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Book Review: Blood of Ambrose by James Enge

# Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Epic/High Fantasy
# Paperback: 480 pages
# Publisher: Pyr
# Publication Date: April 21, 2009
# ISBN-10: 1591027365
# ISBN-13: 978-1591027362
# Author Website

I have been a fanboy of Morlock Ambrosius and his creator James Enge ever since they first appeared in Black Gate 8 with “Turn up this Crooked Way”. The stories of Morlock, the magically powerful and extremely clever drunk were always so cleverly written and thoroughly entertaining.

So it gave me great pleasure when Pyr announced the publication of Enge’s first Morlock novel, Blood of Ambrose. What I found upon reading it was a darkly humorous sword and sorcery fantasy.

The story is about Morlock’s family in all senses of the word. His sister, Ambrosia, had teamed up in the past with Uthar the Great and founded a dynasty. Now, though Ambrosia still lives, only one child remains of her descendants to rule the empire of Uthar, the child-emperor Lathmar. When the king’s ostensible Protector – the power hungry Urdhven – makes a grab for the throne, the young king must call upon his ancestress’ brother to save his kingdom. It will take all the resources of the Ambrosii family to stop the menace of Urdhven.

The book reads as if it were a serialized novel. Divided into several sections, each section could potentially be read individually as a short story or novella. Though each builds on the other, and there is an overarching plot arc, it is possible (though not recommended) to read each section of the story individually. Writing this way means that in some cases, there are side plots within a section that are introduced and resolved before moving into the next section. This gives a nice sense of conclusion to each section, but at the same time you know that the final climax is still to come.

This story is darkly humorous, similar in style to Joe Abercrombie. The characters banter and display their wit and Enge uses various puns and Morlock’s despairing nature to be sardonic about the events of the narrative. But unlike Abercrombie, Enge does not dive very deeply into character. There are no lengthy sections of introspection for the characters – except in the case of Lathmar, through whose eyes much of the narrative is related. In truth, the story is really told via third-person omniscient. The primary character the narrator uses to view the story is Lathmar, but others are used on occasion. This is probably because Lathmar is really the only character who grows within this story, and all others are really foils to assist in his growth from helpless child to great emperor.

The story is sword and sorcery in the style of Robert E. Howard. The reason for reading a novel of this sort is not because you are looking for some emotional connection with the characters, which is unlikely to happen, but because the story has an interesting adventure or some sort of mystery to solve. In the case of Blood of Ambrose it is the mystery of who is truly the power behind Urdhven and what relationship does Urhdven’s Shadow have to the family Ambrosii?

The story’s simple plot, which all centers around Lathmar’s capture, rescue, recapture and rescue again, lacks any nuance. Each section of the story follows the same basic pattern, and the writing is not subtle enough to hide the fact that Enge is repeating the basic problem and solution each and every time. The lack of characterization may leave some readers feeling unsatisfied. And though there are various hand to hand combats, they are not very descriptive and so don’t leave the reader with the sense of excitement one expects from such.

Enge also uses a lot of parenthetical phrases. Sometimes it is used well to create small joke, and sometimes it is a helpful explanation. But I felt that mostly it was interruptive to the sentence, and would break the flow of the sentence I was reading. This would slow the pacing of the story, just at a time when I would be falling into the tale, only to be wrenched out of it by an aside. This, combined with the footnotes that are used with no real rhyme or reason (other than to cite the appendix about the calendar of the world) was confusing. It would have been better to either use parentheticals or footnotes – but not both. I would have preferred footnotes because then they could have been used in Terry Pratchett fashion to add humor but not break the narrative.

I like the novel mostly because I like Morlock. Lathmar too became and interesting character, but to be honest, this story failed to get me very excited. Sure, I love the bit with the zombies, and the truth behind the mystery was entertaining but for the most part I just couldn’t lose myself in the work. I easily placed it to the side, and was not overly excited about returning to it each day.

Blood of Ambrose is a hit and miss story. While I liked some things, I disliked enough that I cannot wholeheartedly recommend the novel. Enge’s short stories are smarter, more crisply written and I would highly recommend them to anyone, but Blood of Ambrose is just an average book – neither super fun to read, nor painful – and while I am glad to have a full-length Morlock adventure, I am disappointed by the end product of such a promising author.