I believe that Blood of Ambrose is James Enge’s debut novel; though he was an established body of short fiction. As such about the first quarter of the book was a bit of a rocky start, at least for me, but I stuck with it and I’m very glad I did. Blood of Ambrose opens as King Lathmar flees his own palace to avoid his so-called Protector from there it follow his exploits as he attempts to regain his throne and then consolidate his power over the city of Ontil. It is a bit more than that since, as is revealed early on, Lathmar’s “grandmother” is the ancient sorceress Ambrosia; daughter of Merlin whose brother Morlock is the Master of all Makers and wielder of a cursed magic sword (that curse’s nature is never fully revealed). Pyr is a little better at the “basic” description than I am:
Behind the king’s life stands the menacing Protector, and beyond him lies the Protector’s Shadow…
Centuries after the death of Uthar the Great, the throne of the Ontilian Empire lies vacant. The late emperor’s brother-in-law and murderer, Lord Urdhven, appoints himself Protector to his nephew, young King Lathmar VII and sets out to kill anyone who stands between himself and mastery of the empire, including (if he can manage it) the king himself and his ancient but still formidable ancestress, Ambrosia Viviana.
When Ambrosia is accused of witchcraft and put to trial by combat, she is forced to play her trump card and call on her brother, Morlock Ambrosius—stateless person, master of all magical makers, deadly swordsman, and hopeless drunk.
As ministers of the king, they carry on the battle, magical and mundane, against the Protector and his shadowy patron. But all their struggles will be wasted unless the young king finds the strength to rule in his own right and his own name.
That last paragraph is the most important one and, in truth, is a more accurate reflection of the majority of the novel. While its basic plot, Lathmar’s rise to power, remains intact Blood of Ambrose takes on a much larger scope involving a major magical threat without ever managing to grow too complex. Flying horses, mechanical spiders and zombies Blood of Ambrose has them all and is one crazy, highly entertaining, wild ride. It isn’t without it’s problems but they pale in comparison to the amount of pure fun that this novel provided. Read on for details…
As I mentioned the novel has a bit of a slow start but beginning with Part 3 the novel rockets forward barely stopping for breath along the way. By the time I got to the dead zombie baby riding a zombie dog whose paws had been replaced by human feet I could barely put it down. I think that first quarter took me as long to read by itself than the entire rest of the novel.
That first quarter isn’t necessarily bad, but I found it a bit difficult to wade through. Enge, rather that starting with a slow pan of his fantasy world (as many debuts do), throws the reader right into the mix with nary an explanation about what’s going on. In just over a hundred pages we’re introduced to a fairly intimate cast of characters but the breakneck pace of the opening acts make for little time to settle down and get to know them. A lot happens in those opening sections and precedence is given over to action rather than characterization or worldbuilding. That isn’t to say that the either aren’t there only that there seems to be a great emphasis on stuff happening over anything else.
Part of the problem is the initial characterization of King Lathmar. My initial reading of him was as a whiny, pampered boy-king. I suppose if you’re essentially a young child on the run for your life you might not be acting exactly clearheaded but something about Lathmar just grated on my nerves. Thankfully Lathmar makes a turn around thanks partly to Enge’s willingness to sort of fast forward through time. The slightly older Lathmar that we meet has enough of that initial characterization to feel like a natural, organic growth. In fact I would hardpressed to pick whether Wyrth, Morlock, or Lathmar was my favorite character. In truth the three are their most entertaining when they’re interacting with one another.
In fact over the course of the novel Enge displays a remarkable talent for banter amongst his characters. While I felt in the early part of the novel Enge had a tendency to over use dialogue tags it wasn’t something I really noticed in the latter portions of the novel. It is also possible that, given the quality of the dialogue in the latter portions of the novel (a dinner scene late in the novel was particularly well done), that I unconsciously overlooked there use. Then again it is equally possible that the dialogue was more infrequent in the early portions of the novel and thus I was more prone to notice tags. Regardless, Enge’s dialogue is frequently and has a natural rhythm that causes it to leap off the page.
Enge also seems to cherry pick from various other genres. Most frequently that genre is horror (or at least “dark fantasy”). Blood of Ambrose is chock full of dark happenings. The major enemy is something truly horrific tending to attack the mind and heart rather than physically and the presence of zombies, or at least zombie like creatures (more Romeroesque than anything else), lend a rather dark air to the novel. Enge never shies away from violence or gore and all the characters, particularly Morlock and Ambrosia, carry some kind of burden on their (frequently crooked) shoulders. Despite this, Enge’s crisp dialogue and frequent humor keep the book from being overly oppressive or dark and reminded me, at least in tone, of Fritz Leiber.
The presence of Merlin hints at some Arthurian underpinnings to the tale unfolding. I’m not well versed enough in Arthurian legend to point out any other, less obvious, references. A quick google search reveals that Tyrfing, Morlock’s sword, is straight out of the Poetic Edda so I’m willing to bet there are a ton of other mythological references that I missed. As well read as I am, it took a bit more before I realized that Tyrfing is also central to Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword. A fact that fits quite nicely since Blood of Ambrose has a very sword and sorcery feel. It is a type of style and story that is almost completely at odds with a lot of what we’re seeing on the fantasy market today. It is a type of fantasy story that Pyr seems to be carving out a niche for and to that I say “Thank You!”
If you had asked me what I thought of Blood of Ambrose right after I started reading it I would have answered a bit unfavorably (or at least with a non-committal grunt) but Enge’s clever writing really came to the fore as the novel moved on and turned it into something that was truly fantastic (::groan::). It’s old school and new school, dark without ever being oppressive and yet somehow managed to keep an almost constant smile on my face. It’s one of those novel that leaves you a bit crestfallen that it’s over, not because the ending was disappointing (it wasn’t!) but because you have to stop living in the world it crafted. The second book This Crooked Way looks like it’ll be out in October and I for one can’t wait to read more.