One of the challenges of having read a fair amount of fantasy is that I find myself comparing the novels I’ve read. I look for similarities between books, characters and storylines. James Enge’s The Wolf Age is built around the anti-hero who rebels against the existing order, a well used archetype. Fortunately, Enge still manages to put his story together in such a way that makes for a compelling read.
Morlock Ambrosius is a stranger traveling through lands that are being raided and pillaged by a nation of werewolves. Morlock’s combination of martial prowess and magical skills allow for accomplishments that would be otherwise impossible, and he serves as a catalyst for change. Morlock tries to stay out of trouble, but is swept up by a band of raiding werewolves that throw him in prison. They plan to either have him killed by other prisoners or to use him to kill other prisoners. It’s a pretty violent setting, and it’s a motif that runs throughout The Wolf Age. Surprisingly, Morlock makes friends in the prison and they escape together. This escape and the threat they become to the political orders of the werewolf nation makes for the bulk of the story.
Morlock’s werewolf friends from prison become very important to him. The loyalty that builds between Morlock and his companions was my favorite part of The Wolf Age. Seldom have I found something that I admired quite so much as the way that this bond was integrated into the story. “Blood for Blood” — that sort of morality really appeals to me, and it adds a sense of honor and integrity even in a prison setting that I truly found remarkable.
The magic of Enge’s world also appealed to me. He does not get incredibly detailed, but the terms Enge uses and the ways that magic affects things operated according to an intuitive logic. Enge twists science through arcane skills that allow matter and life to be manipulated in a logical fashion. Very cool stuff, in my opinion.
However, The Wolf Age is not a perfect book. There are storylines that I felt didn’t have a place in the book. One of the central premises is an unannounced war amongst the Stranger Gods that I just never got comfortable with. It didn’t really detract from the story, but it just felt ill constructed compared to the rest of The Wolf Age. Despite small defects, Enge has created a story that I wanted to finish. I wanted to know how things would turn out, and I enjoyed Enge’s juxtaposition of loyalty with Morlock’s harsh world. The Wolf Age is a very solid book.
Morlock Ambrose gets into yet another mess when he defies a band of werewolf slavers raiding a human village in the barren lands of the north. After enduring a long incarceration in a werewolf prison, Morlock incites a riot that allows him and the other werewolf and semi-werewolf convicts to escape. Then he only gets himself mixed up in the brutal politics of the werewolf kingdom called Wuruyaaria. To make matters worse, this could all be the designs of the Strange Gods who are in a struggle for their own survival.
Morlock is the greatest of all makers and is an almost unbeatable fighter. His father is the legendary Merlin and he was fostered by dwarves. In Morlock’s centuries of life, he’s been a fabled guardian, a feared outlaw, and his very name is considered by most to be a curse. He can even converse with crows. Simply put, Morlock Ambrose is the ultimate “man-for-all-seasons.” I can’t help but think of him as a fantasy version of the spokesman for Dos Equis beer. So you can tell I’ve got quite a thing for the “Crooked Man.” When it comes to current sword & sorcery tales, the only author who creates characters anywhere near as cool as Mr. Enge’s Morlock Ambrose is Joe Abercrombie.
That being said, of all the Morlock stories I’ve read — The Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way, the short stories in the anthology Swords and Dark Magic, and the recently released and currently free e-book, The Travelers’ Rest — The Wolf Age is my least favorite.
Enge’s writing style can be rather complex — he does teach Latin and Greek after all. So he has a tendency to use obscure words. That’s one of the elements that makes his writing unique. (The dictionary function in my Amazon Kindle gets a workout when I read Morlock Ambrose e-books.) Also, while Enge’s weird world-building is very detailed in the appendix, by design it’s left somewhat vague in the story itself.
But for this book, combining that style with a bizarre werewolf society that has its own crazy languages is just a little too much. The werewolf names and words are unpronounceable, at least for me, and even kind of look the same at first glance. Reading them over and over wore me out, and sometimes even confused the story. There is an appendix, but due to the warning of spoilers I was reluctant to use it and when I did, it just proved distracting. However, to be fair, hard to pronounce, made-up words and names are a personal pet-peeve. So other fantasy fans may not have the same issues that I did.
Still, when Morlock is at his best, which is when he is doling out vengeance on his enemies, protecting the weak, loyally standing up for his own, or puzzling out the answer to a mystery, this tale is as much fun as his other dark adventures. While The Wolf Age may be my least favorite Morlock Ambrose book, Morlock is still one of my favorites.
Morlock Ambrosius — (2009-2010) Publisher: Behind the King’s life stands the menacing Protector, and beyond him lies the Protector’s Shadow… Centuries after the death of Uthar the Great, the throne of the Ontilian Empire lies vacant. The late Emperor’s brother-in-law and murderer, Lord Urdhven, appoints himself Protector to his nephew, young King Lathmar VII and sets out to kill anyone who stands between himself and mastery of the Empire, including (if he can manage it) the King himself and his ancient but still formidable ancestress, Ambrosia Viviana. When Ambrosia is accused of witchcraft and put to trial by combat, she is forced to play her trump card and call on her brother, Morlock Ambrosius — stateless person, master of all magical makers, deadly swordsman, and hopeless drunk. As ministers of the king, they carry on the battle, magical and mundane, against the Protector and his shadowy patron. But all their struggles will be wasted unless the young king finds the strength to rule in his own right and his own name.