King Lathmar, only twelve years old but heir to the Empire of Ontil, becomes the pawn in a dangerous political game when his Protector, the scheming Lord Urdhven, stages a shocking palace coup.  Imprisoning his powerful rival and Lathmar’s guardian, the elderly yet fearsome Ambrosia of the Ambrosii, Lord Urdhven consolidates his hold on the court.  Ambrosia is sentenced to death but, as per royal tradition, a champion may step forth to defend her against the court’s hand-picked champion – a mean feat because, in this case, the champion has yet to lose a single duel (there are whisperings of supernatural machinations afoot!).  Despite the seemingly impossible odds, a curious challenger does step forward: a lone dwarf.  King Lathmar frets, Lord Urdhven delights, and all hope seems lost until, mere seconds before the commencement of battle, it is revealed that the dwarf was merely holding a place for the true challenger who makes suddenly himself known: none other than Ambrosia’s brother, the infamous Morlock, a.k.a. The Crooked Man.  The duel is fought, a champion crowned and soon after, the Empire is thrust into a civil war fraught with magic, mayhem, and mystery.

Blood of Amrose is a rarity – a stand-alone fantasy novel.  It traces Lathmar’s development from a frightened and overwhelmed young boy to a courageous and experienced ruler as he struggles to wrest control of the Empire back from the clutches of his Machiavellian uncle.  What he (and we) don’t realize is that there’s much more to Urdhven’s plotting than we are initially led to believe and, in a spectacularly shocking twist roughly halfway through the book, we discover that dark forces are at work behind the scenes, manipulating the action.

The book is divided into five sections, each a different chapter in the boy king’s evolution and progression in the battle for Ontil.  On the one hand, I enjoyed this structure in that it offered unite little segments – mini-stories within the whole of the overarching story – that didn’t necessarily require a lengthy time commitment and proved satisfying all on their own.  On the other hand, there were a few instances in which the narrative felt disjointed and where, unfairly or not, I faulted the structure.  Elements introduced in one section disappear, never to be referenced again.  Lathmar’s discovery of his grandmother’s alternate self is one of the book’s creative highpoints and yet this aspect of Ambrosia’s persona is never fully explored.  In a similar manner, Merlin makes an appearance late in the book yet never exerts an influence on the plot.  Of perhaps lesser note but of more interest to me was the girl Lathmar falls in love with – who is referred to, then never mentioned again.

Enge’s prose is tight and efficient, devoid of the rambling, oft-unendurable meandering descriptive passages that typify the high-fantasy genre.  The setting is rich in detail, a masterful creation of world building, while the magic system that runs through the narrative proves ferociously imaginative yet impressive in its consistency.  The characters are interesting – particularly Ambrosia and Morlock – yet miss the depth that would have made them truly memorable.  Despite Lathmar’s growth over the course of the novel, he remains one of the most inaccessible of personalities, inscrutable despite being at the very heart of the narrative.

Some have compared Blood of Ambrose to the works of Joe Abercrombie and, while I enjoyed the many flashes of wit throughout, I’d have to disagree with the comparison because much of the humor in Abercrombie’s books is derived from the complexity and color of his characters.  Here, the humor is more situational and dialogue-driven.  Not a bad thing but, again, I feel there were opportunities missed, especially in relation to Ambrosia and Morlock.

Still, a unique and entertaining read with plenty to recommend it in terms of the myriad of inspired elements on hand to facilitate and complicate: flesh golems, mechanical spiders, the living dead, inelegant leaping horses, sorcerers, and mazelike castle passageways to make Mervyn Peake envious.  An impressive fantasy debut.

So, those were my initial thoughts.  What did everyone else think?  Start posting your comments and questions for author James Enge.

Today’s blog entry is dedicated to birthday boy Martin Gero.  ‘Member him?

33 thoughts on “July 6, 2009: Blood of Ambrose, by James Enge

  1. Wow! Interesting dissection of this book Mr. M. I’m not a professional writer so my thoughts are much less analytical/dissecting.

    I loved the book! I wasn’t so sure about Lathmar at first. He was so helpless, with very little survival skills showing. I’ve read a lot of books that start out with an untested main character but Lathmar was paralyzed with fear. With little glimpses, Lathmar revealed the terror than involved everything he did, day to day. It made his personality a little more understandable to me.

    I loved the humor and wit Mr. Enge worked in at unexpected places. I loved the way that magic involved an artistry, mechanics, and not just hocus pocus. The Merlin link was interesting but “yet never exerts an influence on the plot”, as Mr. M. put it very aptly. Although, Merlin did bring a whole new meaning to “spousal abuse”……

    My only questions for Mr. Engle are “When is your next book coming out?” and “Will you continue with the Ambrose story?” You left plenty of opportunity for more of this story and I would love to visit this world again!

    Thank you, Mr. M. for suggesting this book. I can honestly say, it kept me reading until my eyes were too blurry to see the words 😀 .


    P.s. Happy Birthday Mr. Gero

  2. Martin who? Isn’t he your friend you are always talking about who is bored to death in New York City? And wasn’t he in an Atlantis episode where he stood in the background and stared at the wall? Now I remember him! Happy birthday Marty G.

  3. No mention of Mr. G’s age? Not that it’s that hard to look up. But a belated happy birthday to the boy from New York.
    As for the book review. Blood of the Ambrose was a fun read, with the author maintaining a good pace to the story. Young Lathmar is a sympathetic protagonist. The opening chapter brought to mind The Bastard King by Dan Chernenko. In that book, the main character is another king-in-name but pawn-of-the-powers-that-be. Both characters find themselves propelled by events to struggling to stay alive at a young age. Both are intellegent enough to recognise how dangerous their positions are, and both are depicted with realistic human flaws. But James Enge ably focuses his story on a period of a few years, rather than laying out a larger tapestry like The Bastard King and its two sequels.
    One of the many things I enjoyed about this book was how deftly Mr. Enge establishes the backdrop of his story. Ontil, Merlin and the Ambrosi, The Crooked Man, dwarven culture, The Wardlands. The book left me hungry for more information on the history of this fantasy world, portraying them vividly enough to grab my attention and holding it.
    As already mentioned, Lathmar makes a sympathetic protagonist, but also a realistic one. Unlike too many fantasy epics, Lathmar is very, very human. From being intimidated by those around him, to trying to comprehend what life is like outside the walls of the castle, to his suffering through puberty as crisis continues to threaten his throne, I found myself rooting for him to prevail.
    The other characters are equally fascinating. Wyrth, as the single representative of dwarfdom seen in the book, comes across as possibly the most likeable character in the entire book. Competent, with a sense of humor, yet true to his culture, he gives us the best look at Morlock’s true character. And his actions at the end of the book managed to surpise me, even as I acknowledged how right and proper they were. Ambrosia is appropriately intimidating, with it becoming apparant through the book that she has reached a point where she is both more and less than human. Morlock is also impressive, especially with his opening appearance. Then there is Lorn, the loyal and dedicated soldier who provides the young king with a friend and protector during a critical part of the book. I have to admit a special fondness for this character, most probably because of the name and its association to a certain SGA character. And then there was my absolute favorite character, Vellox. An aging warhorse who is given a new power, and who manages to mysteriously undergoe even further changes. Vellox’s too few appearances had me chuckling, even in the face of more serious events occuring.
    Then finally, there is the unfolding threat to Ontil and our heroes. From the mundane but understandable power-grabbing “Protector”, to the horror of dead armies, to the ultimate reveal of the true depth of perversion and unnaturalness of the puppeteer of the events of the book, the story flows seamlessly. The final chapter and final sentences made for a satisfying ending to an engaging story.
    Mr. M. refers to certain aspects of the story that are touched on but not followed through on. I agree there is a certain level of frustration involved in their mentions, especially with Merlin. But I think that the author’s decision to maintain the focus on the main plot, rather than trying to weave too many strands into the tapestry of the tale, was the right one. Again, I was left hungry for more. If and when any sequels or preuils to Blood of Ambrose come out, I will certainly pick them up. And I’ll do so expecting to see some of those threads spun out into tapestries of their own. All in all, an excellent choice for the BotM club. Thanks to Mr. M. for bringing this book to my attention.

  4. Yay! Happy birthday to Martin!! I hope he went and ate at the macaroni and cheese restaurant. That would be the best birthday dinner ever.

  5. Happy Birthday, Martin Gero. Yeah, I remember him from the DVD extras – Beckett’s younger brother – hilarious.

  6. Blood of Ambrose comments: I found the book tightly written and almost never bogged down in exposition, which is amazing considering the complexity of the world and the number of characters who came and went. The author has a lot of faith in his readers to hop onto a moving story and stay aboard, which I welcomed.

    The narrative had some nicely surprising tangents that made the book feel quite organic as opposed to being plotted out to the last detail before a word was written. So I didn’t mind that some threads were dropped. The serving girl Lathmar fell “in love with” I thought was just meant to show he’d made it successfully through puberty and into full-on hormonal teen mode. The fact it even crossed his mind to ask a condemned man for girl advice the night before his hanging was hilarious! Joe — you’re an incurable shipper, truly.

    I found Wyrth’s dry humor quite diverting, even if the level was as Joe says not at the laugh-out-loud level. Ambrosia had some good one-liners too, like when she talked about missing something as much as her period. Yeah, I guess she went through menopause a few centuries ago. The characters were perhaps a bit mysterious even to the end, but at least they were all flawed and not unfailingly heroic. I came to like all the main characters quite a lot.

    Questions for James Enge:
    How do you see the relation of this world to Earth? Is the reference to Latin and inclusion of Merlin meant to indicate some past connection between the planets?

    How did you approach writing the book from the world-building side? Did you write the appendices ahead of time, during, or after the story?

    Who is your favorite character in the book?

    Thanks for a great read, James, and for recommending it, Joe. The first BOTM selection I’ve read on my iPhone Kindle app. 🙂

  7. Who could ever forget the lovely, lovely Martin Gero?! I already wished him a Happy Birthday via his twitter, but I’ll happily wish it for him again here! 😀


  8. Martin who? I believe you mean Martin Wood, but got the last name confused because you blogged about Gyros from the Greek fest a few days back. Gyros, Gero; simple mistake to make.

    But, just to humor you: Happy Birthday Martin Gero!!

  9. The door buzzer goes off in Martin Gero’s apartment. Martin, engrossed in tightening up a scene for his current script, blows out a pent-up breath of frustration. He wants to get this done before meeting up with friends and hitting the Big Apple club scene for the Not-a-Surprise birthday party. He responds to the buzz anyway.

    “Yes, Don?”

    The doorman, Don Diego (“Yeah, it’s what Pops named me. Now shove off, punk”), speaks with aplomb. Twenty years working odd jobs in The City, he’s seen and heard just about everything, and is largely unimpressed by showbiz people unless they give him good tips. Which you get by trapping the one cab left on a cold, rainy night, and by knowing when to play like you haven’t seen or heard anything. The guy he’s looking at now shouldn’t be a problem, though.

    “Mr. Gero, there’s a singing telegram for you.”

    Marty curses, but without any real conviction. You have to deal with a few nutjobs on your birthday. When he finds out which of his Vancouver friends it is this time, he’ll get payback.

    “All right, send him up.”

    The singing telegram guy, loaded down with a bass guitar and amp plus a bulky backpack, turns out to be a university student who—what else—is trying to catch a break by impressing someone in the business. [ed: I hereby disavow any connection with this fictional character.] He gets Marty’s permission to put a DVD in the player and to set up his amp. This could be good, Marty thinks. Or it could be as puke-worthy as an overcooked cassoulet paired with the wrong wine. He checks his Stargate watch while waiting.

    “Almost done here, sir … Okay, here we go.”

    The DVD brings up MTV-type images of a band fitted out like some of the best from the classic-rock groups, vintage 60’s stuff. The frontman does his take on Mick Jagger warming up and priming the crowd; the guitarist, an Eric Clapton lookalike, fine-tunes his axe. The drummer could be anyone with a torn Union Jack t-shirt and hair falling down past his nose. A harmonica wails in the background. The singing-telegram bassist does a quick riff, then waits for the cue from pseudo-Mick.

    “DO YOU WANNA PARTY, PEOPLE?” (multiple variations of “hell yeah” heard from the soundtrack audience)

    “THEN LET’S GET IT ON!” (thunderous roar from crowd)

    Pseudo-Mick looks into camera #1, whips his mic around, and yells, “THIS ONE’S FOR YOU, MARTIN GERO!” The simulated crowd goes apeshit while pseudo-Clapton gets into the first few bars of “I’m A Man.” The drums thump double-time as the lyrics start.

    All you New Yorkers
    Stand in line
    You’ll love me, baby
    My writin’s fine
    I’m Martin G
    I spell M … A … R-TEE. GEEE.

    [another upsurge of crowd noise]

    The pen I use
    Don’t ever miss
    I’ll take Manhattan
    You can’t resist
    I’m Martin G
    I spell M … A … R-TEE. GEEE.

    After one more verse, Marty turns off the DVD and amp, replaces the items knocked off the shelves by the woofer’s thump-thump, then buzzes Don Diego and asks him to let the rest of the building know the grade-three temblor is over. He walks over to the bass player, crosses his palm with a subway token, gives him a firm handshake, looks him dead in the eye and says, “Rule #1a: Never, ever let the drummer write your lyrics. Have a good night.” He firmly escorts the spluttering wannabe out his apartment door, waves, calls out “Don’t come back unless you get a job doing delivery for a good Hungarian restaurant,” emphatically shuts the door, sits down with a nicely mellowed Bordeaux at hand, and shakes his head.

    “Mallozzi and his blog, and some frickin’ fanatic with not enough to do,” Marty heatedly ponders aloud. “The guy really owes me now.”

    Belated Happy Birthday(!!) to Martin Gero. 🙂 liiiiil

  10. Of course 😛

    Happy birthday Martin! 🙂

    Speaking of birthdays. I wanted to ask if you could dedicate your next blog to my dear friend Jackie. Her birthday actually ends in about 3 or 4 hours as she’s from new Zealand. But I thought if it was in your blog on the 7th, the correct date, it would be better… Never be to early 😉

    Great book btw. I wish I could join the book of the month at least once. But I can’t afford to buy a book or more per month and I’m certain our library here in my little German town doesn’t keep it either…

  11. Happy Birthday Martin!!!

    Finally got a chance to try a JapaDog. Not bad at all. Had the All Beef. Not quite that adventurs!!!

  12. coucou Joseph!

    Vous allez bien? Moi super =D, je lui ai déja souhaiter sur son twitter j’espere que ça lui à fait plaisir.

    Bisou bisou
    A bientôt

  13. Joe!! I have an urgent request. Well kinda urgent…it isn’t life threatening or anything like that but here’s the go. We’re having French day at work next week and today we had a little trivia moment that no one could find the correct answer to and I thought you would be the one to help me on this.
    What is the correct terminology for “Frogs Legs” in French?? As in, when you go to a French restaurant and they have “Frogs Legs” on the menu, what do they call it? In French please.
    My daughter googled it and came up with “Cuisses de Grenouille” but some doctor at work says that’s not correct. Not that he’s French but apparently being a doctor, he knows better…???
    According to Wikipedia it’s “Pattes de grenouilles”.
    Please hep me Joe. Thank you! 🙂

  14. Blood of Ambrose = I couldn’t get into the story. Nothing, er, new, and no particular character grabbed me. My bias, and maybe it shouldn’t have been a standalone, because with fantasy like this I’m used to a series- setup, adventure, conclusion across 3 or more books. I like this universe enough to say plenty more exploring to do, would like more character development so if Mr Enge writes another I’ll probably check it out, because I had no problem with his writing style.

    So. It’s SyFy now.

  15. For Joe – thank you for affording us this opportunity, yet again.

    For James Enge:

    I enjoyed your book and thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. I did have a number of questions about how you decided to approach some things in this story.

    1. I liked the fact that you chose to reveal back-story for these characters and their world throughout the book rather than write a prologue to explain these things at the beginning. What went into this decision?

    2. When you write within the fantasy genre how do you determine how much magic is ” too much” when using it as it plot device?

    3. Since this is a great fantasy story filled with almost entirely original characters, cities, lands, and cultures – why did you decide to use a well-known fictional character, Merlin, in the storyline?

    4. There seem to be a lot of current fictional child-characters who tend to be more courageous and/or “plucky” in a way that Lathmar is not. Although his character does become less of a “sack of beans” over time, he seems quite vulnerable throughout most of the story. What went into your decision about this direction when you created his character?

    5. Morlock seems to be the flawed, reluctant hero. What drew you to create this type of lead character? He seems to take the long view on most things, and also sees beneath the surface of most plots hatched by the evil Protector/Adept. His sister Ambrosia, on the other hand, appears to be more direct, always ready for a fight. Yet near the end, it is revealed that she is the better “seer”. Why is this revealed at the end of the story? Will this and other unresolved things be explained in any forthcoming sequels? And, will we see Wyrth again now that he has become a Master?

  16. Excellent! I loved this book.

    Question(s) for James Enge:

    You’ve written stories set pretty distantly in Morlock’s future (if BoA is the present.) Did anything in the novel surprise you or affect the future narrative?

    Do you have any plans to write more about Ambrosia and Hope? (Loved them both.)

    And not really a question, but I enjoyed the omniscient POV. I see more of that in YA than adult fantasy lately, & thought it was a) well done and a nice change from tight 3rd, and b) an homage to the pulp fiction of last century (well aware I might be making up that 2nd point!)

    Thanks for doing this! I look forward to it.

  17. Spoilers below…

    Re your complaints about Merlin and the girl that the king falls in love with. I think you missed the point on both counts.

    The king didn’t love the girl at all. Those thoughts were planted in his head by the shathe to lure him into Morlock’s workshop, ostensibly for advice about women, but in fact to give the shathe a chance to further exert control over the king in a last ditch effort to save itself. When he arrives in Morlock’s workshop the king has thoughts of killing Morlock and giving the girl he “loves” to the shathe who will in return make her do whatever the king wants her to. All these thoughts disappear when the shathe finally dies.

    As to Merlin, his final appearance is a fantastic reveal. He set the entire plot in motion. Hundreds of years ago Merlin aided Inglanor, without his knowledge, in dominating the shathes, and let him loose on the land. Throughout the book we are teased by references to Merlin’s labyrinthine plots without receiving any details. To find that the whole book is one of those plots was very enjoyable. I think it’s an elegant finish.

  18. One thing I’ve wondered and never remembered to ask, and so might as well ask here publicly: I know what happens to Morcock next and next after that (i.e., the novels THIS CROOKED WAY and THE WOLF AGE), but where does Ambrosia/Hope go? Do we see them again?

  19. Is Rush’s last name an homage to the Canadian prog-rock trio — and best band in the world, RUSH.

  20. Just saw the new SGU Trailer. Looks like the new gate is literally spinning when being dialed.

    Is this done by CGI or do you guys actually have a lifesize fully lit gate-prop that really spins on set?

  21. Hey Joe, When will we hear word if the SGA movie has been green lit and get some production dates?

  22. Joe – Have you ever read The Way of the Shadow by Brent Weeks? If so what did you think?

  23. Well, you’re either having a really great time, or you’re in jail. I wonder which?


  24. I loved this book. It’s funny how different people have different takes. For me, it felt as though Ambrosia’s alter ego, Hope, was fleshed out, there was just enough POV from all the main characters to make me happy, and the battles were fantastic.

    I have only one question for James: What’s next and when will it be published?

  25. Oops, late to post again, but I wanted to wish happy birthday to Martin Gero, and best wishes for the year to come.

  26. Hello James,

    Loved the book. Some questions –

    1. You obviously enjoy the fantasy genre. Have you always been a fan? Do you trace your influences as far back as Tolkien or were you influenced by less obvious sources?

    2. One question that always comes up when we do these Q&A’s, and a question I find the most interesting, has to do with the writing process. What is your writing process like? How do you attack a story? Do you outline or do you make it up as you go along? Are you a morning writer or a night owl? Background music or deathly silence?

    3. How did you come to publish Blood of Ambrose?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.