Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

by Jesse Bullington

A 2009 novel, one of the ones receommended by Jeff VanderMeer in his amazon.com editor’s list. It's very strange and different from almost any fantasy I've read. It follows the lives of two 14th century graverobbing brothers across their wanderings. The brothers are self-righteous psychopaths with no real empathy beyond their sibling, also lacking redeeming characteristics or grace, repentance or cultural worth. The account is in large part the episodic story of their 'self-defense' and the many innocent people they kill along the way. The brothers inflate their natural egoism with justification from a strange type of heresy revolving around the virgin Mary. There are other side-tales in the novel, including the man trying to track down and revenge himself against the Grossbarts, but for the most part its them and what they encounter, including a number of magic and monstrous conditions. The novel is heavily blood-soaked, scary and persistently gross, emphasizing both body horror and bodily fluids in general. It's also consistently amusing and very well written, and I'd say one of the best genre books of the year.

If I'd read it before it wouldn't have made my shortlist but it'd be close, and while I'd be wary of recommending it and can understand why a number of reviewers hate it, in the end the book worked for me. As a deconstruction of certain classic fantasy narratives, as as deconstruction of many norms of the anti-hero, as an inquiry into how destructive violence can really be. Above all, what this book does effectively is its atmosphere of medieval times, in a strange way it feels like one of the most authentic pieces of literature in conveying the general climate. Unlike the standard top-down fantasy narrative of magic, court intrigue and aristocrats (which, in some recent deconstructions like Martin and Morgan emphasizes the violence and exploitation of those hierarchies from the top) this book features a view more from the bottom. Fundamentally it's a world where the stock conventionalities most think of with the Middle Ages are absent--there are no clear borders, no rigid agreed on pattern for Christianity, and many things are unsettled, unnatural and grotesque. Here's where the fantasy aspects of the book come through--they could seem an afterthought, but Bullington makes them central, and it frames the book with a more wild and unsettled view of the supernatural than normally appears. It's very far from the "Scientific Magic" common to fantasy writing, and particularly rigified systems of things like Flesh and Fire, and is altogether a more wild and disturbing vantage point.

Strange and disturbing, and obviously has a lot of elements that some people might not like, but I found it highly enjoyable and rewarding. This is Bullington's first novel, and for me establishes him as someone to watch for. Ultimately it was a fascinating and deeply enjoyable work, even if I was sometimes distrubed with finding it enjoyable, and it felt very much like an author well aware of what he was doing.

Worse than: The Scar by China Mieville. Not that similar overall, but carries through some dark subject matter and intense body horror.
Better than: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

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