Morlock Ambrosius, Master of Makers

Those of us who blog at who also happen to be publishing professionals have been encouraged to enthuse about books and authors that really excite us, and I have a book out this month that excites me as much as anything that I’ve ever worked on in my capacity as editorial director of Pyr books. James Enge’s Blood of Ambrose is an epic swords & sorcery novel, which features the character of Morlock Ambrosius, wandering swordsman, master of magical makers, exile, and dry drunk. The character of Morlock has featured in a number of short stories, set chronologically both before and after the novel. Morlock is amazing, but don’t take it from me—Greg Keyes, bestselling author of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series, says, “James Enge writes with great intelligence and wit. His stories take twisty paths to unexpected places you absolutely want to go. This isn’t the same old thing; this is delightful fantasy written for smart readers.” And given the number of smart readers here, I thought I’d ask James some questions about Morlock and his world by way of introducing him to you:

Anders: You have a long association with Morlock, who has a history (and a fan base!) in short fiction that predates Blood of Ambrose. Can you tell us about how you came up with the character and his world? Who is Morlock Ambrosius and how did he make the leap from short stories to novels?

Enge: Morlock, as suits his ornery nature, was born out of annoyance. I’d just been rereading Wells’ The Time Machine and I was annoyed because I thought (and still think) that Wells stacked the deck unfairly against the Morlocks. Somehow this merged with a longstanding grievance I have against Tolkien: JRRT worked too hard to make elves the good guys, often at the expense of dwarves. And—because I was reading a lot of Arthurian source material at the time—I realized that “Morlock” looked like a lot of names in Arthurian legend: Morgan, Morgause, Morholt, Mordred. And so this character named Morlock Ambrosius was born, who was supposed to be to Merlin something like what Mordred was to Arthur.

Early Morlock stories were heavily Arthurian, but I eventually purged most of those elements from his storyline. I wanted a background where I was free to get Morlock in whatever kind of trouble suited me, and that’s how I started hammering away at Laent and Qajqapca, the two continents of Morlock’s world. (His world, being flat, also has a flip-side. There ought to be a story in that somehow.)

As for novels… had I been making shrewd career moves, maybe I would have been writing Morlock trilogies twenty years ago. There simply hasn’t been much of a market for adventure-fantasy short fiction, not since the collapse of the sword-and-sorcery boom in the 70s. Meanwhile fantasy novels and series have gone from big to bigger. But my earliest attempts at fantasy-writing were multistage novels that were so unbelievably awful in their awfulness that even I couldn’t stand to read them. So I decided I should make my bones as a short fiction writer before I tried another novel, and it wasn’t until John O’Neill had bought a few Morlock stories for Black Gate that I felt I was ready to toss Morlock into a book-length narrative.

Anders: Okay, you’ve intrigued me with the statement that the world that is home to Laent is flat. Can you expend on this, and also what is its relationship to our world? Also, just because dwarves got a better hand here—are there elves?

Enge: I went through a period where I was dissatisfied with Morlock, who was turning into a Byronic Mary Sue, and his world, which was becoming generic Fantasyland. So I took a big hammer and smashed them both until they were, if not better, at least different. I saw no reason why Morlock’s world should have just one moon, so I gave it three, and that was the start of a radically different cosmology.

The lingering Arthurian elements in Morlock’s background necessitate some connection to our world. What I decided was that all the worlds that actually exist—as opposed to ones that merely might have existed but don’t—have a planar interface called the Sea of Worlds by those-who-know, because it can be navigated. In terms of this plane or sea, east and west are not arbitrary directions but absolute ones, so that the sun in Morlock’s world can rise in the west and set in the east. This also means that weird stuff from the Sea of Worlds sometimes ends up, like malefic driftwood, on the coastlines of Morlock’s world.

About elves… I love Tolkien’s work, but I think the elves of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are the weakest parts of his world-building. He too obviously has his thumb on the scale. Everyone is beautiful and sings and loves learning? All the children are above average? The elves of the First Age are more plausible because they’re more fallible. But I couldn’t see introducing elves into Morlock’s world without giving them more realism: showing the ugly elf, the ill-tempered lazy elf, the tone-deaf elf. At that point it becomes less like sword-and-sorcery and more like Bored of the Rings.

Anyway, leaving out elves leaves more room for developing less traditional fantasy people, such as the insect-like Khroi.

Anders: This altered cosmology ties in with another aspect of your Morlock stories that really appeals to me, and dovetails with something I’ve been worrying at in fantasy in general. Whenever I read a fantasy novel in which supernatural forces play a significant role, I inevitably hit a point when I wonder what the stars are like, and if the universe surrounding the planet upon which the story occurs is as boundless as ours. Someone once said that fantasy occurs in a universe in which the laws of nature map onto moral laws, though in a lot of the “new, gritty, morally-ambiguous fantasy” (which I love, and which we publish), this isn’t the case. But in this fantasy—which seems a more “realistic” take on traditional fantasy tropes —I inevitably wonder about deep space and deep time. If there are supernatural agents, gods, demons, powerful magical forces, I wonder if they are planet-specific, or do they have a presence across the wider universe? What I mean is, do we have a magical world adrift in a scientific galaxy, and if so, aren’t they operating at cross-purposes? If it’s a magical world, why not a magical cosmology? And to extend that, magical laws of nature. I was a little thrown the first time I realized that forces of nature, like fire, storm clouds, etc… are living entities in Morlock’s world. Now I love it, and that medieval notions of alchemy seem to be in play. It reminds me a little bit of Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters, in fact. But can we speak to this and to the magical system that “those-who-know” employ?

Enge: My favorite take on this science/magic thing is Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, set on a world which is tidally locked. Magic rules the dark side, science rules the light side and they have mutually exclusive ideas about reality which are somehow equally correct (or incorrect)—both are just approaches toward an absolute reality which exists but can’t be known directly. I found that an entertaining idea to mess around with. So when Morlock performs the equivalent of open-heart surgery in [the forthcoming sequel] This Crooked Way, the account of human anatomy and what sustains human life is deliberately fantastic–nothing at all like our understanding. But it works because this is a different world operating on different principles. Garfinkle’s book is a riot in this respect: a work of strict science fiction, except the science is Ptolemaic astronomy. At one time I badly wanted to try something like that; I guess I’ll have a pretty high standard to meet if I ever go back to that project.

For Morlock’s world, I figure the different magical disciplines have different but overlapping scholia, sort of like the branches of natural science in our world. So a seer (someone who deals with the nonphysical halo of human consciousness) and a maker (like Morlock) wouldn’t necessarily approach the same task in the same way, and they mostly won’t be engaged in the same sorts of tasks. (Biologists don’t concern themselves with producing workable fusion plants, at least not professionally; physicists don’t tend to concern themselves with the genetics of plant life. But a chemist may easily find herself dealing with issues of physics or biology, depending on the project.)

The danger with this approach is that the magic may lose its envelope of wonder and become just alternate technology. That’s the “Magic Inc.” sort of magic and it can be good for a laugh, but it’s problematic over longer narratives. Ideally, it should work the other way around: the wonders of an imaginary universe should refresh our awareness of the wonders we live among and become too accustomed to notice.

I think the secret is in the emotional or intuitive force of the magical idea. Fire isn’t alive—but it seems like it is: it moves, and makes sounds, and does things on its own. So the choir of greedy hotheaded flames that Morlock carries around with him is something you would never meet in our world, but it depends on and gains strength in the reader’s imagination from the reader’s own experience.

Intellectually, we may be rationalists, but emotionally we’re animists. For lots of people it’s actually pretty hard to get through the day without confronting a cloud of animating spirits: in cars, computers, in the weather, in the piece of toast which persists in falling butter-side down. Escape into a magical world can be comforting because it validates those intuitions. And it can be equally pleasant to return to the real world afterwards precisely because those intuitions don’t apply: the sky isn’t mad at you; that’s not really why it rained this morning.

Anders: Okay, who would play Morlock in the movie? At first I saw John Noble, but now I see Hugh Laurie with something closer to his natural accent.

Enge: John Noble is good for the crazy wonderworker aspect. Laurie would also be great—because he’s always great—but I’d want him to use that gravelly “House M.D.” voice. I’m not sure whether either one would be equally convincing on the “sword” side of “sword and sorcery” though.

If some makeup artist hit Liam Neeson with an ugly stick a few dozen times, he might be a good Morlock. He was good as a wounded wonderworker on a mission of vengeance in Darkman, and his performance was practically the only good thing about the first Star Wars prequel. And in the recent Taken he showed he can still act with that jarring combination of craziness and calm that I associate with Morlock. (It seems heartless to talk about him in this casual way after his recent bereavement, but any Morlock movie is safely remote from the present.)

Anders: You have Morlock’s life mapped out for centuries before and centuries after the era of the novels (Blood of Ambrose, and the forthcoming This Crooked Way and The Wolf Age). Do you know how and when Morlock is going to die?

Enge: I’ve thought about it a little, but at the moment I’m content to leave that plot point up in the air. If I kill him off, even in my own imagination, then his whole career becomes a prequel, and there’s something a little confining about that.

And, who knows? As the population grays there might be a huge market for Extremely Old Morlock stories. I wouldn’t want to write myself out of that opportunity.

Those wanting a taste of James Enge’s Blood of Ambrose can read the first three chapters on the Pyr Sample Chapters blog. We’ve also made available two pieces of short fiction that star Morlock Ambrosius. “A Book of Silences” originally appeared in Black Gate #10 and is reprinted in its entirety. The story continues in “Fire and Sleet,” an original novelette appearing on the Pyr blog for the first time anywhere. Both of these stories fall chronologically many years after the events of the novel, but serve as good introductions to the character nonetheless. And you can visit James Enge’s website here, where he has a list of  more Morlock stories that are available online.


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