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?