A Guile Of Dragons (A Tournament Of Shadows book 1) by James Enge (book review).

James Enge’s ‘A Guile Of Dragons’ is the first book in the `A Tournament of Shadows’ series. As such it is not strictly necessary to have read any other of Enge’s books before embarking on this. However, the reader gets the distinct impression that there are tales that have come before. Deeper research reveals that `A Tournament of Shadows’ is actually a prequel to Enge’s earlier `Morlock The Maker’ series and thus the impressions make sense. Readers of the earlier trilogy might get a bit more out of this book at the start but as I said before it is not strictly necessary.

The story concerns the early life of Enge’s signature character, Morlock Ambrosius, who is the son of the legendary wizard Merlin Ambrosius. A passage or two at the start of the book reveals that this is indeed Merlin of Arthurian fame, but the famous wizard himself does not feature as a major character. The setting appears to be a parallel fantasy world to medieval Earth, in which Merlin himself is considered a traitor to the Graith of Guardians, an organization of inquisitorial types who maintain magical wards around the northern holds that hold out various perils. These are chiefly dragons who have warred on the holds in dim antiquity.

At the beginning, it becomes clear that the fanatical Guardians aim to murder Morlock from birth, but Tyr Syr Theorn, a dwarf chief and the Eldest of the Seven Elders under Thrymhaiam, steps in to rescue him. Tyr did this because the dwarves did not see Merlin quite the same way as the fanatic Guardians. As a result, Morlock spends his formative years as a member of the dwarf hold, Thrymhaiam, where he learns the secrets of magical forging. The story starts most properly when we find out that Morlock, seeing the obvious difference between himself and his dwarf kin, goes off to join the Guardians. Now, Guardian Summoner Earno Dragonkiller is traveling north to inspect the wards with the young Thain Morlock in tow.

Enge’s world-building is reasonably effective. The dwarfhold has a distinct cultural feel, as do the various human settlements we meet, although to a lesser extent. Enge gifts his cast with strong characterization through dialogue and actions. Enge keeps physical descriptions brief, allowing the reader to form their own mental image. Enge strikes a happy balance between economy and detail with a pleasant writing style, which makes this book an easy read. The book’s apparent shortness (the uncorrected advance copy for this review runs to 282 pages) may initially puzzle the reader, but the use of a smaller font ensures the volume packs in more story than one might expect.

As the plot progresses, the title dragons appear to attack Thrymhaiam. Enge makes them appropriately menacing, both physically and mentally. Soon, we realise that there are two rival dragons vying for control of the entire group, which is quite naturally known by the collective noun as a guile of dragons. In fact, so thoroughly has the reader been informed about the ancient threat of dragons that when the protagonists start to kill off some of the lesser-follower dragons, it seems almost anti-climactic. Nonetheless, Enge is happy to introduce quite likeable characters, use them for a while, and then kill them off. This lends the story a fair amount of pathos. Even though this book is a prequel and therefore the main character is not likely to die before he gets to the chronologically later books, the threat seems real enough. Morlock certainly doesn’t seem safe, as he braves perils in order to learn certain secrets that will enable him to triumph.

Summoner Earno’s concern for Morlock’s intentions is juxtaposed with the dwarves’ struggle with the dragons. Earno is fully aware that Morlock may have too much of his father in him, and he is constantly second-guessing Morlock’s words and actions. In addition to this, Earno does not really trust the dwarves, and the constant suspicion seems to drive him gradually insane. Of course, Morlock eventually finds his own path quite separate from dwarves or Guardians, and eventually Earno realises that he need not distrust Morlock. It would certainly be interesting to read more about this odd relationship, and I imagine that subsequent volumes will continue this story.

One word of caution: while there are a number of likeable female characters in this book, they are all very much in supporting roles. For the most part, all of the main protagonists and antagonists are male. If this is likely to bother you as a reader, then this might not be for you.

For those readers who have read Enge’s earlier work, I can confirm that I believe this to be a fine first chapter in the tale of Morlock Ambrosius. ‘Blood of Amrose’, the first book about Morlock, received a nomination for a World Fantasy Award. This should serve as a testament to the exceptional quality of the writing. This is an enjoyable fantasy that I appreciated, even if it is not quite going to shake the pillars of the fantasy classics. Enge crafts a narrative that is reasonably unique within a world that possesses a significant amount of character. So I am happy to recommend this as a professionally written and fun novel. Indeed, I am considering tracking down either the earlier-written but chronologically later books, or maybe the sequels to this prequel. If they are as good as this, then they will be worth the time to read.

Dave Corby

April 2024

(pub: Pyr/Prometheus Books, 2012. 282 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $17.95 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61614-628-3)

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