A Look at James Enge’s Blood of Ambrose
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
I abandoned reading fantasy for six or seven years. I had become bored with epics and found myself uninterested in the new, supposedly transgressive, books. But around 2010 I decided to actively seek out and write about sword & sorcery on my blog Stuff I Like. At some point in my search I encountered James Enge’s old website, where he was offering a free download of the Morlock story “Traveller’s Rest.” Assuring readers I wouldn’t give any plot away I wrote, “And the escapade I’m not going to write about is exciting, creepy and covered with the right amount of nuttiness.” Soon after, I read “The Red Worm’s Way” in Rogue Blades’ monstrously good collection, Return of the Sword (a book any true S&S aficionado should own). My short review of that story reads: “Morlock Ambrosius and corpse-eating monsters. Enough said.” Those two stories led me right to Enge’s first full-length novel, Blood of Ambrose.
Morlock is the crooked-shouldered son of Merlin Ambrosius and Nimue Viviana. He is a maker (that is, a sorcerer and artificer), a swordsman (armed with Tyrfing, a cursed sword featured in Norse legends), and a gloomy drunk. By the time of Blood of Ambrose, he has lived several centuries and his name has become a byword for doom. In his recent interview with our mighty Skull overlord, Enge described Morlock Ambrosius as “a guy falling down the steps of life one painful step after another.” That description seems quite apt of the Morlock encountered in various short stories and later novels, but not so much here. Here, he is a legend drawn out of the shadows, to save first his sister, then the king, then maybe the world.
Lathmar is the boy-king of Ontil and de facto prisoner of the Protector, Lord Urdhven, his uncle and likely murderer of his parents. When the Protector comes for Ambrosia, centuries-old founder of the Ontilian Empire and Lathmar’s many-times-over grandmother, accusing her of witchcraft, Lathmar flees his prison of a palace. Before being recaptured, he cries out for Morlock, remembered as some sort of Ambrosius family boogie man, to come save Ambrosia.
Morlock does arrive in Ontil, accompanied by his apprentice, the dwarf Wyrth, ready to serve as his sister’s champion and save her from being burned at the stake. This sets off a series of deadly encounters with Urdhven and his forces. After several twists and turns, Morlock and company end up taking refuge within the walls and secret passages of the Gormenghastian Ambrose palace.
As plots are enacted and tables turned, a stasis arises between the king’s allies and the Protector’s, and a dark force is discerned by Morlock, manipulating and directing events toward some unknown ends. What starts as a good and often funny story of royal intrigue transforms into a stranger and darker one, redolent of the nightmares and fancies of Clark Ashton Smith and Roger Zelazny.
Behind him in the street was a dead baby riding on the back of what appeared to be a dog’s body, equipped with four mismatched human feet and a masklike smiling human face.
The dead baby appraised Morlock with eyes like broken rotting bird’s eggs. “You are not one of mine, the baby said, in a glutinous tenor. “I’d have remembered you.”
“And I you.”
“I doubt it; this is not my only face. Wait a moment.”
“I’m afraid I can’t. Good morning.”
“You’re the one they talk about – Ambrosia’s brother…”
But Morlock was running down an alley by then.
Blood of Ambrose’s dark atmosphere thickens as the book barrels towards its conclusion. Events keep getting more and more bleak; allies are being turned into enemies, the king is kidnapped again (he does seem to get captured more than the heroine in a silent serial), and the walking dead of Ontil are coming to outnumber the living. The chapter where one of Morlock’s compatriots is devoured psychically is especially unsettling, written all in resignation and black despair.
If Blood of Ambrose has any flaw, it is that at times it feels like a fix-up instead of an entirely cohesive novel. A few scenes feel somewhat extraneous and some characters appear or fade from view unexpectedly.
The book serves as an excellent introduction to Enge’s recurring character, even if Blood of Ambrose is more concerned with Lathmar than Morlock much of the time. We learn of his troubled and complicated past, and come to understand how talented and obstinate he can be. The story is filled with great scenes of action and madcap inventiveness. It also showcases Enge’s talent at worldbuilding. No scene is too small to merit his ingenuity and wit. Every scene – even those that feel extraneous to the tale – is an exquisite bit of sword & sorcery writing. If you’ve been enjoying the Morlock stories in Tales From the Magician’s Skull, then this is definitely a book worth your time and ducats.
For more enduring stories of Morlock the Maker from James Enge be sure to check out Tales From the Magician’s Skull.