Review: The Scar-Crow Men

This post will include my review of the book The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn. It is the second volume of the Swords of Albion series, released in February 2011.

The text below is taken from the blurb on the back of the book.

The year is 1593. The London of Elizabeth I is in the terrible grip of the Black Death. As thousands die from the plague and the queen hides behind the walls of her palace, English spies are being murdered across the city. The killer’s next target: Will Swyfte.

For Swyfte – adventurer, rake, scholar, and spy – this is the darkest time he has known. His mentor, the grand old spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, is dead. The new head of the secret service is more concerned about his own advancement than defending the nation, and a rival faction at the court has established its own network of spies. Plots are everywhere, and no one can be trusted. Meanwhile, England’s greatest enemy, the haunted Unseelie Court, prepares to make its move.

A dark, bloody scheme, years in the making, is about to be realized. The endgame begins on the night of the first performance of Dr. Faustus, the new play by Swyfte’s close friend and fellow spy Christopher Marlowe. A devil is conjured in the middle of the crowded theater, taking the form of Will Swyfte’s long-lost love, Jenny–and it has a horrifying message for him alone.

That night Marlowe is murdered, and Swyfte embarks on a personal and brutal crusade for vengeance. Friendless, with enemies on every side and a devil at his back, the spy may find that even his vaunted skills are no match for the supernatural powers arrayed against him.

I really enjoyed the first book in this series and was looking forward to reading book 2 and continuing the adventures of “England’s Greatest Spy”, but I would have to say that this book was not as good as the first. There were a number of things which frustrated me and I found myself putting it down and reading something else instead (I actually started reading this before Pathfinder which I reviewed a few weeks ago). As a result it took me a long time to finish, but finish it I did and the conclusion was in keeping with the book itself… disappointing.

This book is less about Will Swyfte (great name by the way) and more about his band of compatriots and spies. That was good because the series introduced several interesting characters in the first book and I was hoping to get to know the others a little better. But the story line for these other characters often didn’t really lead anywhere and came across more as padding than advancing the plot to any real extent.

But perhaps the biggest issue I had (and there may be a few minor spoilers here) was the character of Alice and her relationship with Carpenter. Several times during the story she turned up (seemingly out of nowhere) and put herself in danger that resulted in a plan going awry. Why would she do that? Once she turned up to a stakeout – how did she even know where to find him – to warn him that he was in danger, as if he didn’t know that already since he was staking out the very killer that was hunting him. Every time she became involved in a scene it spelled disaster and by the end of the book I just wanted her to get killed and be done with it.

Similarly Grace, who Will cares about deeply and seeks to protect from the harsh realities of the world he lives in, is thrust into the thick of things. Why – if he truly wishes to keep her safe – would he arrange for her to work in the Queen’s palace if that building was where the enemies were planning to strike. Wouldn’t it have made more sense that she be tucked away somewhere else? Now Grace being Grace wouldn’t have been happy about that and found a way to meddle anyway but it was another example of the illogic that plagued this story.

Now before you get the opinion that I didn’t like any of the female characters in the book I would like to say that character of Meg O’Shee was a nice addition to the story. She was both intelligent and capable and handled herself well throughout. In many ways she is the only reason I am even considering reading book three.

There is a lot to like about this series, it is set in an interesting point in history. The premise of the Unseelie Court is intriguing and the stakes are certainly high, but – in this story at least – the whole thing was let down by some very odd choices by characters that either should know better or had no business being involved in the first place. That made it hard for me to immerse myself in the events because I was questioning motivations rather than enjoying the way things unfolded.


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