In this first book of his Morlock Ambrosius origin story, James Enge provides us with a 'classic' epic fantasy tale, centered around the clash between dwarves and dragons, augmented with a little alternative history, a story of parallel worlds, and a really interesting take on the Arthurian legends. It's an odd mix of storytelling elements, but A Guile of Dragons works quite well, despite a few awkward passages.
The opening chapters certainly felt a bit rushed, as if Enge were impatient to have Ambrosius grow up, without getting into the whole coming-of-age storytelling mess. Don't get me wrong, there are some authors who have done the coming-of-age thing well (Tad Williams immediately comes to mind), but all too often it feels like padding, so I'm not disappointed that Enge passed it by.
Fortunately, once we get outside the city and meet back up with Earno, the man responsible for Merlin's exile, the story really begins to pick up. There's a subtle antagonism between the two men that you can feel, and enough conflicted loyalties on both sides to really add some tension to the tale. Neither are particularly likable as protagonists, which does present a bit of a challenge - especially when the dwarves so often steal the show - but they're interesting, and admirable in their own way.
It's with the first appearance of the dragons, however, that Enge completely won me over.The dragons broke through the clouds in groups of three, casting distorted shadows behind them by their own light. There were perhaps a dozen groups. Most of them soared steeply out of the range of sight, but three dragons flew directly to the windows of the High Hall of the East. One roosted directly before the windows (the mountain shook beneath them) and peered within: smoke and fire trailing from his jaws, his bright scales shedding red light at their edges, his slotted eyes as red and gold as molten metal.
It seems as if dragons have become somewhat passé in recent years, as gritty realism and militaristic tales have come to dominate much of the market, so it was refreshing to encounter real dragons again - intelligent, greedy, treasure-seeking, malevolent creatures, full of magic and fire. Add to that the idea of a guile, of a collared dragon claiming mastery over a group of its kin, herding them and marshaling them into a sort of army, and you've got one hell of a great story.
The writing is crisp, and flows well; the battle scenes are played out beautifully; and the characters are both complex and engaging. A Guile of Dragons isn't a particularly deep fantasy tale, although I can sense a great story waiting to be told. Perhaps readers already familiar with the character will find more nuances to the tale than I, but it's still more than adequate as an introduction to Ambrosius' world, and strong enough to make me want to read Wrath-Bearing Tree, the second book of A Tournament of Shadows.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins