Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: "Elisha Barber" by E.C. Ambrose

Many fantasy books that focus on doctors, or healers as they're commonly known, have an ephemeral feel when it comes to the topic. Often there is a laying on of hands approach that has a generic sort of energy transfer that drains the healer and, hopefully, heals the patient. But E.C. Ambrose's debut novel, Elisha Barber, has a far more direct, brutal and realistic vision of what Medieval medicine, with or without magic, would have looked like.

~Official Synopsis

England in the fourteenth century: a land of poverty and opulence, prayer and plague…witchcraft and necromancy.

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.

"Elisha Barber" is the kind of book that opens with a bang and not a whimper. For everyone who likes grimdark fiction- this has all the gritty content you can handle. And why wouldn't it? Medieval medicine as a topic is going to be dirty and messy if it is going to have any sense of realism and E.C. Ambrose doesn't shy away from exploring the harsher aspects of what it must have been like to be a barber in the fourteenth century.

Elisha Barber takes his name from his chosen profession. As a barber he takes on the bloody jobs that higher ranking physicians consider beneath them and he often finds himself treating the lower ranking members of polite society. But once Elisha is on the battle-front his superior skill and diligence, while useful, causes resentment among the physicians even as it endears him to the soldiers he tends.

Initially the tensions of the battlefield are somewhat softened by the presence of Brigit, the beautiful young witch that introduces Elisha to his natural magical abilities. But it doesn't take long for petty jealousy and the forbidden nature of Elisha's magic to quickly escalate the danger of his situation and put his life in immediate peril.

Overall there is a lot to like about "Elisha Barber."  I was wary at first of just how dark the book was going to be because the early chapters were fairly grueling (fair warning), but Ambrose uses Elisha's hardships to establish his character and his motivations very effectively and it doesn't take long to become fully absorbed in the story.

Generally speaking Elisha is an excellent protagonist as his past and his current motivations are well developed and mostly congruent. The only slight flaw I see in how Elisha is written is that the character we read about is so conscientious and hardworking that his earlier bad deeds, the ones we're mostly only told about, are hard to believe. According to the narrative Elisha is meant to be something of a changed man because he's atoning for his past, but I still had a hard time putting the two sides of the character together- but it's a minor quibble at most.

The secondary characters in the book are a bit of a mixed bag. The people we aren't meant to like are somewhat one-dimensional. They dislike Elisha for his lowly status and his popularity among the common troops, but their treatment of Elisha goes so far beyond the bounds of reasonable behavior that their motivations seem mostly contrived. Brigit, however, is handled with quite a bit more finesse and I wasn't sure for most of the books if I should like her or hate her-- a good thing in my opinion.

The story itself doesn't necessarily break new ground but it is an interesting fusion of battlefield fiction and fantasy. Most of the story takes place in the surgery and is your normal, filthy, blood-and-guts kind of fiction in that vein; magic doesn't play a huge part of the narrative until later in the book. The magic system, when it does arrive, is somewhat vague and undefined in my opinion and I can't say that I ended up with a real grasp of how certain feats are accomplished- but there is a system that can be further developed in future books.

I was absolutely captivated by "Elisha Barber" for the first half of the book and was ready to put it on my best-of list at that point. But the book does lose momentum in the latter half as the challenges against Elisha escalate to the point where it feels as if the character is put through a lot of needless hardships just to establish who the bad people are. The redeeming aspects of the book come in the form of certain characters who form positive relationships with Elisha and soften the overall story arc- there were times when that was really needed. I also appreciated that Ambrose does allow growth in certain characters in a way that changes our impressions of their personalities over the course of the book. "Elisha Barber" is a fairly complex debut that may have aspired for more than it actually achieves but I think there's real potential to the story and will definitely read the next installment to see how the story continues to unfold.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

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