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From debut author Wolf comes a novel based loosely on the life of St. Ambrose, this version set in a future far removed from the saint’s fourth-century life.
The days of the United States, the Constitution and most other recognizable forms of American government are over. Now there is the United Provinces, an entity more akin to ancient Rome. Guns have been outlawed, clergy serve important roles in government, and “Huns” and “Goths” refer to sizable entities outside the United Provinces. While American-style football is still a popular entertainment, it now features gladiatorial halftime events such as criminals battling gladiators for their freedom.
Living as a successful lawyer in this often violent society is Aurelius Ambrosius. When Ambrose, as he’s known to friends, is unexpectedly tapped to become the next governor of Dionysius, his life changes and he goes from being a clever, albeit stressed, lawyer to a reluctant though rising politician. Added to the uncertainty of Ambrose’s position is a schism in the powerful Catholic Church: A debate rages as to the position of Jesus in the holy trinity. Though seemingly trivial to the laymen, the controversy is enough for one archbishop to dramatically commit suicide in public, which causes more trouble down the road as the act is investigated.
The society in which this future version of Ambrose finds himself is an intriguing yet occasionally indecipherable one. Some details—such as the play-by-play of a football game—don’t have much relevance to the broader story, and readers will sometimes get lost in an otherwise fascinating account of a Rome-like alternative America. Likewise, character traits tend to be blunt—e.g., a character who “stood six foot one inches tall and weighed 165 pounds”—in sharp contrast to the more revealing details of hymns performed and tidbits of religious history.
“Ambitious worldbuilding. Readers will sometimes get lost in an otherwise fascinating account of a Rome-like alternative America.”
Readers of historical fiction should be prepared for something different in Ambrose: A Modern Rendition. For one thing, it's not just the story of an fourth-century man living in the aftermath of the Roman Empire's heyday, but probes the politics of a respected lawyer and governor who is unwittingly elected to the position of bishop after he tries to settle a dispute between church and state. It offers not the anticipated biographical history of this historic figure, but translates his life into a modern setting (thus, 'A Modern Rendition').
Using the politics and religious conflicts of his day as a foundation, Ambrose: A Modern Rendition, focuses on the specific challenges the saint experienced in his life from his secular beginnings as a relatively non-religious man to becoming the center of a controversial debate over the Trinity which lead to a splintering between church factions.
Catholic readers (especially those with a little prior knowledge of Ambrose and his times) will find Ambrose replete with religious insights based on fact - but the novel doesn't begin in your usual historical setting (the century in which Ambrose resided), and that's just one of its surprises.
It opens, instead, with a near-future setting: the U.S. is experiencing the throes of spiritual and political conflict: possibly the last gasp of its centuries-long status as a world force.
In this future world firearms have been outlawed by Congress, the government is split between East and West with two rulers, and popular public games include lion fights and gladiators. Sound like ancient Rome? It actually is: and against this alternate history backdrop modern-day Ambrose emerges with many of the same religious concerns as his predecessor.
From social injustices and government involvements to Vatican concerns, anticipate a novel replete with disparate elements of past and present worlds. In this world Ambrose emerges (as did his namesake) as a wild card in the changing nature of social, political and spiritual order: an unwitting contender in the struggle for liberty and freedom which permeates all segments of society.
Against this backdrop the first chapter introduces a quiet couple and their family dynamics as they contemplate political changes in the air, then moves forward over thirty years to future Italy, which is still immersed in Catholicism. Here an aging archbishop hears confessions centered around military insights and individuals whose names he can barely recall, and is frustrated that his spiritual mission is going largely unrealized: "Auxentius sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. He felt satisfied knowing he had helped her emotionally unburden. But he also felt disheartened knowing she couldn't cognitively grasp the meaning of his question - that God the Father created Jesus, the Christ. He had tried different ways over the years to introduce Arian Christianity to his parishioners, but few seemed ready, or sophisticated enough, to grasp its meaning."
When the venerable archbishop is killed, handsome attorney Ambrose would seem an unlikely replacement.
Spiritual debates centered on the Trinity mirror real debates the historical Ambrose struggled with, while back in the States political snafus and even coups are treated as jokes. At the center of it all is Aurelius Ambrosius, a good lawyer who receives an unexpected - and unwanted - political appointment: "...this office doesn't require someone who knows how to get things done. It needs someone who can move people, someone who can speak eloquently and motivate others to do things . . . things they may not want to do."
In a split second of one of life's ironies Ambrose becomes the next governor of Dionysius - and a chain of events begins that will change not just his piece of world, but the entire world.
Now for some side notes: Ambrose: A Modern Rendition is peppered with black and white photos (by Dreamstime) throughout which illustrate protagonists and lend a vintage feel to this saga. From generals and politicians to family members, these help the story line to feel more like a biographical sketch than fiction: a nice device that lends authenticity to characters and settings alike.
Secondly, the ample cast of characters varies widely in names, from Roman-based classics such as Aegidius, Ambrose's law firm Agripa, Leontius & Drusus, and fat wife Agatha Leontius to Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas and altar server Max. This lends a multi-era feel to the story, placing past and present trends alongside one another and emphasizing that the novel's setting is, after all, as much fantasy as historical in nature.
And while events in this Ambrose's life parallel that of his Roman predecessor, they still follow the timeline of a futuristic world changed by political and religious decisions. The focus on how Ambrose resolves disparate special interests, influences, and his own unexpected position in this new world makes for a story particularly recommended for Catholic readers of alternate history; especially those well grounded in historic Catholic religious debates and issues.
This audience will not only recognize (or learn about) the real Ambrose; they'll come to appreciate the significance of debates about The Trinity and will learn how one man stepped up to the plate to make a difference in his world - and how these actions are duplicated in similar courses by those who stay true to their religious commitments.
Solid characterization, a diverse group of protagonists who clarify political and religious milieus, and gripping action (to include violence: be forewarned; this is a quasi-Roman future world ruled by the sword as much as by ideals!) make Ambrose: A Modern Rendition a novel hard to neatly categorize but equally difficult to put down.
"Solid characterization . . . a novel hard to neatly categorize but equally difficult to put down.”
D. Donovan, Senior eBook Reviewer
Midwest Book Review