Blood of Ambrose   5 comments


I wish I could write as well as James Enge, and by write, I don’t mean string words together in sequences.  I’ll match my vocabulary and command of the English language with anyone–I might not win, but it will always be a contest.  No, by writing, in this case, I mean plotting.  Some authors have the ability to complicate their stories to the point where the reader really can’t predict what’s going to happen any more.  They add characters.  They add complications.  The story just keeps getting better and better.  James Enge is one of those writers.  My friend, Michael A. Stackpole, is another, but I’m not talking about Mike right now.

I’ve just finished BLOOD OF AMBROSE by James Enge.  It’s my kind of book, heroic fantasy with wizards and swordsmen and dragons and undead things and various monsters.  There are plots and counterplots at the very highest level.  It seems that the throne of the Empire of Ontil is at stake, but keep reading and you will learn that the entire world is threatened.   King Lathmar VII is being threatened by Urdhven the Protector, an evil usurper who wants the throne for himself.  Urdhven has already slain the boy-king’s parents, seized control of the army, and taken the capital city.  As the book starts, the Protector is slaughtering Lathmar’s last few friends and kin.  The semi-immortal sorceress Lady Ambrosia, Lathmar’s grandmother many times removed, has to send for help from her despised wizardly brother Morlock.  Morlock and his Dwarf apprentice/companion Wyrth gets the call for help from a crow—Morlock has a treaty with the crows.  (grin)

And the book just keeps getting better from there.  I’m not going to recapitualate the plot, but I will say it’s definitely worth reading.  I want to finish this blog so that I can get away from the computer and start the second book: THIS CROOKED WAY, which continues the adventures of Morlock, master Seer and Maker, after he leaves Lathmar and the Empire of Ontil behind him.

What I want to do is ask some questions about modern fantasy.  Just things to think about–are they trends or truisms?

1.  In the early days of heroic fantasy, the genre was often called Swords and Sorcery.  Some say that Fritz Leiber coined the term.  Lin Carter popularized it.  I’m willing to give them the credit, I suppose, but I called it that way back when I was a kid in high school reading my first Conan and Grey Mouser stories, long before I learned that Leiber was supposed to have invented the term. What else would you call a type of literature characterized by heroic warriors who very often found themselves fighting against dastardly wizards?  Have you noticed how most of the books in heroic fantasy seem to focus more on the wizards than the swordsmen these days?  You don’t find many Conans, Thongors, or John Carters any more.  The heroes are all wizards, or at the very least rogue-wizards.  Michael Moorcock more or less started the Rogue-Wizard traditon with his Elric of Melnibone stories.  That series started in the early sixties, and was a rebellion even then against the simplistic swordsman vs. sorcerer tradition of Howard and Leiber.  It seems like every fantasy I pick up these days has a wizard for a hero.

2.  Which leads to the second question, are wizards intrinsically more interesting than swordsmen?  Who is the deeper character: Merlin or Arthur, Gandalf or Frodo, Elric or Conan, Spock or Kirk?  We can extend the analogy. Spock is a kind of scientific wizard–he pulls technological saves out of his Vulcan hat so often that Kirk, the swordsman prototype takes it for granted.  It quickly becomes apparent to anyone playing fantasy role-playing games that the magical characters are the ones that will develop into the most powerful and most likely to survive.

3.  Why are these fantasy worlds so earthlike?  Most heroic fantasies are clearly set on different worlds that are not Earth.  Enge sets his tale on the planet Laent.  The geography is non-earthlike, and there are three moons, but the animals are all creatures from Earth.  It is surprising how few animals are actually mentioned in this 400 page novel.  There are horses and crows and dragons–all creatures from Earth.  The people are recognizably human.  Such a setting makes sense if you can tie the world to Earth in some way–Tolkien, and Howard, and Moorcock all set their adventures on the Earth that existed before the modern continents took form.  Lin Carter does the same for his Thonor books.  Fritz Leiber set his adventures in the fantasy world of Nehwon, but at least one of his major adventures for the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd took place on Earth–Adept’s Gambit, the very best, IMHO, of the Mouser novels.  Is it a failure of imagination or is it absolute necessity that heroic fantasy worlds be near duplicates of Earth?

4.  Enge set his Blood of Ambrose series on a planet that is not Earth.  Why then does he tie it to Earth and paticularly why does he tie it to Arthurian Britain with characters named Merlin and Nimue Viviana?  Why is Latin the old secret language of magic?  It doesn’t just look like Latin–the author says it is Latin in the first book.

5.  These are questions I would ask Enge if I ever got to talk to the man.  Clearly he is a scholar of fantasy and knows exactly what he’s doing.  I don’t believe he is simply echoing popular names from Arthurian mythology when he talks about Merlin, Nimue, Uthar (Uther Pendragon was Arthur’s father and a hero in his own right.)  Is he simply using those names because he knows they will resonate with his readers?  That would be a cheap trick if you ask me, but if there is some deeper connection, then the cheap trick becomes a stroke of brilliance.  (It’s odd how the significance of things all depends on your point of view, isn’t it?)

In the final analysis, James Enge succeeds in the real task of any writer of escape fiction.  He tells a great story and entertains the reader–me in this case.  Long may he write!



Posted October 5, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

5 responses to “Blood of Ambrose

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  1. i read this book last year, while i enjoyed it, it didn’t really pop at me. Everyone i talk to as excellent things to say about it…maybe i better read it again..

    Arrdhann Trrelish
  2. in case you didn’t realize a third morlock book is coming out soon or is already out titled “The Wolf Age”

    Arrdhann Trrelish
  3. Glad you liked the book. I should add that Laent is very much not Earth-like. For one thing, it is flat. For another, its sun goes in the opposite direction to ours, rising in the west and setting in the east. In THIS CROOKED WAY, you will see more of Laent’s flora and fauna, including the totally original, very much unearthlike race the Kroi. Also, the Arthurian connection is not arbitrary. Morlock’s father is exactly who he says he is (and you will see more of him in THIS CROOKED WAY as well). There isn’t a lot about the “sea of worlds” in the three novels, but what there is does hint at the connections between Earth and Morlock’s world though.

  4. 1. Sorcery was considered uniformly evil for most of the last 3000 years. Only in the last 40-60 has it even been possible to consider “good sorcery”. Thet leaves a lot of ground to make up for modern writers, and they are doing it.

    Plus, sorcery is EASY. Ignoring physics is less strenuous than obeying it. It’s MUCH harder to write Fafherd and Grey Mouser than it is to write Harry Potter.

    2. They are more interesting, because they routinely break the absolute rules of the universe. Until recently, this was considered evil, which took the interest away. Now it’s not.

    3. Because it’s MUCH harder to write “Dune” than it is to write Harry Potter. Harry’s connection to us is that 1) He is just like us and 2) He can break the laws of the universe. It’s easy to care and empathize with him. Paul Atreides lives in a completely alien culture and world, where he is reluctant messiah. Much harder to care and empathize – but we do.

    4. It saves him a ton of difficult work by simply giving his audience what they already know. I am sure that is not the answer you want, but it is the truth. Writing on a foundation of inconsistent assumptions is the province of the merchant, not the artist.

    5. Yes. how could these Earth figures be relevant to this alien world? it seems to me that you have chosen to embrace the intricate plotting and treat the book’s glaring problems as “mysteries”.

    They are not mysterious, it’s just hack-writing with great plotting.

  5. I remember James Enge from the Flashing Swords crowd. That’s not ‘the’ Lin Carter Flashing Swords, by the way, but an eZine from a few years back that championed Sword & Sorcery short fiction. The eZine was based at the SFReader forums, but isn’t going anymore (which is a shame I got my first print publication in their summer special).

    You should check out the archives, Ken lots of good S&S . . .

    Although sadly it seems only the first five issues are still on line and they don’t include any of James Enge’s Morlock short stories.

    ‘Why is Latin the old secret language of magic?’

    I think James teaches Classics so that’d explain that. 😀

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