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Wrath-Bearing Tree by James Enge

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

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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.

James Enge

James Enge

 

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.

 

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.

James Enge looking suitably professorial

 

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.

 

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