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Monday, April 13, 2009

“Blood of Ambrose” by James Enge (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Official James Enge Website
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AUTHOR INFORMATION: James Enge’s short fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords, and everydayfiction.com. He is also an instructor of classical languages at a Midwestern university. “Blood of Ambrose” is the first of a two-book deal with Pyr.

PLOT SUMMARY: 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...

FORMAT/INFO:Blood of Ambrose” is 401 pages long divided over five titled Parts and twenty-seven titled chapters. Also includes three Appendices (The Lands of Laent, The Gods of Laent, Calendar and Astronomy) and interior illustrations provided by
Chuck Lukacs. Narration is in the third person via several different POVs, both major and minor, most notably Lathmar VII, Ambrosia, Morlock and Wyrth. “Blood of Ambrose” is self-contained, but there is ample scope for sequels set in the same world. April 21, 2009 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of “Blood of Ambrose” via Pyr. Cover art provided by Dominic Harman.

ANALYSIS: Combining elements of sword & sorcery, pulp fiction, the Arthurian legend, humor and horror, James Enges’ debut novel, “Blood of Ambrose”, is like a cross between Robert E. Howard, Joe Abercombie, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead sprinkled in. If that sounds a bit weird, well, it is. In fact, the book richocets between fantasy, comedy and more horrific/darker moments with such unpredictable regularity, that readers won’t know what hit them. Take for instance Part One in the novel which opens with a fearful young Lathmar VII trying to escape castle Ambrose in order to save his life, followed by a trial by combat between two armored knights, and ending with a laughing, middle-aged warhorse that has learned to fly...

Personally, it took me a little while to get used to the book’s unusual style which is a bit jarring at times, but by then I was already hooked by the author’s strong writing and vivid imagination. Of the former, the pacing is energetic, the dialogue is extremely witty, and the storytelling is accomplished with some clever narrative tricks. Characterization is not very deep however, but because of their interesting personalities and engaging narrative voices, this was never an issue for me. Of the latter, “Blood of Ambrose” is rife with creative ideas including the mysterious Companions of Mercy who tended to the poor’s sick and dead, the Flagrator device which can provide “pseudo-life” to a dead body, shathes (a being that has no corporeal presence and can exert its will on the physical universe), the realm of tal, and all sorts of crazy magic.

For fantasy lovers, there are plenty of familiar elements in “Blood of Ambrose” like the trial by combat, court politics, dwarves, dragons, magic swords and whatnot, not to mention the references to King Arthur (Merlin, the Red Knight, Nimue, Uther Pendragon, etc) and Ancient Greek (phlogiston); but because of the humor, the cynicism, the trickery and the horror elements, the familiar quickly becomes unfamiliar.

Story-wise, “Blood of Ambrose” is divided into five Parts, each one acting as a sort of separate short story—anywhere between weeks, months or years pass between most of the Parts—but interconnected overall. The plot itself revolves around a power struggle between Lathmar VII, the rightful heir of Ambrose, and Lord Protector Urdhven, but there are plenty of surprises along the way, including the true threat that Morlock and company have to worry about...

CONCLUSION: James Enges’Blood of Ambrose” won’t work for everyone, but I thought the book was skillfully written and a very fun, imaginative and unique reading experience. In short, I had a blast with “Blood of Ambrose” and can’t wait for more...

3 comments:

The Reader said...

Hi mr. Robert

Thanks for the review, I also read the 2 short stories about Morlock Ambrose on PYR's blog & I must agree the author's witty style of writing really draws you in.

Looking forward to reading this one.

Mihir

Rene Sears said...

I disagree that the characterization wasn't deep. You weren't that deeply in the heads of the characters (except for Lathmar), but their actions were pretty revealing. I like tight third POV, but I also enjoyed being given the space to draw my own conclusions.

I thought it was a blast, too. I'm very much looking forward to the next book.

Robert said...

You're welcome Mihir :) I haven't read the short stories myself yet, so thanks for the reminder!

Rene, the fact that we have to draw our own conclusions about a character based on their actions is proof of how the characterization wasn't very deep. There's nothing wrong with that, but I stand by my statement that the characters lacked depth...

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