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.