The Faithful Hound

This week, I had to say goodbye to a dear companion, but this isn’t really a personal blog, so rather than eulogize Jordi directly, I thought I would talk about just a little of the history of the faithful hound in the Middle Ages.

Jordi in happier times--he was always happiest in winter.

Jordi in happier times–he was always happiest in winter.

Dogs are often viewed as symbolic of loyalty, which is why they appear at the feet of knights on their tomb effigies.    There have long been stories of dogs who linger on their master’s graves, or, nowadays, who wait fruitlessly at the train station for masters who do not come home.  Hereward the Wake, the famous hero of Ely who fought against the soldiers of William the Conqueror, until he drained the fens so the Wake could no longer escape, was said to have had such a hound.

This kind of loyalty can also be turned against the hero.  According to some sources, Scotland’s King Robert the Bruce possessed a devoted mastiff who had to be left behind at the manor when Bruce was on the run from the English in the highlands.  Some clever Englishman got the idea of taking the dog with them, and using it to track him down, knowing that the dog would pursue its master with great delight until they could be reunited, but a Scottish sympathizer let the dog go rather than see this love subverted.

In France during the 13th century, a cult rose up around the grave of a greyhound venerated as Saint Guinefort when certain miracles were said to occur at the site. The dog had been martyred by its own master when it defended a child from a wolf, only to be taken by its bloody mouth for the aggressor.  The knight who owned and slew the dog grieved mightily over his error, and buried the dog with great solemnity.  Naturally, the Catholic Church did not approve of a canine saint (no matter how many people then and now believe in the divine nature of the dog), and repeatedly tried to discourage its veneration.

The fact that a character even owns a dog, or that dogs love him, is often used by contemporary authors to show that someone is worthy. If such a creature loves, it is thought, then the master must be worthy.  I suppose I am guilty of this myself, with the relationship between the exiled Prince Thomas and his deerhound Cerberus in Elisha Magus When the dog accepts Elisha, too, he uses this as evidence that he is worthy of trust.

Elisha held out his hand to be sniffed. Gravely, Cerberus pushed his wet nose against Elisha’s fingers, then gave him a single, long slurp, and lay down at his master’s side.

Casting a quick look at the dog, the prisoner turned as quickly away, his eyes shining. “What have you done to my dog?” he whispered, his voice cracking. “You’ve cast some accursed spell on him.”

At that, Elisha laughed, shaking his head. He had gotten a fright from that knife brandished against him, but, try as he might, he couldn’t see the danger now. Here was a man loyal to his king, seeking justice as he saw it, heartsick because his dog seemed to have deserted him. Letting go his irritation, Elisha said, “It’s nearly impossible to cast a spell on a being with willpower of its own. All I did was try to help him, to make him comfortable, nothing more. If that’s a spell, I believe it’s commonly known as kindness.”

Cerberus returns in Elisha Rex, as, alas, my own dog cannot.  But his spirit is echoed there, one of a long line of faithful hounds.

a knight's tomb in Ely Cathedral shows him reclining, with a small dog at his feet.

A knight at rest in Ely Cathedral, with a small dog as his companion.

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Heroes and Antiheroes: The Integrity of Prince Hans

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the Readercon convention for science fiction and fantasy literature in Burlington, MA.  One of the panels was about heroes versus antiheroes:  what makes the difference?  How flawed must a hero be to swing to the antihero side?  How about pushing all the way to villainy?  After all, most people are the heroes of their own story, whether or not they seem evil to others.

Prince Hans, from Disney's Frozen

Prince Hans, from Disney’s Frozen

It occurred to me that this is one of the reasons I enjoyed the recent Disney juggernaut “Frozen.”  I’ve written before about the world-building, but it’s really the take on character that I appreciated most.  The characters make and solve their own problems.  They pursue their own goals (love, freedom, kingdom) with clear intent and enthusiasm.  And Prince Hans is right out there, using different tactics to gain the leadership role he seeks.

The last of many brothers, he has no chance for such a role in his own kingdom of the Southern Isles.  In the middle ages, spare sons might go to war, be given lesser positions in subservience to the heir, or even enter the church as another means of advancement.  Hans wants none of this.  So he travels to a distant realm, probably with the thought of meeting and marrying Queen Elsa.  Instead, he meets her little sister, so desperate to be loved that she falls for him right away.  He’s adept at fostering a connection with her, and thus, with the crown.

When Elsa freezes the kingdom and Anna rides of after her, Hans is given his big chance to prove his leadership, and he does so in spades, distributing blankets and needed supplies, opening the palace to nurture the citizens (in a way it has not been open for years).  He collaborates with officials of the kingdom, as well as with its allies, and in every way shows himself to be an able administrator, and likely, a worthy king.  When he brings Elsa back to face justice, he is not wrong: it is her power that has cast the kingdom into a possibly irrecoverable state, and it may be the only course to kill her.

We are encouraged by our sympathy for Elsa, built mainly through her relationship with Anna, to view this decision in a negative light.  But if Elsa had not been able to balance her power and restore the kingdom, what alternative would have remained?  Sure, I understand her urgency to escape from her prison, but what are the other choices for the kingdom, frozen by her magic?  The idea of magic dying with the one who cast it is common in many magical realms–we don’t know if that limitation exists here, but it’s not unreasonable.  Thus if Elsa neither removes the curse (Anna’s solution), nor dies (Hans’s solution), the kingdom will be ruined–and possibly many lands beyond.  We don’t know how far the freeze extends.

Hans can thus be viewed as an antihero, taking actions in pursuit of an important goal (saving the kingdom, clearly heroic), but actions that will have a negative impact on at least one other character we have been led to care about, Elsa herself.

His refusal to kiss Anna is a bit more problematic. He knows that he doesn’t love her, and thus cannot save her.  Honestly, little harm would have been done by his kissing her anyway.  They could both have been heartbroken and confused about why it doesn’t have any effect, and she dies in his arms (exactly as he later claims she did).  He could also have refused to kiss her as an act of personal integrity, knowing his “love” cannot save her, and thus refusing to succumb to that hope or allow her to do so.

But this is a Disney film, and, in spite of its unconventional approach to ideas of heroism, true love, and sacrifice, it can’t really go there–leaving the viewer with the impression of Hans as merely an ambitious young man, working to secure his goal.  He does ask Elsa to bring back the summer, and she refuses, leaving him no alternative.

It’s interesting to view Hans as a person of integrity, having come very close to achieving a kingdom, and now doing his sincere best to work in its behalf, willing to make himself unpopular by killing the queen in order to save the kingdom.  Any decent lawyer could get him off the charges, simply by pointing out that the only clear solution to saving the kingdom would be killing its cursed queen.

Readers, what’s your verdict?

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Book Launch day, Elisha Rex!

Today is the big day, the launch of book 3 in my Dark Apostle series of fantasy novels about medieval surgery.  Please help me celebrate and spread the word!

Cover for Elisha Rex, book 3 in The Dark Apostle series

Cover for Elisha Rex, book 3 in The Dark Apostle series

Once again, artist Cliff Nielsen has captured the spirit of the book–we find Elisha a changed man, in more ways than one–but here’s the cover copy to whet your interest:

“Blending magic and history, strong characters and gripping action, E. C. Ambrose brings a startlingly unique voice to our genre.”

—D. B. Jackson, author of Thieftaker

Elisha was once a lowly barber-surgeon, cutting hair and stitching wounds for poor peasants like himself in 14th century London. But that was before: before he was falsely accused of murder, and sent to die in an unjust war. Before he discovered his potential for a singularly deadly magic. Before he was forced to embrace his gifts and end the war…by using his newfound abilities to kill the tyrannical king.

So who is Elisha now? The beautiful witch Brigit, his former mentor, claims him for the magi, all those who have grasped the secrets of affinity and knowledge to manipulate mind and matter, and who are persecuted for it. Duke Randall, the man who first rose against the mad King Hugh, has accepted him as a comrade and ally in the perilous schemes of the nobility. Somehow, he has even become a friend to Thomas, both the rightful king and, something finer, a good man.

But there is another force at work in the world, a shadowy cabal beyond the might of kings and nobles, that sees its opportunity in the chaos of war and political turmoil—and sees its mirror in Elisha’s indivisible connection with Death. For these necromancers, Elisha is the ultimate prize, and the perfect tool.

When the necromancers’ secret plans begin to bear black fruit and King Thomas goes missing, England teeters on the brink of a hellish anarchy that could make the previous war look like a pleasant memory. Elisha may be the only man who can stop it. But if he steps forward and takes on the authority he is offered to save his nation, is he playing right into the mancers’ hands?

Why does it seem like his enemies are the ones most keen to call him Elisha Rex?

I have already drafted the fifth and final book in the series, but I promise, there’s plenty of excitement yet to come!

If you want to check out some of the behind-the-scenes stuff I researched for this volume, try my blog entries about:

Crows and Ravens

Defense Against the Dark Arts

A Defense of Trepanation

The Execution of Traitors





Posted in book promotion, books, Elisha Rex, fantasy, fiction, historical medicine, history, medieval, publishing, The Dark Apostle, witchcraft | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How Democracy Killed the Mongol Empire

This week-end, we’ll be celebrating Independence Day, and all that it stands for:  freedom, justice, democracy.  Enjoy your cookout and fireworks.  This year, we also celebrate another milestone in self-determination, the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England, acquiescing to the demands of the barons, and paving the way for future battles and statements of rights.  But during that key year of 1215, something else was happening on the borders of Europe, something much more alarming to the citizens of Eastern Europe in particular:  the Mongol Invasion.

Map showing the initial expansion of the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan

Map showing the initial expansion of the Mongol empire under Genghis Khan

These scrappy horsemen from the steppes, under the leadership of Genghis Khan as he is termed in English, determined in 1206 to begin their expansion.  In fairly short order, they had conquered many of the other tribes of the steppes, spreading outward into northern China, up into Russia, and down into the Middle East.  They sent emissaries offering alliances if the people ahead of their movement would surrender willingly, and they destroyed many cities and peoples who did not.

They moved so fast and attacked so furiously that the European border observers, who originally hoped that the strangers might join forces with them against the armies of Islam, became alarmed and began asking for aid from the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire.  The Mongols eventually established the largest contiguous land empire in history, outdone in its size only by the British Empire of several centuries later.

The influence of the Mongolian invasions on history and culture are still being examined these many centuries later–they are both lasting and far-reaching.  What might have happened to Europe if the Mongols had spread, as was their intent, all the way to the Atlantic?  And what stopped them from doing so?

The Mongol system of governance was not simply a monarchy in which the eldest son of the current ruler automatically became the ruler next, and thus passed the leadership down the same bloodline.  Instead, different tribes and factions had the right to put forth candidates, and the most suitable candidate (or the one who had the most allies in the Mongolian heartland) would be acclaimed as the Great Khan.  When Genghis passed away in 1227, therefore, the leaders of the far-flung armies–princes of the blood–had to return to Mongolia to participate in the council to determine the next ruler.

Genghis had four officially recognized sons, but he had designated Ogodei to succeed him, and divided leadership of many parts of the new empire among the other sons and grandsons, and his wishes were obeyed fairly readily.  When Ogodei passed away in 1241, many of the other princes were already unhappy, and the new council took longer, not accepting Ogodei’s chosen successor as they had his father’s.  Eventually, leadership passed to his nephew, who died on the way to meet a challenger from the same generation, Genghis’s grandsons.  This in-fighting among the candidates for leadership resulted in long gaps during which Europe could breathe more easily.  And in the long-term, the system of governance which required gathering in council, debating and acclaiming a leader, rather than merely bowing to a clear successor, resulted in the fragmentation of Genghis’s great enterprise.

In-fighting, back-biting, candidates accepting alliances in exchange for power-sharing, struggles to gain enough support to win the council. . .the foundations of democracy, even in such a distant place and time.

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Developing Fictional Worlds: The Nits are All you Have

As you may know, my most popular blog entry (still) is the one entitled Bilbo Baggins’ Bathrobe: A Example of Poor World-building.  Every month or two, someone new discovers this post and feels they must take me to task for nit-picking because of my elaborate examination of the cultural and industrial implications of this particular garment.  Hey, I’m always glad when folks are reading, and when they care enough to respond to something I wrote.  But this past week, I got such a comment just after I had done a workshop for the Odyssey Speculative Fiction Workshop (a six week bootcamp for science fiction, fantasy and horror, where I was pleased to attend back in 1997).

My talk at Odyssey was entitled “Making it Real.”  It’s not the first time I’ve given the talk, but I keep coming back to this topic because it is critical to the creator of fictional worlds to be able to reveal them clearly to the reader.  The more real the details of your world, the more believable will be the events that happen there, and the characters who make them happen.  I realized, in thinking about this talk and about this latest comment criticizing me for nit-picking, that really, when you are creating a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.

Some fascinating objects--what are they?  what are they used for?  what do they reveal about the people who made them or used them?

Some fascinating objects–what are they? what are they used for? what do they reveal about the people who made them or used them?

If you wanted to write a book in New York City, you could make a couple of vague references to subways, skyscrapers and bagel joints, and probably most readers would be satisfied.  They will be filling in the details from what they already know about that place, and about modern cities in general (although half of them will be picturing Toronto, which stands in for NYC in many television programs).  But if you want to create a world people have never seen before (including re-creating another time), then you must not only generate the landscape for that world–the geography, the climate, the plant and animal life–but you must find ways to reveal it with care, and with an economy of language or image.  What you show on the screen, in the frame, or on the page is what the reader will see and understand about that world.

The creator provides the key elements, and allows the reader to fill in the rest–there just isn’t time in the space of a book or novel to fill in everything, and it would get pretty boring if you did (this is one criticism of many fantasy novels, actually, that they go too far in pinning down details of setting and history that the reader isn’t engaged with.  Instead, you must be extremely deliberate about what you show, and, ideally, you try to make each of those images speak to multiple layers of the world:  the climate, the local culture, the availability of luxury goods, the status of this character, the level of technology.

Every individual item you depict, whether it is the king’s Golden Hall, the janitor’s key-ring, or the shaman’s head-dress reveals a wealth of information about the world you are creating. If you are not making deliberate choices about those items, then the world the reader imagines is not the same one you have in mind.  Sometimes, you can use these disconnects to build in a sense of mystery, as when Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman, in an apparently medieval setting, finds a blue “gem” the reader will eventually understand is a fragment of a solar panel.

If the author gets sloppy with details, including items outside the purview of the world, with unavailable materials or processes, or sending confusing signals about what they mean, the reader will begin to distrust the author, and the entire enterprise–founded on a willing suspension of disbelief, begins to crumble like the cheap facade it is.  These details that don’t fit, that fail to build a coherent world, are like dangling threads that will draw the eye and the mind–drawing them away from the story you want to tell.

When you are building a world from scratch, the nits are all you have.

Posted in essays, fantasy, fiction, history, medieval technology, research, Uncategorized, worldbuilding, writing | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Hand-bound Book of Elisha

leather-bound blank book devoted to Dark Apostle notes

leather-bound blank book devoted to Dark Apostle notes

Some years ago, I did a research project on medieval bookbinding, complete with making my own (rather clumsy) examples. At a street fair in Providence, I found this amazing book offered by a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and fell in love. I owned it for several years (I have a large collection of blank books, actually), during which time I couldn’t bring myself to journal in it. But when I took my first research trip to England while I was working on Elisha Barber, I gave myself permission to use it.

This book has since gone to England several times, as well as to Germany and to Avignon. It contains lots of notes, in a variety of pens (and with widely variable legibility). A few envelopes in the front contain leaves collected in the New Forest where I discovered that every tree has its own companion vines. Occasionally, I try to sketch some detail or map out a room or a place.

some sketches of the design of a coronet (chandelier) at the Tower of London

some sketches of a coronet (chandelier) and a fire place at the Tower of London

Taking notes and sketching are valuable tools for memory. Do I refer back to the notes? Sure, but in large part, they exist for me to digest what I’m seeing or hearing. This mnemonic is an aid to the maps, photos and guidebooks I bring home, as well as to the conversations that I have, or the guides I follow from room to room and street to street.

This book is bound in black leather in a classic style. It is just large enough to fit comfortably in hand. Because I am generally standing while taking notes, I don’t write on the left-hand side as I go through the book. It’s much easier to balance the book while holding it in my left hand if I write only on the right. Then, I flip the book over and write back in the other direction, resulting in upside-down facing pages.

A bay window sketch, and some illuminated letters.

A bay window sketch, and some illuminated letters. Note messy cursive writing on the right, and messy printing (inverted) on the left)

I have just a few pages left in this book. They are thick, cream-colored water-color paper with a distinct, soft texture. And they may remain forever empty, but I think the project worthy of this, and I am now on the look-out for another. . .

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Josh Vogt’s Contemporary Fantasy: This is Gonna Get Messy. . .

You may recall that Josh Vogt answered some questions about his Pathfinder novel, Forge of Ashes in April.  Well, now he’s back, this time launching his own fiction, with a truly wacky concept for a fantasy world, the magical realm of The Cleaners!  Read on. . .

Enter the Janitor, first in The Cleaners series about a supernatural custodial firm.

Enter the Janitor, first in The Cleaners series about a supernatural custodial firm.

What was the inception of this project? What were your first steps in building that idea into a viable story?

With Enter the Janitor, I got to thinking about what mages or wizards might be like if they took on different professions. When I realized the mops and spray bottles and plungers sanitation workers often wield could be stand-ins for traditional wands and staves, the idea clicked and I ran with it. Then it was a matter of figuring out the rules of that reality and how a supernatural sanitation company might blend in with modern society.

What kind of research and/or world-building did you do before beginning?

I researched sanitation workers in general, getting an idea of the tools they use and how they’re perceived these days. I also looked into the history of sanitation, plagues, hygiene, and world mythology, finding (or forging) connections between them all to fit into the lore of this story.

What’s your first-draft process? outline, edit as you go, speed-writing?

I do a lot of upfront worldbuilding and outlining until I hit a certain point where I realize that constructing the details is keeping me back from telling the story. Then I take the outline I’ve worked up and fill in the gaps as I draft, giving myself the ability to be creative and make new discoveries as I go.

How do you start revisions?

Enter the Janitor didn’t actually start out as humor-oriented as it is now. It had its funny bits, yeah, but when it was being shopped around to publishers, I got feedback that encouraged me to really ramp up the comic elements—which I did, and which I believe really helped set it apart from other typical urban fantasies.

If you could choose a few descriptors that would go in a blurb on the front cover of your book, what would they be?

This is gonna get messy…

Fun fantasy that takes a unique spin on what it means to save the world.

What cool thing would you put in the DVD extra version that didn’t get into the published work? research or created detail you had to cut or couldn’t use?

I’ve only just begun to explore the world of The Cleaners, so anything that hasn’t gotten into Enter the Janitor is lined up to appear in future stories! The second novel, The Maids of Wrath, will be out in 2016, so get ready!

Where should readers go to find out more about your work?

Most info can be found on my website, You can also contact me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Goodreads, Amazon, and a few other platforms. Or see me at one of the many conventions I often attend.

Care to share a link (aside from your own work) to something amazing you think everyone should see or know about?

I know some folks are a little leery about Reddit in general, but actually the Fantasy subreddit is an excellent community of people who love to talk about genre authors, books, movies, games, and more. There’s a SciFi subreddit as well that’s equally active.

Josh Vogt's head shot

Josh Vogt’s head shot

Josh Vogt has been published in dozens of genre markets with work ranging from flash fiction to short stories to doorstopper novels that cover fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel, Forge of Ashes, adds to the RPG Pathfinder Tales tie-in line. WordFire Press is also launching his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor (2015) and The Maids of Wrath (2016). You can find him at or on Twitter @JRVogt. He’s a member of SFWA as well as the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers

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