Wednesday, 28 October 2009

‘The Sad Tale of the Brother’s Grossbart’ – Jesse Bullington (Orbit)


A great philosopher once wrote ‘shit happens’. Or was it something that I saw on a t-shirt somewhere? Not that there’s anything wrong with t-shirt philosophy...
The bottom line is that shit happens everywhere and every day, not least of all in books. I don’t know about you but this is one of the main reasons why I read, to see bad stuff happen and then see how it’s dealt with. There’s nothing like a rotten turn of events to really drive a plot forward in terms of urgency. You also get to see how your favourite characters rise to the challenge and/or cheer when it all rebounds on the villain of the piece (if you’re that kind of person). When I saw the title for this book I just knew that things weren’t going to end well and that’s what piqued my interest. Glowing words from Larry and none other than Jeff Vandermeer himself also made ‘The Sad Tale’ a book that I had to check out. I’m glad I did, I’d have no reservations in making this one of my ‘reads of the year’...

Welcome to Medieval Europe, a time of plague and poverty for all but the elite few. If this wasn’t bad enough dark creatures lurk everywhere, making the simplest trek an exercise in terror. Death is everywhere and that’s just how Hegel and Manfried Grossbart like it. After all, the dead don’t need those earthly treasures they’re buried with. A couple of enterprising grave robbers can make themselves very rich indeed...
Life in their village is about to get too hot to handle and the ancient tombs of Egypt promise riches beyond measure, the Grossbarts are on the road and in pursuit of the score of a lifetime. They’re not the only ones in pursuit though; evil begets evil and the brother’s villainy means that there is plenty of evil on the road behind them...

In all my years of reading, I don’t think I’ve ever met any character that is as black hearted, murderous, cold blooded and downright vicious as a single Grossbart. The fact that there are two Grossbarts means that the ‘evil quotient’ is doubled and, as a result, the reader is in for a bit of a treat if they’re after a ‘road trip of destruction’ that spans Medieval Europe and heads into Africa.
There is nothing that the brothers won’t stoop to in their quest for ill gotten gold and, more often than not, simply to stay alive. The opening scenes bring this home to the reader in no short order! You know what these guys are capable of but what I found was that it pushed the point home so hard (and so early) that I wasn’t surprised when they came up with more of the same as the book progressed. The constant dialogue, between the two brothers, kept things entertaining but the book ended up always running the risk of giving the reader ‘more of the same’ in terms of how the Grossbarts reacted when certain situations arose. Sometimes I couldn’t help thinking that I’d seen things dealt with in a similar way several chapters ago... I also had a little issue with the pacing of the plot, long journeys followed by short sharp bursts of action. While I can see why the novel is paced thus, it did come across as rather ‘stop/start’ and this made it a little difficult for me to get into the story and stay there...

It’s a good job then that ‘The Sad Tale...’ isn’t just about how evil the Brother’s Grossbart are. The situations that befall the brothers are as much about their reputation preceding them, or just them simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as it is about the control they have over their destiny and the choices they make. I found myself chuckling along at some of the scrapes they found themselves in, either in a ‘serves you right’ way or simply because it was really funny.
‘The Sad Tale’ is all about random occurrences combining to form something that fits together perfectly even though you wouldn’t expect it; not just with the brothers themselves but also with what follows them. Sometimes everything just slots together and this is just what happened here; Bullington clearly displays a firm control over his plot.

It was also really interesting to get into the running dialogue between the two brothers over the course of their journey. While they may not be the intellectual match of most people that they meet, their animal cunning is invaluable in getting them out of trouble and their ruminative discussions show that there is a lot more going on here than their just being a pair of grave robbing thugs. Their discussions about Catholicism may be misguided but make a strange kind of sense and paint their activities in a new light; it’s up to the reader to decide which vision of the Grossbarts they want to go with... (I’m going for grave robbing thugs with far too much time on their hands)
On the subject of dialogue... Swear words can be found in abundance here and anyone who isn’t keen on one particular word (you know what it is...) should know that the Grossbart’s aren’t afraid to use it. Personally, I found it to be in keeping with their character.

If all this wasn’t enough, Bullington paints a world appropriately dark and sinister with a confidence that makes you wonder if he knew someone who lived there. Just the right setting for such a tale and with elements of the fantastic that creep up on you when you least expect them (enhancing the plot even more).

The title pretty much tells you how it’s all going to end but the fun is definitely in getting there. A couple of minor flaws stopped this being the perfect read but it really wasn’t all that far off.

Nine and a Half out of Ten

5 comments:

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Jacob @ Drying Ink said...

This sounds just my sort of thing! Thanks for the great review. :)

superwench83 said...

I've been hearing about this book all over the internet, which is partially how I found my way to this post. I'm not really sure about this one. I love historical fantasy, but I just don't know if I can get into a book where the main characters have so few redeeming qualities.

Graeme Flory said...

I'd say give it a go anyway, you might just find yourself warming to the Grossbarts by the end...

brainshades said...

Saw that this book made it on Amazon.com’s "Best Books of 2009" list before it even hit the shelves so I picked it up as soon as I saw a copy – figured if it was getting that kind of pub before release it had to be good, right? But I couldn’t get past the seriously disturbing nature of the opening chapter of the book. The Brothers Grossbart commit some seriously twisted, vicious acts against children within the first few pages and I’m just not certain that a young writer like Bullington can recover and create an interesting fictional narrative using this as a starting point. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable risking it, and unfortunately the book is going right back to B&N before I risk it any further.
Bummer…