Blood of Ambrose is the debut novel from James Enge. Enge published numerous sword and sorcery short stories in Black Gate (a magazine which features adventure fantasy), focused on his central character Morlock Ambrosius, before producing this novel-length work. Blood of Ambrose attracted critical recognition and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2010.
Nothing epic to see here
Blood of Ambrose opens with a very contained and superficially derivative story. Boy-king Lathmar, whose parents died under suspicious circumstances, is dominated by his ambitious uncle, the poorly named Protector of the Realm. The Protector is scheming to rid the nation of its royal family, the Ambrosii. Lathmar’s true protector and guardian, his incredibly ancient great grandmother Ambrosia, runs afoul of the Protector and exhorts Lathmar to summon their potential deliverer, the infamous Morlock Ambrosius. The opening act is dominated by this intimate royal squabble. The story initially focuses on a very small cast of characters and the impact of their conflict reaches only as far as the personal threat to Lathmar’s life and position.
Good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery
If the intimacy of the conflict wasn’t enough, the arrival of primary protagonist Morlock grounds the story firmly in the sword and sorcery tradition. He is deliberately constructed as an unsympathetic character who is not nearly as concerned with Lathmar’s plight as he is with being drunk. He appears to deserve the fear and contempt in which he is held by the people of Lathmar’s realm. There is no saviour of the world to be found in Morlock, nor does the story call for one.
It’s a family affair
The brilliance of the plotting in Blood of Ambrose is that the Ambrosius family drama forces the story to expand and take on more of an epic scope. In the space of one new viewpoint paragraph in the second act the reader’s perception takes a sudden turn as the stakes are raised—the enemy is revealed to be more powerful and frightening than previously realized, and other forces join the fight. Revelations of Morlock’s past provide a sense of both his enduring pain and truly tremendous capabilities. At the same point, Lathmar displays significant growth (and thankfully stops being annoying) after the traumatic loss of a friend. As irritating and unimpressive as the characters were at first, credit must go to Enge for creating real people with believable flaws. After slowly working up to this turning point through a few sessions of reading I devoured the remainder of the book in a few short hours.
A certain point of view
The subtle quality of Enge’s writing is easy to overlook. One of the more interesting areas in which he experiments is in the use of viewpoint. The narrative feels like the current standard third person limited approach, but Enge actually applies an omniscient perspective, which is brave in today’s fantasy market. Interestingly this viewpoint actually helps to mask Morlock’s qualities behind myth and rumour for the entire first act, as every character seems to share the opinion that he is a worthless wretch.
Enge also delivers one of the best hooks that I have come across for his future instalments without resorting to a cheap cliffhanger. His conclusion implies a greater power behind the events of Blood of Ambrose with a very human motive at work in his superhuman planning and actions.
Lashings of Steampunk
To add one last bit of flavour to his story, Enge plays with some elements of Steampunk. As well as being a magic user of sorts, Morlock seems to be at the forefront of an impending industrial revolution as the ‘Master Maker.’ The ‘magic’ that strikes fear into the common people is usually just creative (and somewhat reckless) application of his world’s scientific principles.
Why should you read this book?
You have to admire the brashness of an author who dares to call his main character Morlock (whose father is Merlin, incidentally) and imply a real world setting for his story by casually dropping in references to Ancient Rome and Britain. Sword and sorcery is making a comeback in modern fantasy, and Enge is in the vanguard.