I just finished James Enge’s epic fantasy A Guile of Dragons, the first book in the TOURNAMENT OF SHADOWS series. This was an enjoyable read. Enge plays with traditional tropes, dragons, dwarves, wizards and heroes, but he puts a refreshing spin on the classic images. There may be dragons and unicorns (yes, there is a unicorn) but they’re not exactly what you’re used to.
In the land of Laent, Morlock syr Theorn was raised by the dwarves, but his biological father is Merlin Ambrosius. Merlin was exiled from Laent, along with Morlock’s mother, by the Guardians, the magical protectors of this land. Morlock is a talented Maker or magician but he hates that his power comes from Ambrosius. He wants to repudiate his heritage, which includes an immunity to fire. Morlock was brought up by Tyr, the Eldest, or ruler, of the dwarves of Thrymhaiam.
Morlock’s gray eyes glared at the thing with distaste. “You should get rid of it. It is ugly, ill-made, possibly dangerous.”
Tyr looked mildly at his ugly, ill-made and possibly dangerous son. “I collect such things, though,” he said, “and I don’t lightly get rid of those I’ve become attached to. I’ll keep it, if you don’t mind.”
The people of Laent fear the dragons, with whom the dwarves fought the Long War. The dragons breathe venom and fire, but they also speak and work magic, and to look into a dragon’s eyes is to invite a dragonspell. The dragons have not attacked in many years, but that is about to change.
In the city of A Thousand Towers, the Summoner Earno has a cryptic dream and senses that something is amiss in the north. Earno was the architect of Merlin’s exile. He is also a rokhlan, a dragon killer. Earno is a powerful magician and an honest man, but he is arrogant and judgmental. When Morlock is assigned to guide him to Thrymhaiam, Earno quickly recognizes him as an Ambrosius. He misconstrues Morlock’s feelings towards his blood father and his loyalty to Tyr, and leaps to conclusions about Morlock’s motives and plans. He is particularly perplexed by words muttered by Morlock when he is in a trance: “Regin and Fafnir were brothers.”
Soon the dragons attack Thryhaiam. Earno, full of pride, instructs Morlock to carry his challenge to the alpha male dragon, the master of the guile, as a clan of dragons is called. Earno will not listen when Morlock tries to tell him that the dragons are acting differently than their ancestors from the Long War. For one thing, in those days the master wore a metal collar; all three of the dragons who attached the stronghold have collars. Morlock attempts to deliver the challenge, but along the way discovers confusing information about the creatures. From Arthurian England, Merlin is contacting him through dreams, and to save his people and his land Morlock must accept his heritage and the truth about the nature of the dragons.
Enge’s characters, while not very deep, are well-drawn for this type of story. Nimue, Morlock’s mother, plays a tiny role in the book but is probably the most interesting. My personal favorite is Morlock’s dwarf brother Deor, who gets all the funny lines. Earno is a good foil for Morlock. A group of Guardians is rushed onstage in the last quarter of the book. One of them, Noree, we have met before; the others, particularly Aloe Oaij, the traditional beautiful girl with a chip on her shoulder, seem to be there just to set up some things for the next book.
Morlock’s battle with the master dragon is powerful and dramatic. The final battle, on a hill of treasure, between a battered, bloodied hero with a shield and a fire-belching dragon, looks familiar, but Morlock ultimately uses brains, not brawn, to defeat his enemy.
Enge’s prose is smooth and a pleasure to read. In some places characters knew far more than I did and didn’t provide enough clues for me to follow along. In other places, they talked too much about things I already knew. Neither of these particularly threw me out of the book, because there was enough action and intrigue to keep me reading. A Guile of Dragons is a good beginning to an interesting series.