Blood Of Ambrose, where to begin? It is very rare I get extremely interested in a novel these days significantly ahead of its arrival, at least if the names involved don't start with Egan, Morgan, or Reynolds. However, this was one of those rare volumes.
This, of course, was because I was quite acquainted with the extremely unique individual known as Morlock Ambrosius, Master Of Makers, thanks to the following tales :-
These are online :-
A Book Of Silences - http://freesf.blogspot.com/2009/03/book-of-silences-james-enge.html
A Covenant With Death - http://freesf.blogspot.com/2008/06/covenant-with-death-james-enge.html
Fire and Sleet - http://freesf.blogspot.com/2009/03/fire-and-sleet-james-enge.html
The Gordian Stone - http://freesf.blogspot.com/2008/11/gordian-stone-james-enge.html
The Payment In Full - http://freesf.blogspot.com/2008/07/payment-in-full-james-enge.html
Red Worm's Way - http://freesf.blogspot.com/2008/06/red-worms-way-james-enge.html
These are to be found in Black Gate magazine, which you can still buy, and even now buy electronically if as you might just find the desire for more Morlock to overtake you, like, right now.
The Lawless Hours - http://notfreesf.blogspot.com/2008/12/lawless-hours-james-enge.html
The Payment Deferred - http://notfreesf.blogspot.com/2008/12/payment-deferred-james-enge.html
Turn Up This Crooked Way - http://notfreesf.blogspot.com/2008/12/turn-up-this-crooked-way-james-enge.html
That was enough for me to preorder.
Given the apparently pseudonymous Mr Enge is a academic of an (ancient) literary bent, perhaps we can call this an episodic bildungsroman. That's about the outer limit of my literature nomenclature abilities, so no more of that. Enge apparently means hero in some ancient tongue. So a reverse-Stephenson manoeuvre by the author, if you like.
The novel itself. Or is it? Suffice it to say, this book has five parts, that could certainly work as novellas. The first three are closer together in time and circumstance, and so are the last two. It also gets progressively stranger as you progress throughout.
Now, the style. Some different. Paul Cornell likens it to Conan crossed with Raymond Chandler. I think he must have been smoking some of that whacky baccy you can get in the Faerieland some of his comics superagents go to, because, just, no. There is nothing hardboiled about this at all. Morlock is ultracompetent, certainly, but shares nothing with the Conans and Marlowes of the world apart from the tendency of the former to make a very bad enemy.
If you want an intimation of the style, then this is perhaps much more Steven Brust, with a lengthy leavening of Leiber.
More on Brust later, but a character comparison that could be made with Morlock is actually that of Doctor Who, not something I'd do often for a literary character. However, plenty of books of the former. Here you do have an extremely long-lived individual, alien, dispassionate and given to thinking his way out of trouble, where possible, helped by a large array of arcane engineering knowledge. His relationship with his sister is also rather reminiscent of the fond bickering between the Doctor and Romana. He's also prone to collecting proteges and companions. The 21st century vintage doctor has been known to get a bit gung-ho with a sword, too. Morlock, however, is not given to huge rantypants oratorically declamatory scenery-chewing. Nor of making goo-goo eyes at girls younger than his underpants, come to that, given his ex-wife. There's no K-9, but Morlock has one of the coolest pets as such that I have ever come across. Those who have read 'Turn Up This Crooked Way' will be pleased to note the reappearance of such.
The setting is a fair bit more Brust than anything involving a TARDIS, however. You could place Morlock somewhere on the continuum between Vlad and Morrolan. Deadly magic weapon, more concern for the normal human than the dragonlord end, not so much for the killing for money, though. Smartarse sidekick, certainly (even if not a telepathic flying lizard). Estranged, dangerous ex-wife, check. The elephant in the room here from a Brustian point of view is of course, Sethra Lavode. A long-lived sorceress, not human, of more than one personality, and the supreme general of her age. This description fits Morlock's sister Ambrosia one hundred percent. We'll get to squabbling lords and crazed magical situations later.
There are a few more characters, and I believe a bildungsroman book has to have someone coming of age. Given the other major characters are all well into three figures in age, even exceedingly well, we need to talk about the young King. In the first part, he's just a kid, with a Protector around who has designs on the throne, and his grandmother trying to help him. She being Ambrosia of the Ambrosii. In other words, someone the Protector would like to kill. A city divided, and supernatural agents. Civil war, magic, and mayhem in the offering. Morlock has a sister and a young king to save, if anyone can find him. That's the other thing, he's an alcoholic, and sometimes as you would expect, drunk. His dwarven assistant has to hope he can stall for time and keep the important people alive until he gets there.
The young king Lathamar is certainly the weak point of the book. While a way in for the more traditional fantasy reader, he's rather generic except for his relatives. Just a kid, so to be expected. Also Enge has skipped the whole high fantasy trope of farmboy or pigkeeper to king and just made the bloody boy the crown wearer to start with.
That doesn't disguise the fact that Morlock and various acquaintances and enemies are considerably more interesting in word and deed, as they try all manner of strangeness, tricks, magic and machines to either stay alive or kill each other. This flaw certainly prevents it from reaching the top score.
Therefore, when the young king is the main viewpoint character for extended period of times, it tends to pall a little, especially if attention is on him too long. The same thing goes for the weakest of the Morlock stories, too. There is a longer tale, 'The Lawless Hours' that features another viewpoint character for a considerable portion - but this is a veteran warrior who lives in a very strange place and is not the blank slate cypher a sheltered fearful royal child is to begin with. This is not such a problem when he's more like an older teenager than a tween.
The start of this is book is a lot better than it sounds in the above explanation, and one of the best starts to a book I have seen in a long time. You can see the first three chapters for yourself here :- http://freesf.blogspot.com/2009/04/blood-of-ambrose-1-3-james-enge.html
The second part has things getting worse, before they get better, and the third with a desperate struggle to save Ambrose, with the whole city divided thing.
I had mentioned the bickering before, so there are plenty of funny parts. Online, Enge has mentioned the unusability of the unicorn in fantasy because it has been 6-year-old-girlified to death. Here he also thumbs his nose at another piece of such pony porn, the flying horse. Somehow his antigravity alchemy tricks return him a horse than can fly. Rather, however, than a sleek painting-poster-posed-winged steed that exists to show off the rippling thews of heroes, or be directed by lithe warrior maidens over battlefields, this horse jumps around basically doing the equine equivalent of yelling 'this flying stuff is great, think I'll do some more, you monkeyboys and girls might want to get off'.
The fourth and fifth parts of the story have to do with things nastier and a lot more supernatural. The young king is a lot more competent in all arenas, including slicing things with handheld lengths of metal. A good thing, too, as Ambrosia, the Regent, is tiring, and, well, to put it simply, evil sorcerers and fanatic zombies. It isn't that simple, though, and again, a lot better than it sounds. They aren't your standard zombies, either, but this is as close a name as the characters themselves can come to describing them. Not the only monsters, either.
There are a couple of appendices on very brief appendices on the local religion and calendar.
Back to things Brustian, though. When Morlock's old comrades Guardians turn up, three of them, no less, then you may well find the repartee getting a little Dumas, or at least Brust, as thich bunch may remind you of Musketeers or Phoenix Guards a little. Especially with how those sorts of characters interact. Plus the strong one, the urbane one, the heartbroken one. No idea if the author has read Brust, but I'd find it highly unlikely he has missed Dumas, even if he has no knowledge of Romanas and robot dogs.
It should also not be forgotten than Morlock and Ambrosia are Ambrosii, which means of the line of Merlin Ambrosius. This is an alternate-Merlin. No Lancelots and kingdom destroying love triangles, or grails, either, it seems.
Anyway, I could write a lot more, but wouldn't want any deaths by boredom. A novel that is inventive and refreshingly different, especially so if you haven't seen any of the Morlock stories before, and I'll read it again. At least I'd be surprised if you've read a book before about a drunken, ex-hero, divorced son of Merlin, foster-dwarf who is a magical artificer with a dwarven sidekick, strange pets, a backpack, and a hunchback, among other things.
Plus I'd be happy to order the second book in advance.
Here are a few interviews to go on with :-
4.5 out of 5