Elisha Magus by E. C. Ambrose
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“Elisha, a barber-surgeon from the poorest streets of benighted fourteenth-century London, has come a long way from home. He was always skilled at his work, but skill alone could not protect him on the day that disaster left his family ruined and Elisha himself accused of murder. With no other options, Elisha accepted a devil’s bargain from Lucius, a haughty physician, to avoid death by hanging—by serving under the sadistic doctor as a battle surgeon of the king’s army, at the front lines of an unjust war.
Elisha worked night and day, both tending to the wounded soldiers and protecting them from the physician’s experiments. Even so, he soon found that he had a talent for a surprising and deadly sort of magic, and was drawn into the clandestine world of sorcery by the enchanting young witch Brigit—who had baffling ties to his past, and ambitious plans for his future. Yet even Brigit did not understand the terrible power Elisha could wield, until the day he was forced to embrace it and end the war…by killing the king.
Now, Elisha has become a wanted man—not only by those who hate and fear him, but by those who’d seek to woo his support. Because, hidden behind the politics of court and castle, it is magic that offers power in its purest form. And the players in that deeper game are stranger and more terrifying than Elisha could ever have dreamed.
There are the magi, those who have grasped the secrets of affinity and knowledge to manipulate mind and matter, always working behind the scenes. There are the indivisi, thought mad by the rest of the magical world: those so devoted to their subject of study that they have become “indivisible” from it, and whose influence in their realm is wondrous beyond even the imaginations of “normal” magi. And then there are—there may be—the necromancers, whose methods, motives, and very existence remain mysterious. Where rumors of their passing go, death follows.
But death follows Elisha, too.”
Wow, that’s a pretty long synopsis up there. But I’ll give it to the author: she has written a complex story. With the novel taking place in an alternate England and Europe, Ambrose has to balance setting the stage with the alternate history and not overwhelming the reader with information that they don’t need. There’s just enough there to give you a good sense of the time period and how things generally operate without delving too deeply into the specifics of how it differs from history. For this story, it doesn’t really matter—the focus is on the mages, and they’re generally not in the limelight.
We also get glimpses into the power plays that are going on behind the scenes. As the synopsis says, magic is where the power is, both in the incorporeal realm and in the political realm. While readers don’t get a lot of information about the roots of this movement, there are plenty of hints as to where the story will go from here. Obviously, the story that the author is telling is much broader than just one mage and his unusual powers.
One thing that I liked was how Ambrose makes most of the characters fall into the gray areas of good versus evil. For example, Elisha is a healer, but he does wield the power of death and has to constantly ask himself if he’s using it for the right reasons. Some of the ruling class have gotten wrapped up in things that are evil, but they have done so under mistaken pretenses, and so we have to question if they’re really bad guys or not. The only example of a character who is flat-out evil is a necromancer who comes into the story, and I certainly can’t fault the author for writing someone whose motives are clear (if reprehensible).
I guess what it boils down to is that these are characters that I can respect. I may not always think they’re doing the right thing, or doing things for the right reasons, but I do respect them. They feel fully fleshed out and realistic. I look forward to seeing what they do in future books.
Elisha Magus combines complex characters with good storytelling and gives readers a satisfying adventure. Fans of historical fiction, especially books set during the Middle Ages, will find this a good introduction to the fantasy genre.