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In Association with
The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart
Jesse Bullington
Orbit paperback �7.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

With its striking optical illusion, that could be the best book cover I've seen all year. But... I'm not sure the illusion works as well as it should: even with a copy of the book in front of me, I can't help seeing the skull before I can make out what the picture is 'actually' showing (it's the brothers Grossbart); and, surely, it would be more effective if I saw the skull second. The reason I mention this is that The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart itself is quite similar, in that the novel seems to be trying to be two things at once, and doesn't quite pull it off.

I've called the book a novel but, actually, Jesse Bullington is presenting his debut as an academic reconstruction of a (fictitious) medieval text; he's even provided a bibliography that playfully mixes real and imaginary sources. I'm not sure that this technique really adds anything to The Sad Tale...; it's not like Mary Gentle's Ash, where the academic frame is integral. As far as I can see, all it does is enable Bullington to remind us that people in the 14th century didn't think or behave as we do - which is true, but it doesn't really justify the whole faux-academic apparatus.

Anyway, though it's annoying, this is a minor point that can, in itself, be overlooked - though the tensions between modern origin and medieval setting never go away fully. Bullington's protagonists are twin grave-robbers Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, whose great quest is to travel to Gyptland (Egypt), and plunder the tombs there. The Sad Tale chronicles their travels, which involve run-ins with enemies both mortal and otherwise; and, per the title, all does not end well. The Grossbarts themselves underline just how repulsive the behaviour of people medieval times could be to our sensibilities - they murder a mother and her children in the first chapter, and at no point do they become any more 'heroic'.

This is one of the ways in which Bullington uses the reality of the middle ages to subvert our expectations of fantasy fiction (I think this is one of his key intentions in the book). The world of the Grossbarts is earthy, dirty, messy with bodily fluids (often, but not always, blood). Life is harsh, with little room for sentimentality (one character views the death of the family in the first chapter as a sad loss for the still-living husband, not because his loved ones are gone, but because it means fewer hands to work on the farm); the world is viewed through a religious lens, but people make up their own minds about theology... This is a world away from the settings of many modern fantasies, much closer to how the real 14th century would have been; and it makes for a very different kind of reading experience.

I'm particularly impressed by Bullington's approach to magic and the supernatural in The Sad Tale. Demons and witches abound, but they feel unfamiliar. At a time when it seems the prevailing tendency in fantasy is to codify magic, here it comes without explanation - which is not meant to suggest that it shatters cause and effect, but rather that it comes across as properly mysterious and dangerous, because it is beyond the understanding of those who don't practise it. The scenes where the supernatural intrudes into the narrative are amongst the most gripping in the book.

The trouble is, though, that there's a lot of other stuff in between those scenes, and not all of it is as gripping. Some is - Bullington writes action well, for example - but there are too many stretches where the prose is rather drab and it's quite difficult to follow what is going on. It seems to me that this stems from an uneasy fusion of medieval and modern approaches to writing. Whatever it pretends to be, The Sad Tale reads more like a modern historical novel than a medieval text; but it doesn't have all the colour and dynamism (I use those terms broadly) that the novel allows. This leaves the telling with too much of a stop-start rhythm.

Though I appreciate it's an overused term, I do find myself thinking of The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart as a promising debut. Bullington's ideas and approach are interesting; but I don't think he has found the right balance yet. I am keen to see if he will.

The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart

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