James Enge's first story, published in Black Gate no. 8 (Summer 2005), was notable for a pleasing density of invention, skillful writing, and intelligence, while remaining popular fiction as opposed to literary fiction—a group of characteristics typical of Black Gate's fiction at its best, which generally means the "stable" that editor John O'Neill has developed, including Iain Rowan and Martha Wells. "Turn Up This Crooked Way" centered on Morlock Ambrosius, a Maker (or wizard) and Seer, and Enge's first novel continues his adventures, with the same pleasing characteristics.
Morlock, son of the Maker Merlin Ambrosius, is at this point hundreds of years old. He lives not in ancient Britain, however, but in the empire of Ontil on the continent of Laent, which possibly lies on another planet, as it has three moons. In an appendix, Enge gives an elaborate scheme of their rising and setting during the three years of the novel's action. He also gives a description of Laent, but not a map. Perhaps he or the publisher wanted to avoid comparisons with the "usual" fantasy by omitting one, but that was a mistake; a map would be helpful.
There's no explanation here or in any of the stories, that I can recall, for elements that seem to link this world to ours. We can ignore "Morlock," though of course it brings to mind H. G. Wells' subterraneans in The Time Machine (1895). There's no apparent meaning in Enge's use of the name, and its distracting effect is minimal.
However, Merlin Ambrosius (the name given to Merlin by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain) and Nimue, father and mother of Morlock Ambrosius and Ambrosia Viviana (Vivian being, in some texts, another name for Nimue), are not just names. And some of the characters in Blood of Ambrose have as their traditional language Latin (Enge teaches classical languages), while Dwarvish, the language of Wyrtheorn, Morlock's apprentice, seems to have borrowings from Old English. If there's some connection of Laent's world to ours, it wasn't clear to me. Until I know better, I'll assume Enge likes Merlin and decided to transfer him, with a family added, to this other world. It brings to mind anomalous elements in other fantastic stories, such as the uncomfortable opening of E.R. Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922), where the narrator travels to Mercury in a chariot (both narrator and planet soon, thankfully, forgotten), or Eddison's names for the various peoples in the novel—Witches, Goblins, etc.—the normal freight of which one soon learns to ignore, taking them simply as names.
Odd choices, perhaps, but there they are. You buy the set-up, you buy the bit.
Before the book begins, the Emperor of Ontil and his consort die, probably killed by the consort's brother Urdhven, who as self-declared Protector of young Lathmar, King of Ontil and Emperor to be, sets himself up as de facto ruler. Lathmar's only real protection is Ambrosia Viviana, his many-times-over Grandmother, who helped his ancestor, Lathmar the Old, set up the empire, and married his son. As Merlin's daughter, she is remarkably long-lived; though now quite old, and not aging as well as her older brother, Morlock, she is still formidable with both magic and a sword, to say nothing of a sharp tongue.
The two major plot arcs are the coming of age—and growing into royal stature—of Lathmar, and the struggle with Urdhven and his possible allies. Enge handles them both well. We get a clear, satisfying sense of Lathmar growing from a screaming, panicky victim, as we first see him, to a young person of dignity, resource, courage, and a sense of responsibility. Along the way there are moments of emotion, well-earned by the story and well-depicted, both deeper and better-done than we might expect from an adventure fantasy.
The more active plot arc, the struggle with Urdhven, moves by means of actions and events, of course, but the real engines of the plot are invention and revelation. There's a lot of back-and-forth—attack and retreat, capture and rescue—that alone might have become tiresome, although these actions have serious consequences, and there are illuminating passages and occasional remarkable set-pieces, such as the striking description of Wyrtheorn found, and for the time-being, abandoned, half-submerged in a watery dungeon:
Within the iron-barred cell, the monster that had been Wyrtheorn opened its weedy beard and laughed . . . The waist-deep water in which the dark-green figure crouched sent back mottled reflections from the red light of Ambrosia's torch. The King could not tell if the movements he could see in the marshy water were ripples, from Wyrth's motions, or illusions from the torch's flickering light, or whether there were creatures of some kind in the water. He was tempted to ask, then realized he didn't want to know . . . .
"The King stole a last glance at the dwarf (a stone figure in an abandoned fountain, hip-deep in stagnant water, covered with greenish moss) and hurried after her." (pp. 119-120)
But real advances occur when Enge introduces new characters about whom we must learn as the story progresses, or new supernatural threats undermining the safety and stability of the world, unsuspected until revealed. With a surprise twist less than halfway through the story, we get a sense of unsuspected depths in Urdhven, and an entire new level of threat, and plot, is unveiled. Dealing with their consequences and searching to the root of that revelation occupy the rest of the book.
These moments of revelation and invention evoke not only a sense of wonder, at least some of the time, but a sense of a broadening of scope, of a new understanding, that helps gives the book a feeling of being well-plotted and its world a sense of complexity and depth. Enge brings forth some new magical practice or monster or piece of arcana regularly, but while his invention is rich, he doesn't lavish it wastefully. His machines, monsters, and magic generally bear on the story, often importantly, leading on to the next bit of plot or action, although occasionally, he seems just to be having fun.
The book mostly eschews the kind of tiresome political intriguing that can make fantasy so mundane; when it does occur, it's almost always rooted in developing Lathmar's character. In her excellent essay on the nature of fantasy, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" (The Language of the Night, Berkley Books, 1982, pp. 71-86), Ursula K. LeGuin quotes a passage from Katherine Kurtz's Deryni Rising and then presents the same scene as from a contemporary novel of politics. She writes, "The book from which I first quoted is not fantasy, for all its equipment of heroes and wizards. If it was fantasy, I couldn't have pulled that dirty trick on it by changing four words. You can't clip Pegasus' wings that easily—not if he has wings" (p. 75).
For LeGuin, the question is one of style, and she quotes Kenneth Morris, E.R. Eddison, and Tolkien as correctives. Some years ago I heard her remark, at a reading in New York, with a good-natured acceptance, that fantasy just didn't go that way—that is, the way of Morris, Eddison, or Tolkien. Although some fantasy does at least approach the "simple timelessness" to be found in Tolkien.
But I don't think it's just a question of style. Certainly fantasies, like all other kinds of stories, have to be about something, and politics, diplomacy, and war, are fair enough topics. But the more mundane the topic, the more it is like something in our own world, the more it drains the sense of the fantastic from an other-world fantasy. If all you're describing is this world in fancy pants, eventually the reader will note it, and the pants won't fool anyone. Personally, I find too much of that sort of thing boring, as well. My feeling is, if all the fantasy is about, or mostly, is political intrigue, why bother with it? Why shouldn't I read a contemporary political novel, or better yet, actually learn something by reading the history of the Byzantine Empire or the biography of Lyndon B. Johnson?
Blood of Ambrose uses political conflict, but its heart lies in action, wonder, marvels of magic and invention, and vivid images derived from, and embodying, all of those elements. It leans toward the sword-and-sorcery end of the genre, but the quality of the writing, the flashes of wit and prevailing sense of wry, dry humor, and the sensibility that comes through—both humane and a bit impish—keep this from being a hack-and-slash power fantasy. It has a vague resemblance to Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné stories, but with more of a sense of humor; to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories; and a bit to the Old Earth tales of Matthew Hughes, which have appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction and in several novels, though to my taste, Enge's writing is stronger and his constructs more believable. I've never found either Old Earth or "the Commons" quite convincing.
Morlock does seem to owe something to Moorcock's (coincidence?) Elric. He is, at least in appearance, an anti-hero—tremendously old, crookbacked, taciturn, acerbic, feared almost as a demonic figure by the public at large, and bearer of a possibly soul-eating sword, Tyrfing (though Enge doesn't do much with or about the sword).
We don't come to know Morlock well from this book, where he is only rarely the point-of-view character, any more than in the some of the stories. An actor playing him would be justified in asking, "What's my motivation?" He's too humane to be an anti-hero; from moment to moment, above all else, he seems most driven by care and concern for other people. But more broadly, what does he want? Power? The simple desire to set things right, thwart evil, and see justice done? Care for his family (as he's related to King Lathmar)? Desire for his ex-wife? The preservation of the young king (our most common point-of-view character) or of the empire? Wanting to be left alone to go his own way? It's not entirely clear.
He's supposed to be a slave to drink, when he drinks, but he almost never does, and he doesn't seem like an alcoholic otherwise. Outside of one short story, his drinking seems like something tacked on by authorial fiat. Similarly underdeveloped is a subplot involving Ambrosia's mysterious sister, Hope—something to be developed in future stories, perhaps.
Morlock is exiled from the Wardlands, a magical kingdom that seems to hold itself separate, and protected, from the rest of Laent. Enge introduces some Wardlands characters, who end up seeming less strange and formidable than we'd been led to believe. It's almost as if he decided that they would make things too complicated and smoothed them down into mere friendly helpers.
There are some anomalies in Enge's writing, such as a cavalier hand with point-of-view. He doesn't establish a truly omniscient point-of-view from which we can see into everyone, not surprisingly, as that's not currently a popular choice, outside of airport-bookstore thrillers. Blood of Ambrose is mostly written in the more popular third-person limited omniscient, sharing Lathmar's point-of-view. But when he's not present we do, at times, move into others. Occasionally we get Morlock's thoughts, which can be jarring, as it happens seldom and seems out of the blue. This partial failure to establish and stick to a defined point of view is a practice routinely ruled unworkable or off-limits by writing guides and workshops. But the disruption it causes here is minor; Enge pulls it off.
Enge tries to keep even his most formidable characters, such as Ambrosia and Morlock, human, and the book gives the impression that no one in it, including the narrator, is a respecter of persons. So the writing is not self-consciously high-styled, ornate, or old-fashioned, but sticks to standard, literate English and for the most part avoids contemporary usages that would mark it as a product of our time and place. At this point, that's enough to mark a fantasy as occurring elsewhere or -when, without resorting to William Morris's mock-medieval or Eddison's Renaissance English. It at least approaches a kind of "timelessness," though a much sharper and livelier timelessness than Tolkien's. But a few usages disrupt its surface and jar the reader, such as: 'It's been a night-and-a-flipping-half for me'" (p. 82), "'if you don't, we're all screwed" (p. 249), and "I don't give a rat's ass" (p. 251). Fortunately, that's just about all of them.
Occasional faux pas aside, the salient characteristic of this book, and of all Enge's Morlock stories—which is almost all his published writing to date—is the sheer pleasure of reading it. The difficulty for the critic is in pinning down exactly whence that arises.
Reading is intellectual but also sensuous, partly because, as brain research now seems to show, it sets up a sort of alternate reality experience in the mind, partly because it's constructed of language. The pleasures of language, in sound, structure, and story, resonate deeply—as do those of invention and wonder.
There's a kind of literately sensuous pleasure in Enge's writing—not so much sentence by sentence, of the sort found in Shakespeare, Mervyn Peake, and Raymond Chandler—to pick a wide range—but in his storytelling, including his writing per se, his sense of humor, his cleverness, and his power of invention. It's a very taking kind of pleasure that kept me reading gratefully, and would have kept me if he had gone on longer than he did (this book is much shorter than the usual doorstop fantasy)—the pleasure of an intelligent, skillful writer amusing himself and us.
There is sometimes a price to be paid by the readers of even intelligent and enjoyable popular fiction. They are not left with anything, any more than the riders of a rollercoaster are left with anything (one hopes) when the ride is through. But if I felt a little empty at the end of this novel, I did not at all feel cheated. Sometimes it's part of the deal. Fun, sense of wonder moments, moments of emotional or aesthetic depth, and compulsively pleasurable reading isn't always enough, but sometimes it is.
In a better world, a collection of Enge's short fiction would already be available. There's surely enough by now. Perhaps some sensible—or if it's not sensible, some reckless—publisher will take the hint. While Blood of Ambrose is complete in all important respects, not primarily the set-up for more volumes, there's plenty unresolved that could be taken up in future books and stories, including a possible future confrontation between Merlin, who has a scene just at the end of the book, and his children. In fact, the relation of the novel's events to the short stories already published is not entirely clear; this may be a "prequel" to some of them. I'm not sure of the exact chronology, though I suspect Enge has a continuity in mind, but "a magical book in the palindromic script of ancient Ontil," Morlock's "latest feat of making" at the end of this book (p. 388), seems to be something he's carrying at the beginning of "Turn Up This Crooked Way," and he does not, in the short stories, have with him the dwarf apprentice Wyrtheorn, who in the book has been his long-time companion.
Given the loose and episodic nature of the Morlock stories, Enge hardly needs a set-up to tell more of them. He could conceivably keep on writing them for years. It's a happy thought.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published twenty-two short stories, with more forthcoming, and over 250 nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.