Saturday, January 29, 2011

Do not read this book

Another old review for Vortex, this one from January 2010.

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, by Jesse Bullington

Hegel and Manfried Grossbart cross 14th Century Europe robbing and killing and generally pissing off anything that comes in their way. In the first few pages they butcher the wife and family of a yeoman turnip-grower called Heinrich in front of him. Heinrich's friends – and Heinrich himself – are soon in pursuit, so Hegel and Manfried think they'll head for Egypt, which has tombs they can plunder.

That's just the start of Hegel and Manfried's problems. There are monsters and witches around every corner and the plague is tearing through whole towns. Every few pages there seems to be someone to stab or maim or steal from.

I'm not really the audience for this book; I'm bored by gory horror movies and gangster memoirs about who they killed and how much they loved their mums. But there's really not a lot to like about this book. The two leads are vicious, mean and stupid, with little interest in the things they encounter on their journey.

This is a problem, since its chiefly through their eyes that we see the world. In the 100-page sequence set in Venice, there are a couple of mentions of bridges but little else to describe one of the most distinctive cities in the world. There are occasional glimpses of the setting – the Pope is Avignon, the Venetians have sacked Constantinople – but there's little interaction or insight. The bibliography cites more than four pages of books which helped in “realistically rendering the historical world”, but the Grossbarts don't care to learn anything from their adventure and remain unchanged by all that befalls them. They're in this for the violence.

It's not just the two leads – there's not a sympathetic soul in the whole story. Everyone is greedy, vain and stupid. Perhaps it's an accurate portrait of a nasty, brutish age, but it makes for a wearisome read. It's a very violent book, peppered with long descriptions of things being gouged and broken. There's a lot of vomit, too, and the one sex scene (p. 63) is a lesson in grotesque, over-written misogyny:
“Withered breasts swaying pendulously, her tongue flicked over her few teeth and severed their drool-bond. He shrivelled even as he came inside her cold clamminess, screaming in terror at the realization he had been bewitched and wrenching away from her headfirst into the tipped table. He blacked out and vomited simultaneously, her cruel laughter following him into nightmares that stood no chance of besting his first sexual encounter.”
The witch – and manticore, mermaid and demons – allow ever more disgusting abuses of people's bodies, though the constant bludgeoning has only a dulling effect on the reader. The prose style doesn't help, every clause crammed with adjectives. On page 283, a section jumps between different characters in different rooms without any hint to the reader what and who is where.

There are some well-realised, exciting moments – as when they burn house down round a demon – and some attempt at humour as the Grossbarts discuss religious doctrine. But I struggled to care about the brothers or their story. The book ends with them hoist by their own petard, trapped inside the tomb they've come so far to rob. I spoil this for you now so you won't waste your time on the worst book I've read in years.

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