(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“As a child, Elisha witnessed the burning of a witch outside of London, and saw her transformed into an angel at the moment of her death, though all around him denied this vision. He swore that the next time he might have the chance to bind an angel’s wounds, he would be ready. And so he became a barber surgeon, at the lowest ranks of the medical profession, following the only healer’s path available to a peasant’s son.
Elisha Barber is good at his work, but skill alone cannot protect him. In a single catastrophic day, Elisha’s attempt to deliver his brother’s child leaves his family ruined, and Elisha himself accused of murder. Then a haughty physician offers him a way out: come serve as a battle surgeon in an unjust war.
Between tending to the wounded soldiers and protecting them from the physicians’ experiments, Elisha works night and day. Even so, he soon discovers that he has an affinity for magic, drawn into the world of sorcery by Brigit, a beautiful young witch who reminds him uncannily of the angel he saw burn.
In the crucible of combat, utterly at the mercy of his capricious superiors, Elisha must attempt to unravel conspiracies both magical and mundane, as well as come to terms with his own disturbing new abilities. But the only things more dangerous than the questions he’s asking are the answers he may reveal.”
The first thing that should be noted is that this book is not for the squeamish. The author has obviously put in a lot of time researching medieval medicine and surgery, and the details are all too realistic. Pair this with the fact that much of the story takes place on a battlefield, and you’re in for some fairly bloody scenes. As icky as it sometimes is, it’s good to see that the author is taking the time to accurately depict illness and injury in a time of such primitive medicine.
Although this is billed as a fantasy, much of the novel’s focus is on the politics behind the war in which Elisha finds himself enmeshed. I do find it interesting to see these situations from the point of view of someone with little opportunity to even observe much of it in action. As a result, Elisha hears about things secondhand from the soldiers and thus acts from limited information in some crucial moments after he’s sent to the front.
Unfortunately, the magic in this tale feels a bit shoehorned into the narrative. Under other circumstances, I think I would have found it more interesting, but it doesn’t mesh all that well with the gritty reality of the rest of the story. I think this gets accentuated because the novel’s hook has so much to do with Elisha’s medical skill and the social status (or lack thereof) of a barber that the sudden inclusion of magic is a little jarring. I can see where the magic is likely to be woven more firmly into the story in later books, though, so I can forgive the author a bit of set-up pagetime.
Kudos to Ambrose for creating a main character who is both capable of performing the often bloody and painful work of surgery and of being a compassionate man who regrets the pain that he must cause. Elisha’s friends and helpers are the kind of people that a man like him would attract, and the portion of the cast works well together. There are a couple of characters whose motivations and loyalties are ambiguous, and the author does a pretty good job of holding the suspense taut through the novel. The other doctors and anybody who is definitely set against Elisha often come across as a bit of the mustache-twirling variety of villain, but it’s not too bad.
Although not quite comfortable in its role as a fantasy novel, Elisha Barber does an excellent job at evoking the crude conditions of medieval warfare and medical care. Throw in some politics and plotting, and the novel stands out among the crowd. I’ll be keeping an eye out for a sequel.