Amid all the books of fantasy detectives and secret agents, The Scar Crow Men is the story of a fantasy secret agent in the 17th century. Fair enough. But what sets the Scar Crow Men apart is its grounding in a historical reality, Mark Chadbourn does a great job of bringing London of the period to life in all its strangeness.
Unfortunately the book is also uneven. There are absolutely great moments of Will and his allies dodging around plague pits and palaces on the run from a supernatural enemy, the fay, who have unnatural powers, torture and kill on a whim, and whose very sight drives men mad. And then the corner turns and the fay become just more redshirts to be mown down by Will, and even when they capture him, what follows is the usual “Let me tell you all my plans right before you escape from my fortress” bit.
Somewhere halfway through Scar Crow Men, and its promising beginning in the intrigue of the court and the grimness of the alleys of London, the book jettisons most of the horror and trades it in for cliches. The visit to France to encounter the thing that drove a man so mad that he killed an entire village, leads to nothing. The climactic hunt for the magic weapon that will change everything is anticlimactic and the weapon and how it works is undeveloped.
But to add insult to injury, the closing of the book reveals that the entire thing was pointless leaving The Scar Crow Men with an idiot plot.
Spoilers begin here…
The entire plot hinged on Kit Marlowe, the playwright, having known what was really going on, hiding the information in a ridiculously complicated cipher scattered around all over the place. It never made much sense that he would do this, and there was no real point to him doing it. The enemy already knew its own nature, so there was never anything to hide, and no reason Marlowe couldn’t have just put the actual information in his message.
Still that level of complexity can be accepted for the narrative’s sake… until Chadbourn has Marlowe step out in the final scene (after beating and tying up Will for no particular reason) to reveal that he was around all along, and could have told him how to defeat the plot against England at any time. That’s when a ridiculous plot becomes an idiot plot. (If you guessed that Chadbourn then reveals that Marlowe is the real Shakespeare, 2 points for nailing the last cliche.)
Marlowe is the shadow that hangs over The Scar Crow Men. Chadbourn worships him and insists on having all the characters worship him. He sets the plot in motion by his pointless secrecy, and keeps it going that way. And his return from the dead mans that there was no reason for anything that happened, except that if Marlowe had sent a brief note, it would have been a shorter and perhaps better novel.