I started The Scar-Crow Men by Mark Chadbourn under the mistaken impression it was the first book in a series he titled Swords of Albion. Seems I was incorrect, that this was book two in the series, which may explain why it took me several chapters to get fully immersed in this rather amusing book of spycraft in Elizabethan England.
Before I first met our protagonist, one Will Swyfte, we first meet Christopher Marlowe, on the run from a hunter who seems to know him of old. We meet one of Marlowe's boys, who is given direct instruction to deliver a note of some import to his close friend Will Swyfte, "The Greatest Spy in England".
We encounter Swyfte at the opening of Marlowe's new play, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which is being performed at one of the few theaters open due to the plague sweeping across London. (For those of you not familiar, Marlowe's version predates both the Goethe version, as well as the operatic version. Marlowe's does not have a happy ending. Also of note, the book is set in 1593, Marlowe's is listed as first being published in 1604.) During the play, we first learn that Sir Walsingham, former spymaster is dead and the dwarf Sir Robert Cecil currently is running operations, even as another member of the Privy Council, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, tries to run off the old master's rings. During the performance, we see cionfrontations between the two groups, even as a killer in a devil mask stalks Master Swyfte in the auditorium. The killer fails in his attempt, partly due to to the intervention of one Irish Spy, Meg, and partially due to a devil appearing during the sequence when the actor playing Faust is summoning Mephistopheles. This devil, however, takes the form of Jenny, Swyfte's long lost true love, long ago taken Underhill by the Unseelie Court.
Oh yes, let me bring them up, since they're the primary antagonists in this. The Unseelie Court are trying to get rid of defenses on England put in place by Dr. John Dee. Who somehow managed to help capture one of the high family and lock it in the Tower.
Marlowe is found dead, stabbed, apparently in a dispute over gambling debts. Swyfte senses a rat, since Marlowe was about to be brought before the Privy council on Charges of treason due to his professed Atheism. (A note on this: they finally explain that this is considered a crime in Anglican circles more so than Catholicism because Atheism suggests Jesus was a bastard born to a whore.)
Oh lord, so much plot, and no gunpowder. Just treason.
Swyfte, who gets declared a traitor to the Crown about halfway through, seeks out Dr. Dee, who points out the Devil in the form of Jenny has become his personal Mephistopheles. Something we sort of found out during Swyfte's visit to Saint Mary of Bethlehem's hospital. (Modern readers likely know it better as Bedlam.) Here Swyfte meets the basis for Marlowe's Faust, who supposedly is possessed by the Devil and destroyed a town in the Shire.
We also meet the soon to be crowned King of France, Henry of Navarre, who invites the Unseelie to dinner in order to form an alliance with them. It is here we learn bits about the Scar-Crow Men, who are... I guess the best way to describe them would be adult Changelings. Of the old meaning. Animated bodies that replace a real human.
Quite a bit happens, as Swyfte's closest allies try to find the Man in the Devil mask who's ritually killing off Walsingham's old spy ring, as Swyfte tries to find the secrets Marlowe cyphered into his play, that eventually lead Swyfte and Red Meg to France, after being hunted by Xanthus, an Unseelie hunter who's brother Swyfte killed previously. We meet Henry again, we see the monestary at Reims, we break into Notre Dame.
We wind up back at Nonsuch for the finale, wherein all the plots get resolved.
On the positive, with a few exceptions, Chadbourn has seemingly done his research into the era, which gives it the feel of authenticity as we deal with plague in the streets, several cabals of spies and occult organizations, and two very different supernatural antagonists. Also, while not using current idiom, the language is NOT Elizabethan, making it easier for the contemporary reader to follow along.
On the negative, Red Meg, who is by far one of the most interesting supporting characters in the book, complete with an intriguing backstory and wholly unique motivations, gets a bad case of the Heaving Bosoms outside of Notre Dame. While he later redeems her, that one particular chapter is tonally off from everything before and after it, and it shook me out of the story.
All in all, while I wish I had read the first book first, this was a very good read, and one that had me digging through websites to get more information on the real characters interspersed among the fictitious ones.