The Damocles Files: Wings in the Darkness
Benedict Jones & Anthony Watson
I’m a big fan of genre titles that come about as the result of author collaborations, principally because when they’re done right, they can bring together the energy, imagination and skill of two writers to create a work of fiction that neither could have created on their own. It’s even better when such a collaboration is the result of two authors whose works have deeply impressed me, and which I’ve reviewed here on The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer. Such is the case with the subject of this latest review, The Damocles Files: Wings in the Darkness, a novella that blends together occult and mythological elements with the fertile ground of the Second World War as a setting. Wings in the Darkness has been co-authored by Benedict Jones (author of the superb occult horror thriller Hell Ship set in the Pacific theatre of the same conflict) and Anthony Watson (who wrote the eerie novelette Shattered for Demain Publishing’s Short Sharp Shocks! series and also the First World War-themed novella The Lost). Those are some absolutely amazing and first-rate horror credentials right there, and more than enough to make me sit up and notice; when you add in the fact that their collaboration is about a secretive agency of the British government fighting the occult machinations of the Axis powers during the Second World War – well, you’d have to work very hard indeed to craft a project I’d be more interested in reading and reviewing!
Wings in the Darkness acts as a prequel story to the Damocles Files as a whole, a new series from Watson and Jones which will kick off with the first novel in the series, Ragnarok Rising, being released at some point in Summer 2021. As soon as I was approached by the authors about reviewing both novella and novel, I immediately acted to clear my review backlog as soon as possible so I could give the series my full attention – starting with the intriguingly-titled Wings in the Darkness. The novella has a delightful piece of cover art (presumably by one or both of the authors) that has been crafted to look like an old government file, complete with faded cover, stains from being used as a coaster for a mug of tea, and a very ‘official’-looking typeset. It’s a great piece of work that instantly sets the atmosphere for the story to come, in which a young academic is recruited by the Damocles group to help them identify, locate and secure an ancient artifact before their Axis counterparts can do the same. It whetted my appetite nicely, and I dived straight into the novella and got reading.
In March 1942, in the middle of a London still scarred from the Blitz, Jim Macaskill – an academic with a specific interest in the mythology around the faeries of the British Isles – is approached by an old acquaintance while at the pub. His acquaintance’s boss, one Professor Oliphant-Caul, is looking to meet with Jim to make use of his expertise for the war effort. Mystified and a more than a little bemused, Jim takes up the offer and attends Senate House, meeting an eclectic collection of academics and officials who spin him a story about hunting down a series of ancient ‘keys’, including one that may be related to faerie mythology. They won’t say what the keys actually unlock, but the stipend they’re offering is generous, and Jim can’t help but be intrigued, and therefore agrees to help the strange group. The key they’re searching for seems to be in the care of the faeries, according to some particularly ancient sagas, but Jim soon disabuses his new colleagues of fanciful ideas of tiny beings flying around on gossamer wings. The real faeries are a dwarfen race of people native to the British Isles, long before the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons, and were eventually out-bred by humans over the centuries until they were exiled to a scant few shadowy, secretive places. Eventually it becomes clear that they’re searching for an island inhabited by a faerie prince known as the King of Skulls – a fearsome reiver who fought against the Celts – and Jim’s knowledge and contacts are vital to finding the contemporary location of the island. But they’re also vital at marking Jim out to agents of the Axis powers, and before long the academic is fighting for his life in the bombed-out ruins of Liverpool, the encounter bringing home just now dangerous his new career has become. And soon enough, reading through dusty tomes and translated sagas gives way to action in dark and shadowy places, as the academic and his colleagues join forces with a detachment of Royal Marine Commandos to storm the location of the key, and come face to face with the mythical fae – and realise the terrifying dangers posed by the wings in the darkness.
Watson and Jones quickly and deftly work to create an engaging setting, one where poring through dusty tomes and obscure academic papers is the necessary precursor to launching a commando raid to an isolated and mysterious island, and in which the country’s sole hope against the predations of the Axis powers – and the mysterious Sons of Fenrir – is a team of government officials and professors, lecturers and hobbyists who are working under incredibly trying and stressful circumstances. The Damocles group, which Jim joins at the start of the novella, is obviously a tight-knit and effective team, albeit one with more than its fair share of eccentricities. However, it’s also one whose members have often been badly affected by their service during the war, and its subtly made clear that these are not all office-bound, rear-echelon specialists; some of the Damocles members have fought overseas, often to try and capture occult and mythological intelligence, or deny it to the Axis, and have not come away unscathed – physically or mentally. It’s a fascinating idea, one that I’ve rarely seen developed in such a manner in the ‘Occult Second World War’ subgenre that includes titles like Charles Stross’ Laundry Files novels, and Watson and Jones work hard to make it both engaging and memorable for the reader.
There’s some great occult and mythological research and discussions in the first half of the novella, setting up some of the worldbuilding for the setting and generally clueing the reader into the activities of the Damocles group, but the island raid featured in the latter part of the story is just as well-constructed, and indeed where the world of the Damocles Files really comes to life. There are some pulse-pounding and lightning-fast action sequences as Royal Marine Commandos investigate a claustrophobic and dangerous cave network that stretches deep underground, and come up against the strange, deadly creatures that lurk in its depths, and that’s where Jones and Watson really cemented my attention and my interest in the series as a whole. It’s a fantastic adventure set-piece, with bullets flying, weird creatures described in unsettling detail, and enough deaths to demonstrate that ‘plot armour’ isn’t something either author is familiar with, which is always encouraging.
By the end of Wings in Darkness Watson and Jones have left us with a thrilling cliffhanger for the Damocles Group, as its surviving members consider just what they have achieved on that small island, and the exact nature of what they have uncovered; and also some burning questions that I cannot wait to see answered. Just what are these ancient artifacts that act as keys, and what exactly do they unlock? Who are the menacing and deadly Sons of Fenrir, and what are their goals – and are they completely in line with the Axis powers? And just what support from the British government – and its allies – can the Damocles Group rely on in their fight against the Axis? Wings in Darkness is the perfect prequel to the Damocles Files series, deftly and intelligently developing the setting for the series, demonstrating just how important Damocles are to the war effort, and giving us just an inkling of the wort of horrifying things lurking in the darkness that they will have to contend with, without even mentioning an Axis war machine at the height of its powers. Wings in the Darkness is a fantastic occult and mythological action-adventure novella written by two authors at the height of their powers, and I cannot wait to see what awaits in Ragnarok Rising and further titles in the Damocles Files series as a whole.