Now, this was a nice surprise! Last year, I found a great deal to admire in Jesse Bullington’s first novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart–a dark and grisly folk tale about a pair of bloodthirsty, heartless brothers who murder and pillage and graverob their way across medieval Europe whilst fighting witches and demons–whose title I found too tantalizing to not give the book a try. And while I loved the authorial voice made of the blackest of black humor and Bullington’s faux-archaic prose, ultimately that novel failed to work for me, because I couldn’t connect with the characters, all of whom where completely repugnant, amoral villains with nary a shred of humanity amongst them. For a while, I found the novel’s savageness strangely compelling, and I truly enjoyed the grim philosophical chats the brothers would have, reminiscent of a Goth’s spin on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but ultimately, it was all just too much for me–too much darkness spread over too broad a canvas, with no one to root for or even care about, which made it feel a bit soulless. As a short story or novella, it might have been brilliant (and the plot could have made for a killer Decemberists song), but at 425 pages, this story of brutal murderers wore thin.
Because of this, I approached Bullington’s second novel, The Enterprise of Death, with a fair amount of trepidation. In the end, I decided to read it, however, because firstly, I found the concept again too enticing to ignore, and secondly, I remembered the great deal of potential I felt Bullington had as an author, despite The Brothers Grossbart‘s flaws. And I am so glad I went with my instincts, because basically everything that I liked about Grossbart appears here but in a significantly enhanced form, and everything I felt Grossbart did wrong, Enterprise does right. The progression from Grossbart to Enterprise is a stunning example of just how much an extremely intelligent author with a great deal of potential can improve, even from his first novel to his second. The Enterprise of Death retains all of the gruesome yet darkly hilarious humor that made Grossbart so distinctive, as well as a similarly archaic prose style–albeit even wittier than before–but at the same time, Bullington’s skill at crafting characters has grown tenfold. Here, he focuses on an incredibly human anti-heroine, Awa, who, like the Grossbarts before her, does occasionally perform some horrifying actions, but unlike them, usually remains sympathetic, and even when she cannot, we understand what drives her and why she has become what she has become. Bullington has also surrounded her with a group of friends whose deep, abiding love and concern for her humanize her even in her less traditionally likable moments.
While reading Grossbart, I was often awestruck by its uncompromising vision, even while it simultaneously left me feeling cold. The Enterprise of Death left me similarly awestruck but also often deeply moved by its heart. Creating a dark, hardcore tone, as Bullington did in Grossbart, is a far simpler task than what he accomplishes here, which is to be dark and hardcore, as well as often oddly touching, without ever allowing that to either verge into saccharinity or to dilute any of the nummy, nummy grisliness. Enterprise is the story of Awa, a young, female, African slave in Renaissance Europe who, after escaping from disaster, finds herself captured by an evil, ancient necromancer with a nasty penchant for resurrecting corpses for his sexual pleasure (yes, it goes there) among other things, and who ultimately trains her in the darkest of dark arts, before saddling her with a pernicious curse that she must wander the world for ten years in an attempt to lift, by finding a magic book made from human flesh. When she is later captured by the Spanish Inquisition as a witch, she meets a number of historical figures, most notably the Swiss painter, Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, whose most unlikely, deeply lasting friendship with her comes to both inspire his artwork and reignite her fierce will to survive, despite the overwhelming odds. Awa is also, most interestingly, a lesbian, whose gradual embracing of her sexuality in a time and place that is as unwelcoming to it as it is to the darkness of her skin, makes for a truly compelling character arc, not to mention her inner struggles to retain her humanity despite her seemingly unnatural abilities to kill with a touch and to bring the dead back to life. We feel her pain, her inner turmoil, and her strength.
In The Enterprise of Death, Bullington manages to tell a story laced with dark fantasy and horror, as well as elements of historical fiction, in a manner that is by turns gruesome, satirical, shocking, hilarious, repulsive, surprisingly humane, and strangely beautiful. All of the potential he demonstrated in his first novel, in terms of the brilliance of his concepts and prose, have finally paid off in this rich, dark, supernatural gem of a story that, as in his first book, stirs fairy tale, legend, folk tale, and history into a delightfully malicious melange but one which, this time around, chills and warms the heart in equal measure.
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