Monday, May 28, 2018

Belated Birthday Review: Blood of Ambrose and This Crooked Way, by James Enge

This is a repost of a review I did for Black Gate of James Enge's first two novels, and the repost is a somewhat belated honoring of James' Birthday, May 25. The original post can be seen here.

Blood of Ambrose by James Enge (Pyr, 978-1-59102-736-2, $15.98, tpb, 416 pages) April 2009.
This Crooked Way by James Enge (Pyr, 978-1-59102-784-3, $16, tpb, 414 pages) October 2009.

A review by Rich Horton

A few years ago Black Gate featured the first published story from James Enge, "Turn Up This Crooked Way". I admit I regard first stories with skepticism -- but despite limited expectations I was entirely delighted, and at the end of the year it made my "Virtual Best of the Year" list. He continued to place stories at Black Gate, all featuring the main character from "Turn Up This Crooked Way", a rather dour magician named Morlock. Morlock’s reputation is bad, but (perhaps predictably) he is actually on the side of good. There were some hints of a tortured back story for him, but little detail.

Now we have two novels from Enge, each also about Morlock. The first, Blood of Ambrose, is more conventionally a novel -- though quite episodic in structure -- and while Morlock is a major character, he shares the stage with another protagonist. But we are vouchsafed some revelations about Morlock’s back story. As for the second book, it is straightforwardly a fixup of several of the Black Gate stories, as well as some new episodes, and some linking material. For all that it does feature an overarching narrative arc, so it ends up working effectively enough as a novel.

To summarize my reactions to Blood of Ambrose -- I enjoyed the novel. I found it compelling reading throughout, and I was fascinated by the characters. But -- you knew there had to be a but, right? But -- it doesn’t wholly work as a novel. The main issue is one you might expect from a first time novelist with experience in short fiction -- it’s too episodic, not sufficiently unified. It reads more like a series of novellas set end to end. And also -- in common with other fantasy novels I’ve been reading lately -- the body count is enormous, to the point you rather wonder "what’s the point?" If the good guys let the bad guys get away with this much awfulness (and most of the victims just ordinary folks caught up in things), then they don’t seem to be doing a very good job.

The story opens with Lathmar, child King of Ambrose and Emperor of Ontilia, fleeing his uncle and regent, Lord Urdhven, who we soon learn was responsible for the King’s parents’ death, and who is soon ready to kill the King’s Grandmother, the lady Ambrosia. But Ambrosia is a nearly immortal woman, in fact the ancestress of the entire royal line. And her brother, also nearly immortal, is Morlock Ambrosius. Morlock arrives in the nick of time to save his sister -- in a nicely executed set piece -- and soon after the battle lines are drawn: Lathmar, Morlock, Ambrosia, and various loyalists against Lord Urdhven and his cohorts.

Which works nicely -- Lord Urdhven is an interesting enough villain, along with his poisoner Steng, but soon we learn that he’s not the real villain -- he’s under control of something much more sinister. And so the King and Morlock’s first victory proves somewhat hollow, and they are quickly battling something worse. There are thus ups and downs in their campaign, leading eventually to Morlock encountering people from his distant past -- indeed even his father, whose identity is fairly significant. There are several further climaxes, all pretty nicely done.

Besides the fantasy elements (worthwhile stuff) and the escalating plot with its multiple climaxes, the real interest here is the characters. Morlock is truly the most compelling, with his dourness, cynicism, and tortured compulsion to do right. His sister is interesting as well, and his sidekick, the dwarf Wyrtheorn. (Though neither of them are entirely original creations, it seems to me -- no slavish copying here, just fairly standard-issue tropes.) Lathmar, the King, is the central point. We are meant to see him grow - and he does, and he’s a good young man, worth reading about -- but at some level he doesn’t fully convince.

Still, this is really enjoyable. Yes, I had quibbles, but I enjoyed myself throughout. The various setpieces -- the flying horse, the birds, the duel with the golem, etc. -- are great fun. The characters are fun to follow, and the writing is effective -- I always wanted to know what happened next.

And a lot of what happens next again -- that is, after the end of Blood of Ambrose -- is given in This Crooked Way. As I said it is a fixup novel made up of the earlier stories, and a couple more, plus some connecting material and some revisions to make the stories work more as a continuous narrative. Indeed, I urge readers not to skip Appendix B, which purports to reveal the sources Enge used in creating his quasi-Arthurian characters, and which also archly confesses to the fixup form of this book.

The main character is of course Morlock Ambrosius. Morlock, as we know from Blood of Ambrose, is a long-lived magician -- or, more properly, a "maker" -- tortured by his past, and by his family, and by drink, and by his inconvenient insistence on doing good. Morlock is at it happens the son of one Merlin -- yes, it would appear, that Merlin. At least sort of. And it is Morlock’s conflict with his father over the fate of his mother Nimue that drives this novel. For Merlin has gone to great lengths to make Nimue immortal -- but this condition is no favor to her, in great part because Merlin’s means of doing so requires her to be split in three parts. Morlock’s quest here, then, is to reunite his Mother, to live or die as fate wills. But Merlin is a very powerful magician himself, and thus a dangerous foe.

Enge structures the book so that as Morlock journeys he encounters numerous dangers and adventures. Some of these are traps set by Merlin, others are merely hazards of a difficult trek across a dangerous land. Furthermore Morlock in his travels meets other people -- in particular in this case a family consisting of a knight, and his sister, and the sister’s children, two boys and a girl. A few episodes, then, are told from the points of view of some of this family, with Morlock a major character but not necessarily the focus.

What happens, then? Lots happens: encounters with various horrifying beasts such as the Boneless One, the insectoid Khroi, werewolves, spiderfolk, and dragons. Plenty of clever magic: Morlock’s mastery of fire, including sentient flames; an extra-dimensional house; golems; different sorts of magical swords; Merlin’s various clever but often flawed spells. Add plenty of swordplay, a magical horse, and a rather self-absorbed troll.

I’m purposely not detailing the individual plots of the episodes. Each is enjoyable, and quite well-constructed. Each works as a single story, but Enge has done a good job of propelling the overall story so that the book itself really does read as nicely unified. (Though I will say that I thought the additional connecting material from the point of view of a Khroi was superfluous, rather boring, and would have been better omitted.) Morlock’s character is nicely done and always fascinating. The secondary characters -- Merlin in particular but also Morlock’s various fellow travelers -- are well done too. The telling is consistently mordantly humorous. Enjoyable work.

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