The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington
Jesse Bullington’s debut novel is a difficult one to review, not because of plot or character, but because of the general style in which it is written. Plainly speaking; it’s pretty gross. Full of pus, vomit, blood, urine, gore, snot and other bodily fluids, The Brothers Grossbart isn’t short on content that will make you screw up your nose in disgust. Yet dismissing this novel for its ability to make you cringe is a bit like going to a Quentin Tarantino movie and complaining about the violence. That’s the whole point.
Set in the fourteenth century, Hegel and Manfried are brothers that take over the family business of grave robbing, with plans to travel to Gyptland to seek their fortunes there. They traverse the countryside from the mountains of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East at a time in which life was short, violent and smelly. To make things even more difficult, this is a world that is strewn with demons, witches and other monsters straight out of the Old Testament. Grotesque in appearance and evil in nature, the brothers end up pitting themselves against these hellish denizens as they rob and hack their way across the continent.
Naturally, there have been hundreds of anti-heroes throughout literature, many of whom the reader can secretly cheer for, or at least admire for their cunning, determination or audacity. The Grossbarts however, exist well outside the parameters of basic human decency, falling short of the standards set by the likes of other anti-heroes such as Long John Silver, Captain Ahab, Becky Sharp, or Heathcliff. In the very first chapter the brothers decide to finance their trip by robbing a farmhouse, a task that ends with them killing a woman with an axe, cutting a boy’s throat in front of his father, and burning the house down with several infants still inside it. They leave the farmer alive since killing him would mean: “there’d be no one left to learn the lesson.”
After reading this, all anyone wants is for the two of them to die slow, painful deaths. But again, that’s the point. And naturally it’s not to say that they’re not interesting despite their horrid natures. The two brothers engage in philosophical discourse as they travel, discussing the nuances of Christian orthodoxy and casually (unconsciously?) twisting it so that it justifies their own behaviour — as you may have guessed, neither brother really believes that they’re doing anything wrong.
To add suspense, the Grossbarts also make enemies along the way, both demonic and human. Tracked by horrific creatures with a vendetta against them, the brothers eventually fall in with a lying priest and a sea captain that has a secret of his own. Though the pacing slows when the brothers reach Vienna, the beginning and ending segments of the novel are suitably fast-paced and intriguing, despite the gruesome subject matter. Likewise, Bullington’s style is impeccable; the brothers’ speech patterns are maintained throughout the novel, as is an atmosphere that’s difficult to describe: every oozing boil and spurt of blood is lovingly described, the monstrous creatures are grotesque yet vividly rendered, and hanging over all is a palatable sense of dread; the reader knowing full well what both human and demon are truly capable of.
And yet for all of this, the moments of humanity contained here shine all the more brightly for their grim context. Nicolette’s story is as chilling as any macabre 14th century horror story can possibly be, and yet also bizarrely touching as a love story, one that reads like a dark fairytale that the Brothers Grimm purposefully left out of their anthologies. Likewise, the farmer who the Grossbarts leave alive at the beginning of the novel naturally has a tragic story and a heartrending journey of despair as he tracks down the men who murdered his family, finding no solace in heaven and so turning to the nefarious regions in order to sate his thirst for vengeance.
I can hardly describe this as a pleasant book, nor even an “enjoyable” one (unless you like the feeling of nausea), but it is entertaining, intriguing, oddly thought-provoking, and evocative of its place and time. It is certainly not for everyone, yet it manages to straddle a wide range of subjects (horror, fantasy, black comedy, history, theology) all in a tone that feels authentic to the period in which it is told, in which superstition and religion were more or less interchangeable, and witchcraft and the black plague were dangers that weighed equally on everyone’s minds.
As someone who likes her fairytales dark, this novel was certainly blacker than I had anticipated, and yet once I’d adjusted to the debauchery and violence, there was plenty here to both ponder and appreciate, particularly in the chaotic mish-mash of demonology and mythology that permeates the story (though I would have dearly loved to learn more about the Nixie!) One thing is for certain, and that is that The Brothers Grossbart is like nothing else I’ve read. It is unique, standing in a genre of its own.
FORMAT/INFO: ARC stands at 453 pages divided over thirty-one titled chapters, a Preface and a Bibliography. Extras include an interview with the author Jesse Bullington and an excerpt from K.J. Parker’s The Company. Narration is in the third person, mainly via the Grossbart twins Hegel and Manfried, but the cast of characters also includes Heinrich, Captain Alexius Barousse, the Arab Al-Gassur, Rodrigo, Ennio, Father Martyn, Nicolete, etc. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is self-contained.
November 5, 2009/November 16, 2009 marks the UK/North American Trade Paperback publication of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart via Orbit Books. Cover art provided by Istvan Orosz.
ANALYSIS: First things first. If you are easily offended, have a weak stomach, or can’t stand foul language, graphic violence, sadistic behavior, deplorable protagonists and the like, then Jesse Bullington’s The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is not for you. On the other hand, if you possess a strong constitution, like to try out new things, and are not afraid to embrace your dark side, then The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart can offer a rewarding reading experience.
Of course, to fully appreciate what The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart has to offer, it’s important to first understand what kind of book Jesse Bullington has written. At its simplest, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is the diabolical story of twin brothers who corrupt the lives of everyone they come into contact with on their incredible journey from Europe to ‘Gyptland’ in search of tombs and treasure. Look past the book’s vulgar exterior however, and you’ll find a much more complex beast made up of many different layers including folklore (witches, demons, sirens) interwoven into history (the Black Plague, crusades), superstition versus theology, fiction trope subversions and satire, and a wicked sense of humor. The end result is a novel that is very hard to classify, embracing everything from folklore, historical fiction and black comedy to pulp fiction and outright horror. For me, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is what would happen if the Brothers Grimm, Clive Barker, Chuck Palahniuk and Warren Ellis all came together and wrote a novel.
Character-wise, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart revolves around Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, two of the most vicious and appalling protagonists I’ve ever set eyes on. Crude, selfish, and nasty, the Brothers Grossbart are characters who filled me with disgust and who I would root against at every opportunity. Yet for all that I disliked Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, at the same time I found the twins to be quite fascinating, thanks to Jesse Bullington’s wild imagination and detailed rendering. In particular, I loved each brother’s quirky traits (Hegel’s dislike for four-legged beasts, etc), their perverted sense of holiness, their theological and philosophical debates, and their lingo:
“So monsters, in our experience, is part man and part beast, although the possibility exists they might be parts a other things all mixed together, like a basilisk. Part chicken and part dragon.”
“That ain’t no basalisk, that’s a damn cockatrice.”
“A what?!” Manfried laughed at his brother’s ignorance.
“A cockatrice. Basilisk’s just a lizard, cept it poisons wells and such,” said Hegel.
“That’s a scorpion! Although you’s half right — basilisk’ll kill you quick, but by turnin its eyes on you.”
“What!?” Hegel shook his head. “Now I know you’s making up lies cause any man a learnin’ll tell you straight a scorpion ain’t no reptile, it’s a worm.
“What worms you seen what have eyes and arms, huh?”
“Sides from you?”
Negatively, the plot in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is embarrassingly simple with the ending easy to map out, but I was reminded of the old adage, “it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.” While definitely true in this case, I was still underwhelmed by the brothers’ final comeuppance. Other issues I had include the novel only having two stories-within-stories — Nicolete and Father Martyn’s tales are highlights of the book and really show off the author’s writing prowess — and Jesse Bullington’s tendency to jump from one POV to another in the middle of the narrative, sometimes from one paragraph to the next. I got used to this after awhile, but there are moments when this transition is jarring and causes some confusion, especially when he uses every character in the book as a POV, no matter how minor a role they might play.
Apart from these minor complaints and the fact that The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart will only appeal to a certain kind of audience, Jesse Bullington’s debut is a very impressive novel — one that will get a lot of attention, deservedly so I might add, and promises a bright future for the author.
The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is probably one of the best written books I never finished.
It’s a historical fantasy taking place during the dark ages. Two brothers whose chosen profession is grave-robbing do not limit their criminal activities to just stealing from the dead. Their own demented morals justify any undertaking for even the slightest gain, and rationalize their most despicable acts. Revenge-seeking enemies, demons, and witches, hound their journey to the lands of the Moors where they hope to raid the tombs of ancient kings. To sum it up; the Grossbarts could be the evil cousins of the Brothers Grimm.
Jesse Bullington has crafted a unique story. I didn’t note any of the mistakes that most new authors make and his sarcastic wit is hilarious — the Grossbarts have two pages of dialog defining the origin and use of the most dirty of all cuss-words, the “F-bomb.”
Mr. Bullington also has a lot of guts. Brothers Grossbart is definitely not for the faint of heart. Even I, who consider myself a connoisseur of dark fantasy, had a difficult time getting past the graphic murder of an entire family (including young children) that occurs early in the book.
Even though The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart proved to just not be my “mug of ale,” it probably is one of the best written books I never finished. I might have been able to admire the Grossbarts for their tenacity and cleverness if I could have gotten past their cold-blooded homicidal natures. Eventually I realized that I couldn’t care less about the Grossbarts or anyone else in the story. At about page 283, when it became too much of a struggle to keep reading, I stopped.
I was rather excited about The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart coming out on audio. After all, Robert and Rebecca rated the book so highly, though Greg reported that he couldn’t finish it (read their reviews above). I usually tend to agree with Greg’s assessment of books we’ve both read, but since Robert and Rebecca reported that the writing quality was so high, I thought I could muster up the stomach to stick this one out… Not so.
It’s true that The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is excellently written and the audiobook is excellently performed by Christopher Lane who was given ample opportunities to show off his skills. But the only parts of The Sad Tale I liked were those in which no action occurred — when the brothers were sitting around arguing with each other about philosophical topics such as Christianity (e.g., is it cannibalism to take communion, how Mary could have been a virgin, etc.). These blasphemous conversations were truly clever and funny, as were the brothers’ regular assertions that they were good Christians and their illogical justifications for their reprehensible behaviors.
But other than these bright (sort of) moments, the rest of the plot was full of horrid violence, lots of gross bodily emissions, and various other unpleasant items. I’m sure I had a look of disgust on my face the whole time, with occasional bursts of laughter during the dialogue.
I quit half way through chapter 7 when I realized that I was just not enjoying myself. However, I wouldn’t want to steer others away from this clever book, because I think it was unique and well written and likely to be enjoyed by those with more fortitude than me. And for them, let me recommend the excellent audio version of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.
The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart follows the twin brothers Hegel and Manfried Grossbart. They live in a world full of demons and disease. The woods are full of spirits, and dark magic lurks in the shadowy places where men dare not go. Fortunately for the brothers, they are just as bad as or worse than any of the lot which lurks about the darkness of this world. They murder, steal, and generally wreak havoc wherever they go. Their sad tale is a tale of treachery, violence, stupidity, and a lot of vomit. They completely destroy the lives of everyone they come in contact with. The brothers have set their grave-robbing sights on the tombs of Egypt, and the reader is being brought along for the ride.
The Sad Tale is not a book I would recommend to many people. I would be too afraid that whoever I asked to read it may no longer want to associate with me. Jesse Bullington has worked very hard to be highly offensive in almost every way imaginable, and I loved every minute of it. The plot is fairly easy to see through. The brothers have a destination in mind and it’s no deductive stretch that they will eventually reach their goal. However, it’s how the Grossbarts interact with themselves and the other characters that makes The Sad Tale a truly entertaining read.
The constant bickering and jibing between the brothers provide a lot of comic relief. Their blasphemous religious discussions and their personal dictations on morality are quite entertaining. The brothers often try to out-swear each other, pushing the limits of even Grossbartian sensibilities. If you are a religious person, I highly recommend you burn this book upon it entering your household. If you don’t want to burn things then just give it to someone you wish to have spend an eternity in hell. The mere possession of this book will quite likely taint your soul.
Now that you are probably not going to read the book, I will tell you that I haven’t been this impressed with a first release by an author since Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. The characters are all fascinating, and you can’t help but be interested in how things turn out. Actually, you hope they meet their demise in some spectacular and painful way; that’s not something you get to do in fantasy very often. I found very little to fault in The Sad Tale. The things that will keep you from enjoying this book are the things Bullington does intentionally. I would quite possibly give everything I own to see this listed on Oprah’s Book Club.
I listened to this on the audio release from Brilliance Audio. Christopher Lane is the voice actor and he does an incredible job. Having distinct voices for every character was essential to making this enjoyable in audio form. I was really impressed with Mr. Lane and will keep an eye out, or ear rather, for any other work he’s done.
This book is probably not for me.
Interesting review. Darn, now I have to add yet another book to my freaking reading pile.
I am glad to hear you enjoyed the book so. I just read this book and I really liked that there are a lot of things to discuss in this book. I just didn’t seem to enjoy it as much as others have. The writing was well done and the theme was great. I just thought there were many lag points for me with the brothers. I seemed to enjoy the short stories a little more than the brothers story. I do love the many great discussion topics though, that is part of what kept me going in the book – and curiosity to see what Jesse does with the characters.
I did read the whole book but I didn’t love it like so many other have. The writing was done well, but I just couldn’t get into the story of the brothers.
Kind of glad to hear there are others who didn’t care as much for it either.
We do seem to have the same feeling about this book, Melissa. I do have to give Mr. Burlington credit due, he is a clever writer, but the story just wasn’t for me.
I generally like dark fantasy or really cool bad-guys (which the Grossbarts are far from cool), but this story just didn’t have anything, personally, held my interest.
I also read this for a while and haven’t finished it, won’t bother. BUT the cover art is AweSome!
I do enjoy reading reviews that oppose ones that I’ve done, but I enjoy even more reading ones that agree with mine, especially from a reviewer like Kat. :)
This is at least the second time this has happened, Greg. Same thing happened with Midwinter. Next time you say you don’t like a book, I’m staying far away from it!
Well you know what they say about “great minds”. :)
This review is hilarious, Justin.
That would be so funny to see on O’s list.
Great review, Justin. Even though I didn’t like the book, I’m always interested in a good review with an opposing opinion to mine.
You have some very valid reasons for liking it that made me think twice.
Justin- I almost forgot; since you like the Grossberts, you may want to check-out Ian Graham’s Monument
It’s funny because I was very much expecting to not like the book. I just recently ripped on Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl for not having any likable characters to keep me engaged in the story…..this book changed all that. I kind of feel like a big fat hypocrite…lol Even in Abercrombie’s stuff you like those characters despite themselves, in The Sad Tale there is nothing to like about these two bastards, other than they are funny at times.
Listening to this audiobook was a new experience for me: I recognized how GOOD it was, but it was so BAD that I couldn’t handle it!