the loss of his friend.

As the Fey and their relentless assault on humanity continues we are introduced to a new member of the true Enemy in Fabian, a figure who displays a sadistic mix of fascination, appreciation and disgust for humans. He adds another layer to the ever-mysterious Enemy here, preventing them from becoming predictable or monotonous.

There are both some heart-racing and heart-stopping moments in this novel including a Hannibal Lecture-like encounter between Will and a possessed Griffin Devereux, a nightmarish scene between Grace and another of the Queen’s ladies in waiting and a superbly cinematic face off on the roof of the Notre-Dame Cathedral.

If anything lets this story down, it’s that Chadbourn uses his literal straw-men (previewed so tantalisingly in The Sword of Albion) to disappointingly little effect, focusing instead on the Unseelie Courts Scar-crow Men: the Fey’s lookalike replacements for humans. The intriguing Malantha (the Unseelie Court’s previous representative) is nowhere to be seen here, replaced instead by Xanthus, a bald headed, tattooed monstrosity with a box of tricks up his sleeve that will induce arachnophobia in even the most stout of heart.

Exciting, involving and leaving just the right amount of cliff to hang on to, The Scar-Crow Men is a vivid and wonderfully enjoyable read that will leave you out of breath and eager for more.

9/10 Exciting, involving and leaving just the right amount of cliff to hang on to.

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