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Thursday, March 3, 2011

“The Enterprise of Death” by Jesse Bullington (Reviewed by Robert Thompson and Liviu Suciu)

Official Jesse Bullington Website
Order “The Enterprise of DeathHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of “The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jesse Bullington is a folklore and outdoor enthusiast who holds a bachelor's degree in History and English Literature from Florida State University. His bibliography includes The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and The Enterprise of Death.

PLOT SUMMARY: As the witch-pyres of the Spanish Inquisition blanket Renaissance Europe in a moral haze, a young African slave finds herself the unwilling apprentice of an ancient necromancer. Unfortunately, quitting his company proves even more hazardous than remaining his pupil when she is afflicted with a terrible curse. Yet salvation may lie in a mysterious tome her tutor has hidden somewhere on the war-torn continent.

She sets out on a seemingly impossible journey to find the book, never suspecting her fate is tied to three strangers: the artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, the alchemist Dr. Paracelsus, and a gun-slinging Dutch mercenary. As Manuel paints her macabre story on canvas, plank, and church wall, the apprentice becomes increasingly aware of the great dangers that surround her. She realizes she must revisit the fell necromancy of her childhood . . . or death will be the least of her concerns...

CLASSIFICATION: Like The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death is a hard-to-classify fusion of folklore, historical fiction, fantasy, horror and black comedy in the vein of the Brothers Grimm, Clive Barker, Chuck Palahniuk, Warren Ellis and a bit of Joe Abercrombie. In this case, the historical-influenced setting is centered around the Spanish Inquisition, the Italian Wars and the Protestant Reformation during the late 15th/early 16th centuries. Actual historical figures, items and events woven into the novel include Boabdil’s exile from the city of Granada and the words his mother supposedly spoke to him upon reaching a rocky prominence—“Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man.”—Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, his wife Katharina and the painting the book’s cover is based on; the Swiss mercenary captain, Albrecht von Stein; Heinrich Kramer’s treatise on witches, the Malleus Maleficarum; Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Dr. Paracelsus; and the Battle of Bicocca. Fantasy elements meanwhile include necromancers, animated corpses and vampires.

FORMAT/INFO: The Enterprise of Death is 464 pages long divided over a Prologue and thirty-nine Roman-numbered/titled chapters. Extras include an Excerpt from Jesse Bullington’s debut novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, and a Bibliography of the material researched for The Enterprise of Death. Narration is in the third person via several different point-of-views including Awa, Omorose, Niklaus Manuel and Monique. The Enterprise of Death is self-contained. March 3, 2011/March 24, 2011 marks the UK/North American Trade Paperback publication of The Enterprise of Death via Orbit Books. Cover art is based on this painting by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch.

ANALYSIS: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart may have been extremely vulgar and gruesomely violent with a disappointing ending and possibly the most revolting protagonists to ever star in their own book, but for all of that, Jesse Bullington’s debut offered a very different, and at the same time, very rewarding reading experience. As such, I was excited to see what Jesse Bullington’s sophomore effort would bring to the table.

Unfortunately, The Enterprise of Death did not immediately grab me the same way that Jesse Bullington’s first novel did. Part of the problem can be attributed to a somewhat confusing narrative that alternates between the story’s present time and past events, although that distinction does not become clear until later in the novel, while the author’s annoying tendency to switch between viewpoints without any warning only added to the confusion. The real problem though lies with how vile things can get at the beginning of the book with cannibalism, necrophilia and self-cannibalism some of the more disgusting topics covered. For all of its vulgarity and gruesomeness, there was always a healthy dose of dark humor in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart to help lighten the mood. In contrast, humor has been significantly reduced in The Enterprise of Death, and what humor is present is of the more morbid variety. As a result, it’s much more difficult not to be disturbed by the vileness in The Enterprise of Death, and I have to admit there were a number of times when I almost gave up on the book altogether.

Thankfully, I stuck it out and I’m glad I did. Once I got a handle on where the story was heading, who the major players were, got past the novel’s more repulsive moments, and became fully acclimated to Jesse Bullington’s writing style, reading The Enterprise of Death was a much smoother and more entertaining affair. Of course, it helps that Awa is a lot more likable as a protagonist compared to the Grossbart brothers, even if she is a necromancer, remarkably nonchalant about killing people, and suffers from shallow characterization. In fact, I really grew to care about Awa and whether or not she would be able to break the curse and defeat her evil master. The supporting characters meanwhile—which includes the real-life artist/mercenary Niklaus Manuel, the African beauty Omorose, the Dutch gunner/whoremonger/giantess Monique, the historical figure Doctor Paracelsus, etc.—are an eclectic bunch, but don’t really add much to the novel apart from some engaging dialogue on things like the differences between faith and religion and whether necromancy is good or evil.

Personally, what made The Enterprise of Death worth reading was Jesse Bullington’s clever writing—“Two individuals of the opposite sex will, if forced to go on a journey together, fall in love. Often begrudgingly, and with a great deal of reluctance by at least one of the parties, to be sure, but love will fall as surely as night after day. In the unlikely event that one of the two is homosexual, asexual, already in a loving relationship, or otherwise disinclined from romancing their traveling companion, love will fall all the harder, like cannon fire upon a charging cavalry; indeed, the less likely the two are to fall in love naturally, the more certain it is that the sojourn will bring them together.”—and a vivid imagination which included everything from fire salamanders and a hyena-like demon to a different kind of vampire and unique necromantic abilities like being able to kill someone with a simple touch, speaking with the spirits of things both animate and inanimate, and healing incurable wounds by ingesting body parts. The ending is also a lot more satisfying than the one in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, and even leaves room for a sequel or two that I would love to check out, especially if the author wrote one featuring the Bastards of the Schwarzwald.

Overall though, The Enterprise of Death is not as good as The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Jesse Bullington’s sophomore effort pushes vileness to a whole new level, but without the humor and entertainment that made the author’s debut novel such a unique reading experience. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the author’s boldness and creativity, and that alone is enough to keep me interested in whatever Jesse Bullington decides to write next...


Liviu's Take:
The Enterprise of Death is an interesting book in many ways and I think that if you liked the author's debut for his "take no prisoners style" you will like this more since the content is more unpredictable and the characters from Awa to Manuel and Monique are more interesting and less of a caricature, but I had two major issues with the book:

First I found it hard to take it seriously since all those raising of dead persons, the dead and undead characters and the "today magic happens at 1 pm but not at a 2.15 pm" - no consistency in the laws of the nature in other words is essentially solipsistic so why care? So my suspension of disbelief broke any moment when I got out of the flow of the novel and started thinking for a second.

And here came the second problem: if the style of the author would coincide to my taste, I probably would have enjoyed the novel for the characters - especially Awa and Manuel whose banter was always entertaining - but sadly the novel lacked that special "magic" for me that would make me turn page after page and forget the essential inconsistent nature of the world building, so when reading it, I would find myself often thinking "how absurd, if this is allowed by the laws of the universe why not that happens?" way too many times too enjoy it where "this" ranges from waking the dead to the clear delineation of mind-body and "that" ranges from why do not the dead take over to various issues well known about the mind-body duality.

Another smaller problem I had with The Enterprise of Death at least for a while was the fact that it sounded anachronistic: the way the characters talk sounds very 21st century, not 15/16th century. This is of course more a matter of perception than of fact lacking a time-machine to go and see how people really talked then and considering that written artifacts tend to be conforming to official styles in many periods of human history, but I found a gap between the world view of the 15th century that is generally accepted in history books and the way people are portrayed to think in this book

All in all The Enterprise of Death (C) is a book that I had high hopes for and it just did not pan out though the author's style was entertaining enough in his dark, ultra-cynical way that we got to expect to keep me reading. I expected literary fantasy and I got mostly formula and sadly the formula of the kind I do not overtly care for the reasons mentioned above - nothing wrong with formula btw as long as is the kind I appreciate. Though I see myself opening another Jesse Bullington book if the subject is more appealing than here.


Anonymous said...

Arguably the worst beginning to a book I've ever read.

As for the rest...

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree about the "worst beginning" It sets the entire book in its historical and social context" I did though have the feeling that Columbus was to play an actual role in the story. Still he got to go on and help destroy an entire continent so that's a big enough story for him anyway.

At the moment I am liking the story even though it is far from anything I have read before. I had no problems with the displacement of time.


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