What I’m Reading: James Enge – This Crooked Way

Personally, I blame Star Wars, but the Lord of the Rings movies are doubtlessly at fault, too, and I suppose people were just fed up a bit with all those sword-swinging barbarians… whatever the reason, the Sword & Sorcery had a bit of a hard time, even to seeming extinct for a while superseded, by Epic Fantasy and its huge doorstepper novels that had lost even the last bit of decency by extending themselves beyond the trilogy format. While the situation has not exactly been reversed, Sword & Sorcery has made a bit of a comeback in recent years, and one of the pioneers of that revival is James Enge with his stories about Morlock Ambrosius, master of all makers.

In one sense, Enge is very much a traditionalist; not only does he not hide the debts he owes to his influences, he positively flaunts them in the reader’s face. Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser and Vance’s Cugel the Clever come to mind most strongly – for the frequent and devious plotting and counter-plotting that is going on in Enge’s stories, for the often odd and bizarre turns his imagination takes (just check out his fantasy version of the internet in “Whisper Street”) and for wit and writing that are elegant, sharp and swift like a rapier. For all this, he is very much his own man, and Morlock a Sword & Sorcery protagonist not quite like any other. He compensates for his physical disability (he is a hunchback) with a keen intelligence and a formidable talent for magic (or at least one branch in what seems like a very thoroughly thought-out magical system – Enge in general does pseudo-erudition really, really well, just have a look at the appendices to this volume). Unusually for a Fantasy hero (even supposed barbarians who are often quite grandiloquent), he is very monosyllabic most of the time; his favourite utterance is a simple “Eh” that Enge often uses to great effect – it is quite astonishing to see the shades and variety it is able to take if placed deftly in context.

Morlock is also a hero with a past and a man with a family, and the latter in particular plays an important part in This Crooked Way (as it actually did in Blood of Ambrose, the first book featuring Morlock – but those were different members), an attempt Morlock’s to help his mother against his father in fact constitues the main drive for the plot, such as it is. The Sword & Sorcery genre tends to favour the short form over the novel, and having a novel made up of stories, as Enge does here, might therefore seem almost natural. Or as an attempt to keep your cake and it eat it, too – and while those attempts are of course invariably doomed to failure, This Crooked Way comes close enough to suceeding to make the reader not care about the difference, because it is all so very enjoyable.

In their best moments, these stories have a certain exuberance to them, a joy in their writing, that at times rises to the level of sheer glee and can’t help but infect the reader, in spite of the sometimes dark and grisly nature of what they tell of. Possibly connected to that, it has to be said that James Enge is probably  unparalled in Fantasy literature when it comes to writing unpleasant characters. Which might not sound like much in the way of praise, but you likely won’t be saying that once you have encountered some of his villains. The main villain of This Crooked Way is a wonderfully repellent example of that, but probably even worse is Nurgnatz the gnome who in my estimate has a very good chance to go down into Fantasy history as the most disgusting villain ever – completely ridiculous, of boundless arrogance and narcissm, and utterly horrifying.

There is a basic plot in This Crooked Way, but it makes its presence felt only sporadically, and for the most part deals with events and encounters along the way that are only marginally connected to the main storyline which almost happens an aside. On the other hand, this is not a random travelogue either – the arrangement of the stories (four long ones in the centre of the volume, all told by or from the perspective of a single family) bracketed by shorter narratives, and those interspersed with bits of interlude (although I have to admit that I did not quite see the point of those – but that might have been my own fault rather than the novel’s) shows an intention towards symmetry and an awareness of form and balance. Enge has obviously given some thought to the overall structure of his work, but even so it still is very much a case of the journey being the reward – something that is emphasised by the final showdown between Morlock and the villain which is delightfully anticlimactic and pretty much guaranteed to frustrate any expectations the reader might have had for it.

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