Review: A Guile of Dragons by James Enge


A Guile of Dragons : A Tournament of Shadows Book 1 by James Enge (2012)

A Guile of Dragons marks James Enge’s fourth novel featuring the ever more popular character Morlock Ambrosius. Those familiar with Enge’s work, through the previous novels (Blood of Ambrose 2009 (nominated for Best Fantasy Book of the Year), This Crooked Way 2009 (an episodic narrative of linked short stories), and The Wolf Age 2010) or his short fiction in Black Gate magazine (BG14, 12, 11, 10, 9 & 8) or the Swords & Dark Magic (Harper Voyager, 2010) anthology may remember Morlock as the crotchety alcoholic, sword swinging, master maker (wizard). However, Guile is a prequel to the established novels and shorts and is part of Morlock’s origin story.

James Enge sets himself a doubly hard task in A Guile of Dragons. Firstly, it is book one of a trilogy, and, secondly, it is a prequel. Both present distinct challenges. Book ones need to capture attention, give the reader something to engage the imagination and stimulate interest, and provide narrative satisfaction while still leaving something for the rest of the series to develop. This is not easy at the best of times. Prequels also have a few paradoxical conditions all of their own. Fans of the previous books want to delve deeper into a character’s past and backstory, while at the same time see hints and foreshadowing of later events, rewarding their loyalty and knowledge of the series. Narrative tension is harder to maintain when the reader already knows that there is a distinct lack of peril. The story and world must be accessible to new readers but also not bore fans of the earlier works who already know and understand the world and characters. It is therefore a testament to his growing prowess as an author that Enge walks this fine line almost effortlessly.

Enge’s development as a writer can also be seen in how he has moved his story away from its stereotypical mythic roots. As the continuation of a world and series, Enge can’t quite escape the Arthurian influences and connections in his earlier Morlock stories, nor the resemblance to the world construction and cosmology of Zelazny’s Amber, but in Guile, as in The Wolf Age, he has managed to create something that seems much more his own voice and vision. The world of Guile possesses an individual quality and originality that is somewhat missing from many of Enge’s previous narratives too heavily derived from earlier sources. So while Merlin is still Morlock’s father, and some Arthurian elements and aspects remain, he manages to evoke an engaging world that stands on its own as a fantasy creation and setting. What is more impressive is that his short story writing has honed his ability to conjure detailed worlds, characters and societies without resorting to bald exposition and overly long descriptions.

While the Werewolf city of Wuruyaaria formed the central locale in the last book, the majority of the action in Guile occurs in and around the Dwarven nation of Thrymhaiam. As a nation and a race, Enge has given the Dwarves distinct characteristics and characterisations removed from that of Tolkien’s defining creation or even Markus Heitz’s updated version. Unlike previous authors’ attempts to reinvent an established fantasy race, Enge actually succeeds in making the Dwarves both recognisable in their Dwarvishness and yet feel fresh and naturally developed. Their love of mining and gems is explained simply and yet effectively. Their gruff manner seems natural and understandable given their code of honour and intractable devotion to family and clan. These core aspects of fantasy Dwarves are made to feel simple, straightforward and, paradoxically, original. A revelation toward the end of the novel cements this vision of the Dwarves as unique and provides a wonderful rationale and explanation of their entire world view.

In The Wolf Age, a major strength of Enge’s approach was to design a unique language and culture for the werewolves utilising his academic expertise for exploring and explaining ancient languages and cultures and combined it with his storytelling and inventiveness. A disadvantage to this was that while it was consistent, logical and fascinating, the lupine language was exceptionally difficult to read leading to a frustrating experience trying to understand and articulate character names. The language made logical sense and was a brilliant stroke, but visually (and indeed aurally) it was a major stumbling block for those without his background in classics and ancient history (or an inability to mimic wolf sounds). This has been substantially redressed in Guile. The same attention to detail and creative talent has been utilised to give the Dwarven language and culture an authenticity that hasn’t been seen since Tolkien, but he has taken pity on his reader and minimised the use of the specific language constructs. The Dwarven names are relatively short yet, despite the rare outright appearance of the Dwarvish tongue, this depth of design permeates the entire culture. From subtle nuances such as the method for navigating the deep mines (thankfully not relying on a special power or Dwarvish ability) to more overt cultural aspects such as the clan hierarchy emphasising blood kinship there is both a consistency and originality to the Dwarven race.

As an origin story, the reader becomes privy to the mystical events that lead to the strange and mysterious birth of Morlock. The result of which is that the young baby Morlock is fostered by the ruler of the Dwarves. Understandably this leads to some resentment of not only his birth parents, of whom he is ashamed and resents, but more subtly of his adopted ‘race’ due to his feelings of alienation and difference. Given how this character has been represented later in his life in the other stories, this psychological development and scarring sow the seeds for Morlock’s later dysfunctions and ‘outsider’ status. Yet Enge cleverly weaves this overt character origin story with an exploration of the origins of the Dwarvish race. As the story progresses the reader follows Morlock as he slowly uncovers aspects of his personal history as well as that of his adoptive family. The blending of the two plot lines in this thematic fashion, melding Morlock’s feelings of abandonment and betrayal on both a personal and racial level, adds depth to the narrative and provides a conceptual theme that links the various story elements neatly and effectively. In particular, the leitmotif of betrayal forms a consistent touchstone that Enge returns to again and again to great effect. This combination of recurrent theme and concept permeates the entire narrative providing an effective consistency to the narrative without being heavy handed. Indeed there are very few elements of the story that feel disparate or unconnected which can be a problem in long fiction written by short fiction authors.

As with previous work, Enge does not focus solely on Morlock’s perspective, allowing the reader to view the character from external subjective perspectives. This subtle reframing of the narrative focus encourages reader engagement with other characters, the prejudices and problems of the various cultures and societies, and adds to the sense of verisimilitude of the fantasyland. An additional benefit is that Morlock retains his mystery and mystique as the narration does not delve too deeply into his thoughts and opinions but gives just enough to emphasise Morlock’s point of view and his status as the central character. However, this leads to a discussion of some of the, albeit minor, weaknesses of Guile.

The secondary character of Earno, while initially an important and thought-provoking character perspective, is dropped almost entirely from the narrative at a certain point for little discernible reason. The inclusion of further secondary Graith characters Aloê, Naevros, Noreê, Illion, and Jordel also seems forced and arbitrary. No doubt this signals their importance for later development in the subsequent sequels, and Enge probably wanted to familiarise his readers with them, but ultimately they feel unnecessary and distract from the main thrust of the novel. Another character that doesn’t quite live up to Enge’s originality is the pater familias of the Dwarven clan, Thyr. While a likable and interesting character, a gruff Dwarven king, who is honourable and has a deeply affectionate side, and who also acts as a surrogate father to the hero, Thyr could have stepped straight from the pages of fantasy cliché. Weis and Hickman’s Flint Fireforge from their Dragonlance series, or R.A. Salvatore’s Bruenor Battlehammer from his Forgotten Realms novels, are equally representative of this cliché, but given Enge’s originality in almost every other aspect of this novel, it seems worse that he fell back on this overused trope.

The most disappointing aspect of Guile may also be one of its strongest selling points for other readers. There is a distinct lack of epic action. The majority of the novel focuses on lesser moments of action, when they are included at all, and Enge prefers to explore the build-up to and aftermath of battles and fights from a personal and individual narrative perspective. By keeping the focus so close to a single character in these sequences there is no real overview of the vast, epic nature of the conflicts, and some of the most important action sequences happen off page. As a result, while the story features dragons and undead warrior kings (definitely not barrowwights… well ok so there are still some elements of Tolkien that Enge ‘borrows’), the conflicts feel small and underdeveloped despite their epic ramifications and the scale of the threat. This leads to the dramatic ending of Guile feeling underwhelming and dissatisfying.

On the whole, the strengths of A Guile of Dragons outweigh the minor plotting weaknesses, and the lack of overt epic action is as much a stylistic choice and strength as it is a weakness. James Enge delivers a fascinating and original perspective on Dwarves and has successfully crafted an engaging and entertaining origin story for his signature character, Morlock Ambrosius. This book promises great things for the rest of the trilogy and the continuing development of Enge’s fantasy setting.

(Originally reviewed in Vector)

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