Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart" by Jesse Bullington

In case anyone comes across this blog and wonders why on earth I'm reading books that came out ages ago, it's because I've decided to, before accumulating any new books, to first get through every book currently on my shelves that I've yet to read. Some of them have been sitting around unopened for five years or more, and that's just ridiculous. One such book is The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington, which I bought shortly after it was published back in 2009. Yeah.

The premise here is fairly straightforward: two grave robbing brothers, named Hegal and Manfried Grossbart, journey from their home in Germany to Egypt, or "Gyptland", to track down their grandfather's fortune. Not something I would typically be interested in. I can't remember exactly why I picked it out back in 2009, but I'm guessing it had something to do with the cover art:

Cool, right? Plus, I've seen them on comics before, but this is the first non-illustrated book I've come across that has a content warning. On the back cover, in tiny red print it says "*Contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence*". Considering the people on the front cover come together to form a skull, I could have guessed as much, thank you. So, is Grossbart really the depravity parade the cover makes it out to be?

Basically, yes. It's not that this is the goriest book I've ever read or anything, but the violence is both descriptive and constant. It's also pretty gross. Just about every other page someone is soiling themselves or having a limb chopped off or soiling themselves while getting a limb chopped off or getting crushed by a horse or stabbed or shot or some other means of execution you'd never even thought of before. A ton of people die in this book, and Bullington wants to make sure you know exactly how all of it went down. All the descriptions are very matter of fact and don't linger, but the sheer quantity of them can be overwhelming, so if that type of thing bothers you, I would say to stay away from Grossbart.

I don't usually enjoy books this violent myself, but there was something in this story that endeared me and kept me going. The way it's written is reminiscent of the stories and fairy tales from the medieval period in Europe, and you get the sense that these stories, along with the modern fantasy novels that pull from them, are lovingly derided through Bullington's work. In fact, Bullington says in a short interview in the back of the book that he intended to satirize "dull literary devices and archetypes" and "take the romance out of grave robbing." He does both amazingly.

It was this satire, that you could tell was equal parts celebration and mockery, that drove the story for me. I studied medieval literature as part of my courses in college, so much of Grossbart felt familiar in a sick sort of way. It was just earnest enough to make itself compelling, but tongue-in-cheek enough to carry me through the drudgery of its gore and relatively common story line. In the end I enjoyed myself, though I find myself wondering what that means about me as a person, but I'm sure it's fine. Right?

Title: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart
Published: 2009, Orbit Books
Pages: 425, 450 including bibliography, interview, and excerpt from another novel
Would Recommend: Yes, to those with strong stomachs and a desire to see old world fantasy turned on its head.

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