Mark Chadbourn – Jack of Ravens
Gollancz, 2006, 374 pp, £12.99, 0-575-07800-6
Tim Powers does Forrest Gump, and I mean that nicely. Any hack could probably link, say, the Templars to the JFK assassination. Making these just points along an arc that extends from pre-Roman Britain to the present day, via other points including the Ninth Legion and the Roanoke colony (disappearances of), Spring-Heeled Jack and Dr Dee, Timothy Leary and Kit Marlowe, the Summer of Love and the Blitz – that requires talent.
An evil has arisen in the present day and is working back through time to secure its position. Advancing through time to meet it is archaeologist Jack Churchill, Church to his friends, who finds himself mysteriously in Iron Age Cornwall just in time to become the proto-King Under the Hill, defeat evil, form a band of heroes who will do battle against the dark throughout the ages, lose them to a time travelling murderer, become embroiled with a queen of the fey … that’s chapter one. Fast-forwarding through time by side-stepping into fairyland, he re-emerges to do battle with evil at different periods of history. Having travelled via fourth century Rome, Elizabethan Europe and Virginia, Flanders, Blitz London and ’Nam, he comes full circle to a satisfying denouement in a claypit north of St Austell, otherwise known as the Eden Project. After which he’s told that now he’s got that formality out of the way it’s time for some real work. Yes, this is Book One.
Book Ones really should stand on their own; however I gather that if you’ve read earlier works then you’ll know how Church came to be in Iron Age Cornwall in the first place. This would have helped because he has nothing but the vaguest memories of his earlier life, and that makes it very hard to get a handle on him. Apparently he was madly in love with a woman he barely remembers; his amnesia robs us of the cues of fondly remembered smiles, caresses, intimate moments to make us feel they really were an item. This is only exacerbated by Chadbourn’s writing style which can best be described as brutalist. Chadbourn tells. He very rarely shows. When Church is sad, we’re told he’s sad. When fighting for his life, we’re told he’s fighting for his life. His thought processes continue to be described in exactly the same dispassionate style, regardless of circumstances, and the viewpoint flops about like a stranded fish. Some may like it that way; some may not.
Other quibbles. Church is an archaeologist, apparently, but very rarely takes any real interest in the living history around him. His speciality was fourth century Rome, so when did he learn ancient Celtic? He can recall the background to the Roanoke colony in perfect detail (which is more than most people can) but forgets that the colony famously disappeared (which is all that most people know). He and his friends are trapped behind iron bars, and at considerable personal risk they blow a hole in the wall with some handy gunpowder. So why not just blow the bars? All logical hiccups that mar what should be a wonderfully smooth read.
Maybe I’m missing a point. The correct way to read Jack of Ravens is to find a comfy chair and several free hours, open your mouth to somewhere between one and two inches, and start. Be amazed at the story; be astonished that anyone dares to try and bring so much together, let alone brings it all off so well. Just don’t read it for the prose.