A Guile of Dragons by James Enge
It’s sometimes surprising to see characters slowly acquire a life for themselves outside the original source material. Over the generations, one of the most transcendent has been Merlin, sometimes Merlin Ambrosius. He first emerges as a quasi-historical figure courtesy of Geoffrey of Monmouth, but them gets co-opted into the Arthurian legends. In more modern times, he’s a regular in fantasy books, the cinema and on television. One of the more intriguing issues has always been his origin. He starts off being the offspring of a mortal woman and a succubus and, most inspiringly, as Myrddin in the Stargate television series, where he’s one of the Ascended from the Pegasus galaxy. It’s this latter I find the most interesting because the creative writing team has this extraterrestrial insert Arthurian mythology into our culture, i.e. there’s a positive effort being made to provide a new context for the character and, most importantly, redefine the relationship with King Arthur. At least they were thinking constructively about the “magical” being we call Merlin and trying to push the envelope. Too often writers are lazy and trot Merlin out of the stables, simply assuming we’re all familiar with the backstory and don’t need any further explanations.
All of which brings me to A Guile of Dragons by James Enge (the pseudonym of James M. Pfundstein) (Pyr, 2012), A Tournament of Shadows Book I, which is the most comprehensive efforts to reinvent Merlin I can recall reading. What makes it all so satisfying is the degree of consistency between what has gone before and where it all might go. If there was a problem with the science fiction version offered by Stargate it was that there was no explanation for the dragons, dwarves and other associated flora and fauna of the mythology. Enge, on the other hand, has woven Merlin Ambrosius into a metareality in which all the different creatures and races exist and, in some cases, fight with each other. Like Myrddin, this Merlin has been interfering with Britain and, for that, he’s arrested and put on trial by the Guardians in the Wardland city named A Thousand Towers. The principal witness against him is Nimue who, as his current partner, is carrying his son. Proving all these opening chapters to be a prequel, she births the child while giving evidence. Merlin is exiled, the child is named Morlock syr Theorn Ambrosius, and he’s raised among the dwarves. Suffice it to say this is not a “normal” child because, as Nimue was being transported to the Wardlands by Earno, she tried to escape by jumping into the Sea of Worlds. This had a marked effect both on her and the foetus.
The focus of the rest of the book sees the now adult Morlock return to his adoptive home with the dwarves in time to fight the dragons, their ancient enemies. Lurking to one side is Earno who had trapped Merlin and brought him to the judgment of the Guardians. He has travelled north because, in a vision, he saw the Wardlands fall in flames. Now he finds himself at the centre of the war that could burn out of control. For him, the problem is whether he should trust Morlock, son of the exiled “traitor”. Morlock could be working with his natural father, Merlin, to destabilise the Wardlands. Later, Earno could be the victim of a dragonspell. There are so many possibilities that might make him unreliable. To Morlock, of course, Earno is caught in the past and so deeply prejudiced, he can’t clearly see what’s happening around him. Indeed, the longer we look at the Guardian set-up, the less impressive it seems to be. As with all hierarchies, it has become complacent and riddled with the usual form of corruption through which people of approved status advance, and the others obey or leave. The problem with such organisations, no matter where they are, is their access to power. It’s not so much that power corrupts, but that the political use of power causes very complicated and divisive results.
This is a fascinating fantasy in which the eternally feuding Fate and Chaos hatch a plot to end the rule of the Guardians in the Wardlands. The real story of the dwarves and their relationship to the dragons is a marvelous surprise and explains why the war between them will be very difficult to resolve. As the novel progresses, it’s good to see Morlock come to terms with his fathers. The legacy of Ambrosius is never going to sit comfortably on his son’s shoulders, particularly as he was abandoned to the dwarves upon birth. Equally, Morlock has reason to feel betrayed by his adoptive dwarf father. A little humility and a lot of reconciliation is going to be required as this series unwinds.
As a final thought, the prose is rather stripped down and functional. This is not a criticism as such, but it records the fact that many who write fantasy believe a more florid style is appropriate. This gets the job done and makes A Guile of Dragons one of the most interesting of the fantasies so far this year.
For a review of the next in the series, see Wrath-Bearing Tree.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.