Posts Tagged ‘Arthurian fiction’

The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

July 23, 2014 5 comments


The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2014) is a reprint of a book that first appeared in 1979 (yes this author is beginning to get a little long in the tooth). So while you can expect some of the writing style and flourishes that have become trademarks, this is the third book by an author of just twenty-five summers. It’s reasonably good, but don’t expect it to be one of the greatest books by Powers. As you might expect, we’re in an alternate version of Europe in the sixteenth century with Brian Duffy, an Irish mercenary, who’s been trudging from one fight to another for many a year. After minor difficulty in Venice, he accepts a job from Aurelianus as a “bouncer” (an interesting anachronism) in the Vienna inn where the famous Nertzwesten Beer is brewed. Unfortunately, this job coincides with the arrival of Suleiman the Magnificent accompanied by the pick of the Ottoman Empire’s army. This gives us our theme of West vs. East with physical forces and magical powers (pun intended) ranged against each other with the fate of Europe in the balance. For those of you interested in the history, Vienna did come under siege in 1529 and the failure to win decisively produced a loss of momentum. Had Vienna fallen, the Ottoman forces could probably have overrun the major European armies and produced an empire of vassal states.

Using the history as an excuse, Powers has both sides pulling out the best (and worst) of their magical weaponry. For the West, the defence hinges on the the ability of Merlin, acting on the instructions of the Fisher King, to find the reincarnated Arthur and let him lead the fight for the future of the West. During the course of the book, it becomes obvious that several other “heroes” have been reincarnated, or are guided by their supernatural abilities, to spend a few months in Vienna to help in the fight. However, as is always the case once you open the mythic box, the lineage of heroes has centuries to draw on and we also get a brief view of the Norse gods as well. As the physical battle reaches its climax, the magical forces also lock horns (and anything else they can fight with). It’s not a spoiler to reveal the book stays true to the historical outcome to this siege.

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

Tim Powers in the light against the dark

As linear narrative historical fantasies go, this is reasonably well constructed and the plot dynamics all come together well in the climatic battle. There’s also some humour — the description of the hunchback’s funeral is a gem to treasure. But there are one of two fairly major flaws. As everyone will quickly realise, our hero Brian Duffy is the reincarnated Arthur but, to prolong the suspense, this is not revealed to him until quite a way through the book. The problem for the reader, therefore, is to reconcile the character we first meet with with occasional glimpses of the Arthur legend tells us to expect. Since he’s profoundly stubborn, Brian lives in denial of his “heritage” and mostly manages to keep his own personality and fighting abilities to the fore. I’m not sure this is managed successfully, particularly because we have a doomed love affair with the Guinevere reincarnation. To my jaded eyes, this is not handled well. And compounding all the problems with character, I’m still not quite sure what the effect of the dark is supposed to be. The brewery in Vienna which is the real target for the invaders, not the city, produces three varieties of beer. Needless to say, the dark is the most potent and needs a long time to complete its “fermentation”. But having arrived at the end, there are two issues left unexplained. First, the production process for all three beers seems almost entirely supernatural. I was expecting a real brewery but this is completely unreal without any hint of how it’s supposed to produce enough beer to keep the city and its troops supplied throughout the siege. Second, the book finishes before the dark is ready to be drunk and we therefore have no understanding of who gets to drink it, why they would drink it, and what the results are. Unless its only function is to keep the Fisher King alive which, in turn, will keep the spirits of the West high. But that would not explain why others have drunk it before and are now pestering Merlin for more of it now. Since the beer features in the title, you would think the author would have condescended to explain it a little better.

So here comes the short summary. I read The Skies Discrowned when it first came out and didn’t bother picking up the next two books by Powers. Fortunately, I did buy a copy of The Anubis Gates and, for the most part, I’ve been a fan of Powers ever since. The Drawing of the Dark has its moments, but it’s fairly generic historical fiction by modern standards. If you’re a Powers completist, you will buy this to get a sight of the early writer at work. If you have not yet tried Powers, this is not the right place to start. Read The Anubis Gate first to see whether you like his approach.

For reviews of other books by Tim Powers, see:
Hide Me Among the Graves
Nobody’s Home
Salvage and Demolition
and for a review of the film adaptation: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011).

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Wrath-Bearing Tree by James Enge

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment


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.


Dark North by Paul Finch

Well here we go with another of these mashup series. This time, we’re in a shared world where different authors are invited to conflate dark fantasy with Arthurian fiction with military fiction with alternate history with horror. In this, Abaddon Books has an interesting strategy by putting together a team of house writers who are commissioned to turn out new books in one or more of the series currently being run. This time, we’re looking at Dark North by Paul Finch (Abaddon, 2012) the third in the Malory’s Knights of Albion series. The first two are The Black Chalice by Steven Savile and The Savage Knight by Paul Lewis. This makes it slightly difficult to review since I’m not sure what happened in the earlier books. All I can do is deal with what I have.

The preface announces that this series is supposedly based on a newly discovered work by Sir Thomas Malory, representing a continuation of the history described in Le Morte D’Arthur. While this book makes no effort at reproducing Malory’s style, it does borrow extensively from the catalogue of characters, placing them in a rather different situation. To that extent, the book avoids being mere pastiche. Although it allegedly draws on an original source, it’s retelling a new story in a consistent modern style for readers today. So what’s happening in this new timeline?

As in the real world, the Roman Empire has broken into what we would call the Byzantine Empire in the east, and a rump of the old Empire in the West. However, Rome has not given up and is now rebuilding its control over Gaul and into the fringes of Germania where it has an on-going conflict with the Saxons. As a symbol of its progress to reunification, the Emperor decides Rome needs a symbolic victory. The best he can devise to send a message to all those wavering is to retake control of Britannia which is now firmly under the control of King Arthur in Camelot. In this, the Emperor is covertly being encouraged by the Pope. If the Emperor succeeds, he will likely consolidate the power of the Church. If he should lose, the Pope will assume responsibility for spreading the gospel across whatever borders come into place. Either way, the Church believes it will win. Thus encouraged, the Emperor musters legions in northern Gaul and sends a diplomatic mission to King Arthur as a final gesture to resolve matters without the need to start another war. Unfortunately, one of the Roman team has obviously read the Iliad and persuades the wife of Lord Lucan — the Black Wolf of the North — to run away with him (cf Paris taking Helen from King Menelaus). Or perhaps he’d just heard the Knights of Camelot like to go on quests and thoughtfully provided someone for Lord Lucan to look for.

Paul Finch looking suitably Arthurian or patrician as you prefer

Having established a faintly credible casus belli and to start the ball rolling, the Romans have one of their vassal states invade Brittany which has a mutual defence pact with Camelot. As you would expect, King Arthur arrives from the wrong direction and more quickly than the Emperor is expecting. Nevertheless, the Emperor believes in the power of numerical superiority. It does not occur to him that he can lose. We then have a rerun of the Battle of Crécy with Arthur and his lot making the daft Romans run uphill through a narrow valley to get to them. With British archers and crossbowmen the best in Europe, the Roman cohorts never stand a chance in the initial advance. When the cavalry makes what’s intended to be a flanking attack in a confined area, the line breaks, exposing the inexperienced Emperor to a swift demise.

So what we have in the first quarter is a sketchy political feint by Rome followed by a detailed description of a military campaign and major battle. Framing this is a fight with a mythological giant worm in the north of Britain and then a quest overlaid with supernatural threats to wrap things up. It’s this final third that sets the book alight. Although I can’t say I mind a good battle with lots of folks hacking at each other with swords of different lengths, you just can’t beat a really good quest. In this case, our initial team of Lord Lucan plus a party of thirty is slowly whittled down by a series of interesting nasties conjured up by a witch with predatory maternal instincts. At this point I should explain that, contrary to your natural expectations when picking up a work of Arthurian fiction, the Dark North referred to is not Gateshead or any other mouth into the British version of Hell, but a nice mountainside villa in North Italy where the tendency to drip the blood of virgins into a convenient pit produces quite dangerous incursions into our world from the “other side”.

No matter what you might think of alternate history with battles thrown in, anyone with an interest in fantasy horror should read this book. The chase away from the battlefield and into the foothills of the Alps is a magnificently sustained piece of writing with a more satisfying human drama being played out as we approach the climactic confrontation. It addresses some very intriguing questions. In an arranged marriage where the wife has allowed lust to overcome her political duty to her husband, should the cuckolded husband be chasing her to bring her home or kill her for disloyalty? In a world where King Arthur insists on honour and integrity unless the only way to win is to fight dirty, why do knights and squires stay loyal to their lord? Can a son avoid following in his parent’s footsteps? If a prisoner gives his word not to escape, should he leave when given the chance? And finally, is everyone else expendable so long as you survive? Both in the conversations the relevant parties have and the way they act when under pressure, we get answers to these and other interesting questions. It’s a tour de force! I read Dark North as a stand-alone and would unhesitatingly recommend it to everyone.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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