fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Jesse Bullington The Enterprise of DeathThe Enterprise of Death by Jesse Bullington

CLASSIFICATION: Like The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death is a hard-to-classify fusion of folklore, historical fiction, fantasy, horror and black comedy in the vein of the Brothers Grimm, Clive Barker, Chuck Palahniuk, Warren Ellis and a bit of Joe Abercrombie. In this case, the historical-influenced setting is centered on the Spanish Inquisition, the Italian Wars and the Protestant Reformation during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Actual historical figures, items and events woven into the novel include Boabdil’s exile from the city of Granada and the words his mother supposedly spoke to him upon reaching a rocky prominence — “Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man.” — Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, his wife Katharina and the painting the book’s cover is based on; the Swiss mercenary captain, Albrecht von Stein; Heinrich Kramer’s treatise on witches, the Malleus Maleficarum; Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Dr. Paracelsus; and the Battle of Bicocca. Fantasy elements include necromancers, animated corpses and vampires.

FORMAT/INFO: The Enterprise of Death is 464 pages long divided over a Prologue and 39 Roman-numbered/titled chapters. Extras include an Excerpt from Jesse Bullington’s debut novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, and a Bibliography of the material researched for The Enterprise of Death. Narration is in the third person via several different points-of-view including Awa, Omorose, Niklaus Manuel and Monique. The Enterprise of Death is self-contained. March 3, 2011/March 24, 2011 marks the UK/North American Trade Paperback publication of The Enterprise of Death via Orbit Books. Cover art is based on this painting by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch.

ANALYSIS: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart may have been extremely vulgar and gruesomely violent with a disappointing ending and possibly the most revolting protagonists to ever star in their own book, but for all of that, Jesse Bullington’s debut offered a very different, and at the same time, very rewarding reading experience. As such, I was excited to see what Jesse Bullington’s sophomore effort would bring to the table.

Unfortunately, The Enterprise of Death did not immediately grab me the same way that Jesse Bullington’s first novel did. Part of the problem can be attributed to a somewhat confusing narrative that alternates between the story’s present-time and past events, although that distinction does not become clear until later in the novel, while the author’s annoying tendency to switch between viewpoints without any warning only added to the confusion. The real problem, though, lies with how vile things can get at the beginning of the book with cannibalism, necrophilia and self-cannibalism some of the more disgusting topics covered. For all of its vulgarity and gruesomeness, there was always a healthy dose of dark humor in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart to help lighten the mood. In contrast, humor has been significantly reduced in The Enterprise of Death, and what humor is present is of the more morbid variety. As a result, it’s much more difficult not to be disturbed by the vileness in The Enterprise of Death, and I have to admit there were a number of times when I almost gave up on the book altogether.

Thankfully, I stuck it out and I’m glad I did. Once I got a handle on where the story was heading, who the major players were, got past the novel’s more repulsive moments, and became fully acclimated to Jesse Bullington’s writing style, reading The Enterprise of Death was a much smoother and more entertaining affair. Of course, it helps that Awa is a lot more likable as a protagonist compared to the Grossbart brothers, even if she is a necromancer, remarkably nonchalant about killing people, and suffers from shallow characterization. In fact, I really grew to care about Awa and whether or not she would be able to break the curse and defeat her evil master. The supporting characters meanwhile — which include the real-life artist-mercenary Niklaus Manuel, the African beauty Omorose, the Dutch gunner-whoremonger-giantess Monique, the historical figure Doctor Paracelsus, etc. — are an eclectic bunch, but don’t really add much to the novel apart from some engaging dialogue on things like the differences between faith and religion and whether necromancy is good or evil.

Personally, what made The Enterprise of Death worth reading was Jesse Bullington’s clever writing —

Two individuals of the opposite sex will, if forced to go on a journey together, fall in love. Often begrudgingly, and with a great deal of reluctance by at least one of the parties, to be sure, but love will fall as surely as night after day. In the unlikely event that one of the two is homosexual, asexual, already in a loving relationship, or otherwise disinclined from romancing their traveling companion, love will fall all the harder, like cannon fire upon a charging cavalry; indeed, the less likely the two are to fall in love naturally, the more certain it is that the sojourn will bring them together.

— and a vivid imagination which included everything from fire salamanders and a hyena-like demon to a different kind of vampire and unique necromantic abilities like being able to kill someone with a simple touch, speaking with the spirits of things both animate and inanimate, and healing incurable wounds by ingesting body parts. The ending is also a lot more satisfying than that of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, and even leaves room for a sequel or two that I would love to check out, especially if the author wrote one featuring the Bastards of the Schwarzwald.

Overall though, The Enterprise of Death is not as good as The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. Jesse Bullington’s sophomore effort pushes vileness to a whole new level, but without the humor and entertainment that made the author’s debut novel such a unique reading experience. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by the author’s boldness and creativity, and that alone is enough to keep me interested in whatever Jesse Bullington decides to write next.

The Enterprise of Death — (2011) Publisher: As the witch-pyres of the Spanish Inquisition blanket Renaissance Europe in a moral haze, a young African slave finds herself the unwilling apprentice of an ancient necromancer. Unfortunately, quitting his company proves even more hazardous than remaining his pupil when she is afflicted with a terrible curse. Yet salvation may lie in a mysterious tome her tutor has hidden somewhere on the war-torn continent. She sets out on a seemingly impossible journey to find the book, never suspecting her fate is tied to three strangers: the artist Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, the alchemist Dr. Paracelsus, and a gun-slinging Dutch mercenary. As Manuel paints her macabre story on canvas, plank, and church wall, the young apprentice becomes increasingly aware that death might be the least of her concerns.


  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.