Already an exile, Morlock Ambrosius is now also officially an outlaw in This Crooked Way. Winter finds him wandering when his horse, Velox, is stolen. Previous adventures have earned Morlock’s loyalty to the mystical steed and it’s apparent that the horse theft is a tactic to lure Morlock into a series of traps orchestrated by an enemy from his past. So into the dangerous pass called the Kirack Kund — dwarvish for “The River of Skulls” — The Crooked Man goes. This quest will end up lasting several years in which Morlock encounters golems, monsters, rival sorcerers, insectoid tribes, thieves, street gangs, and dragons, and even sort of adopts (or perhaps is adopted by) a misfit family.
This is the second novel Mr. Enge has written about his intriguing character. He has also written short stories about Morlock in Black Gate magazine and in the anthologies The Return of the Sword and Swords and Dark Magic. Morlock Ambrosius is one of the most fascinating and fun heroes in fantasy. Simply said, I’m hooked.
Morlock is a genius. He was fostered by dwarves a couple centuries ago and he learned swordplay from the greatest master of all time. He is very proficient in most all the arcane arts, which only makes sense, because his father is none other than Merlin himself. However, Morlock’s unmatched expertise is in the making of magical things. With his great engineer’s mind, he meets every problem, no matter how deadly, with a cold, calculating thought process, like it’s a mere mathematical riddle to be solved. He can be ruthless; an alcoholic, currently a recovered one, he threatens murder when offered a drink one time too many — a threat he surely would’ve acted on. But he can also be compassionate — showing mercy to treacherous enemies or putting himself in harm’s way for a stranger.
The events that build up to the ending of This Crooked Way read much like a series of continuing short stories in the tradition of sword & sorcery tales.
Many different characters tell of these adventures; some are told by friends of Morlock but more than a few by his foes. The various points of view, influenced by the terrifying stories that all have grown up hearing about The Crooked Man, only deepen the mystery of Morlock Ambrose.
These stories are as clever, witty, and darkly whimsical, as Morlock is himself. I plan to read them all and I’ll also be watching closely for anything else James Enge writes.
Morlock Ambrosius has a problem with his father. Most problems are eminently solvable for the seer and master-maker, but because his father is Merlin Ambrosius — yes, that Merlin — this one’s a bit trickier. Shortly after helping his sister stabilize a kingdom, as chronicled in James Enge‘s fine debut novel, Blood of Ambrose, Morlock finds his conflict with Merlin entering a new and deadlier phase. And when two men with such vast powers collide, both bystanders and entire races will be irrevocably impacted.
It’s difficult to provide a more detailed yet spoiler-free review of This Crooked Way. The difficulty stems from the author’s deliberate construction of the novel from an eclectic series of loosely connecting vignettes. (Several of these vignettes have previously appeared as short stories in Black Gate magazine.) As a result, the tale itself reflects the crooked way in which Morlock and his companions — most often a family under his protection — encounter one foe or life-threatening puzzle after another, before the final encounter with Merlin. What does this mean for readers? Those who prefer more traditional epic fantasies with increasing tension and a consistent third-person viewpoint may find the looseness of the main plot thread and the switches between first- and third-person narration disconcerting. On the other hand, readers who are game for a different approach, and a main character who’s neither a misplaced savior-prince or a sassy huntress of things that go moan in the night, will likely find much to enjoy in the niche Enge has fashioned between traditional sword-and-sorcery and the “New Weird.” Whereas old-school S&S heroes battled in maelstroms of “blood and thunder” (or “thud and blunder,” in the less-stellar tales), the cerebral, taciturn Morlock — a blend of Solomon Kane, Gandalf, Mr. Spock, and something wholly his own — survives by both “blood and ponder(ing).”
In truth, he also survives by his possessions and sheer power. Besides wit and swordsmanship, his powers include long life; immunity to fire; flammable blood; life-like golem creation; the ability to enter into a state of rapture, in which he can hibernate, manipulate matter, and create illusions; gold creation; magic that stuns with a word; and the ability to tie both shoes at once (really). His possessions include a sword which comes when called; a collection of sentient flames; a sleep-inducing bird in a bottle; a super-lockpick; a rat-summoning pipe; a winged globe-bomb; and a magic bean (a la Jack). It’s a testament to Enge’s creativity and playfulness that he can repeatedly build situations that actually threaten such a character, and it also raises a question for (one hopes) future examination: how did Morlock become who he is and acquire so many wondrous items? (And another, one touched upon in the book’s Appendix B, a short but elaborate piece of non-non-fiction, I think: what’s the relationship between Morlock’s world and ours, given Merlin’s access to both worlds and Morlock’s knowledge of Latin?)
Like Blood of Ambrose, This Crooked Way is an intelligent and unique example of modern sword-and-sorcery fiction. It won’t appeal to everyone, but fans of sword-and-sorcery or non-stereotypical fantasy should definitely give it a look. Four loquacious flames.
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.