Wrath-Bearing Tree by James Enge
This review must perforce begin with thoughts about Jack Vance. Perhaps my age predisposes me to believe him one of the best genre writers of the last sixty years — I did grow up reading his books as they were published — but there’s more objective evidence of his enduring popularity with much of his work still in print (a rarity today for someone who rose to fame during the 1950s and 60s) and a recent anthology dedicated to him selling well (Songs of the Dying Earth edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois). The anthology highlights one of Vance’s strength — the high fantasy story with a sense of humour. This is not comedy writing in the same vein as, say, Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Rather it’s more ironic or potentially sardonic in the situations explored and the attitudes exposed. This is a prequel to describing James Enge (the pseudonym of James M. Pfundstein) as subVancean in Wrath-Bearing Tree (Pyr, 2013), A Tournament of Shadows Book 2. This is not, you understand, a condemnation. Someone who writes in a comparable style is not, ipso facto, inferior in producing results. But it gives you a flavour of what the author intends, namely, an episodic travelogue across a hostile fantasy land with the option to smile if any of the jokes hit the spot for you. To clarify, this book is a form of expansion on Arthurian fiction insofar as the main protagonists are Merlin and his kin.
The opening episode is one of these outstanding moments that settle the reader down with a contented smile, now more hopeful the rest of the book will follow at the same high level. Our “hero”, Morlock syr Theorn Ambrosius (a son produced by Merlin) has the misfortune to be at sea. For the record, he has a chronic problem with motion sickness. It’s therefore a mixed blessing for him when a local entrepreneur sinks the ship by bombarding it with the local equivalent of Greek fire. Once he gains the shore, he has the pleasure of fighting for his life. Normally, this would not be too challenging but, having lost his footwear while swimming, his feet are being cut to pieces on the rocky terrain. As the pages turn, however, it becomes clear the author has shot his bolt with the first episode and our meeting with Merlin’s daughter(s). Sadly, we slow down to a crawl. Indeed, this opening episode is almost completely free-standing. It gives us the title to the book and then is only rarely mentioned again. So we traipse after Morlock as he fantasises about having the courage to speak with Aloê Oaij only to find himself sent on a mission with her. Hurray for their mutual lust, or something.
The first half of the book therefore has the besotted Morlock not getting it on with the young woman. Then the ice is broken with some anatomically explicit sex, followed by a slightly unfortunate explanation for Aloê’s frigidity. It seems her family were under a spell so they saw nothing wrong with a cousin raping Aloê as a child but the spell was not strong enough to persuade them it was acceptable for said cousin to cool his penis in the evening bowl of gazpacho. Soup rape is beyond the pale, no matter what the strength of the spell, you understand. While not a direct example of the book’s humour, it points to the problem. The inclusion of such a dark element combined with explicit sex scenes, should predispose the reader to find this a dark fantasy. Yet the author’s actual intention is to make jokes, sometimes about sex or the results of sex. Indeed, the author is so desperate to insert humour into the book that, as an omniscient author, he interpolates comments intended to provoke a smile. He doesn’t trust his characters and the situations in which they find themselves to be amusing. He has to puff up his own wares. The result is an increasingly tedious read. When a barbarian and thief are briefly introduced to meet their doom, you get to see how hard the author is trying to milk every trope for a smile.
So, sadly, all the good work of the first book in this series is thrown away. I was really looking forward to this, but ended up bitterly disappointed. Even the inventive bits like the two-sisters-for-the-price-of one, are rather wasted as anachronisms and clichés abound to allow our mages to invent the propeller, first in pedal power and then to supply enough oomph for a hydrofoil. Magical versions of steampunk are tiresome. Even getting the generations of Merlinfolk together fails to spark interest. They argue and not very amusingly. So despite all the twists and turns on the way to the resolution of their mutual problem, Wrath-Bearing Tree is not worth the effort. Jack Vance will be cringing in his grave if he gets to read this in the afterlife.
For a review of the first in the series, see A Guile of Dragons.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.