James Enge’s Blood of Ambrose, recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award, has been a book on my radar for a while now. It was originally his short story in last summer’s Swords & Dark Magic that got me interested in Morlock Ambrosius and his universe, but it wasn’t until not so long ago that my reading schedule afforded me the opportunity to dig into Enge’s debut.Having finally read it I think it’s fair to say that while Enge shows great potential as a writer, this first book is not quite as good as it could have been. It’s a very decent offering, but a few non-negligible flaws do come in the way of the enjoyment of Blood of Ambrose. Nevertheless, the solid prose and the all-round quirkiness of the book still make it a book worth giving a look at.
Centuries after the death of Uthar the Great, the throne of the Ontilian Empire lies vacant. The late Emperor’s brother-in-law, Lord Urdhven, appoints himself Protector of his nephew, young King Lathmar VII, and sets out to kill anyone who stands between himself and the 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.
Blood of Ambrose doesn’t get off to the best of starts. A general lack of background on events and characters made it difficult to immerse oneself in the story. Often it felt like Enge assumed readers knew certain details when in fact, except for maybe those that had read some of his short fiction, they did not. This initial confusion is rather quickly left behind though as Blood of Ambrose picks up pace and depth. The book, at this point, becomes quite endearing. The main factor for this is James Enge’s great prose. It’s solid, witty, and suitably colorful, but more importantly it’s simple - never does Enge try to overcomplicate things, instead he keeps things neat, simple and accessible.
Also standouts are the characters, Enge creating a small, yet distinctive, cast of characters that interact well and entertainingly with each other. In fact, apart from some uneven development in character arcs (or even just underdeveloped characters period) I don’t have much to say about the characters except for maybe one issue. Though he is presented in the blurb and elsewhere as the main character, in the text, Morlock Ambrosius does not at all appear to be the center of attention, or at least not nearly as much as the young King Lathmar. Sure, Morlock is the star of any fight or extraordinary plan - he’s the one that does the saving of the day - but the story revolves much more around the growth of the King and I found the duality in importance between the characters offsetting at times.
Lastly, I have to put in a word about the jumpiness of the narrative. This is probably my biggest gripe with Blood of Ambrose and it’s something that very much harmed my enjoyment of the novel. Enge has the tendency to move from one event to another over extended periods of time, touching down only where he believes is necessary. This saves on the page count but it results in a sometimes disjointed narrative which has a much more grouped together, episodic feel - think a collection of short stories - rather than that of a one novel.
Despite these flaws, I will be continuing on with Enge and the adventures of Morlock Ambrosius - in fact as I right this I’ve already begun This Crooked Way - as there is still much to like in Blood of Ambrose. Readers in search of a lighter, offbeat sword and sorcery will find Enge’s debut to be a good fit, especially in it’s colorful use of magic and excitement-driven action sequences. As I just mentioned, the adventures of Morlock Ambrosius continue on in This Crooked Way, a review of which you can expect shortly, and then into The Wolf Age, released in October 2010.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Reading Age: 15 and up
James Enge's Website: http://www.jamesenge.com/
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