World’s End is the first book in British fantasy author’s Mark Chadbourn AGE OF MISRULE trilogy. The novel was originally released in the UK in 1999, and has been re-released in the US by Pyr in 2009.
World’s End can probably best be categorized as dark contemporary fantasy. The setting is England, in more or less the present day. Jack Churchill (“Church”) lives in London and is trying to cope with the apparent suicide of his girlfriend Marianne. Returning home one night, he has a terrifying encounter under a bridge with a giant whose face seems to melt and change before his eyes. Ruth Gallagher, a lawyer, is also a witness. Both of them pass out, unable to deal with this terrifying vision, but in the next few days, they are drawn together to find out more about what happened.
Soon it becomes clear that life as we know it is changing: technology is starting to fail, creatures of myth and legend are returning to the world, and all the rules we rely on are changing. Church and Ruth embark on a journey to retrieve four magical items that may represent humanity’s last hope at the end of the Age of Reason and the start of the Age of Misrule.
What I enjoyed most about World’s End is its effective way of mixing regular life in the UK with the encroaching mythological elements. The protagonists travel across the country, staying in hotels, bed and breakfasts, or even their van, giving realistic descriptions of New Age tourism destinations like Stonehenge or Tintagel — while at the same time the country is falling apart because a dragon firebombs a highway or the Wild Hunt tears across the sky. Someone could probably retrace the characters’ steps as a travel guide to major Celtic monuments and relics (though hopefully encountering less interference from various mythological monsters).
Another positive for me were the interactions between the main characters, who spend a lot of time bickering realistically and learning from each other. It’s nothing new, but still refreshing to read a story in which a few of the main characters just simply don’t like each other, while others slowly find common bonds. Some of the characters start out a bit flat, but they experience real growth throughout the novel and best of all, by the end of the novel I felt like I knew most of them.
It’s also interesting that World’s End can be appreciated on several levels. On the one hand, the novel can simply be read as an entertaining, action-packed contemporary fantasy, but at the same time Mark Chadbourn displays an obviously deep knowledge of mythology, tying together myths on a more fundamental level and, especially in the later stages, giving this novel an additional layer of depth and a broader scope than you’d initially expect.
Maybe a minor point, but one I really appreciated: from the very beginning, the more-or-less normal people who become the heroes of this story find it hard to deal with the surreal and terrifying creatures they encounter. Even in the first scene, both Church and Ruth faint when confronted with the terrifying giant, and later on, spells are used to inoculate them and others against the terrifying visions. It’s refreshing to read a novel in which the heroes don’t emit a Keanu Reeves-like “whoa” when seeing something impossible, and then just move on.
Some negative points: I found some of the plot twists obvious to the point of transparency, while others were simply too predictable, especially towards the end of the novel. The story occasionally speeds up to the point where it reads like the script for an action movie, but on the plus side, at least it’s a movie I’d want to see — especially if the special effects look anything like the gorgeous and somewhat terrifying cover illustration by John Picacio, which has the distinction of being the first cover to actually show up in one of my nightmares.
All in all, I felt that the positives outweighed the novel’s few problems, because World’s End served up enough excitement, mythological depth, and interesting characters to keep me reading to the end. I’m usually not a big reader of contemporary fantasy or dark fantasy, but I definitely look forward to reading the next book in the series, Darkest Hour.