The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington (2009). 464 pages, Orbit Books.

I have the Amazon Daily blog to thank for bringing this book to my attention. A few weeks ago, author Jesse Bullington was the guest-editor for Amazon Daily. In several posts, he talked about how thoroughly he had researched the period of history his novel is set in – even though this is actually a dark fantasy novel, with witches, demons, sirens, hell-spawn children, and manticores. His eloquent series of posts prompted me to add his novel to my Watch List. And then the novel was named on Amazon's Best Books of 2009: Editors' Top 10 in Science Fiction & Fantasy. And a bunch of other "Best Of" lists. So, I figured I'd check it out.

I knew I was in for an intriguing read from the first page, with what has to go down as one of the best first paragraphs I've ever read:

To claim that the Brothers Grossbart were cruel and selfish brigands is to slander even the nastiest highwayman, and to say they were murderous swine is an insult to even the filthiest boar. They were Grossbarts through and true, and in many lands such a title still carries serious weight. While not as repugnant as their father nor as cunning as his, horrible though both men were, the Brothers proved worse. Blood can go bad in a single generation or it can be distilled down through the ages into something truly wicked, which was the case with those abominable twins, Hegel and Manfried.

That same style and sense of humor carries on throughout the entire novel. For example, when brother Manfried runs into a good-looking cad: "Like most men who are ugly on both sides of their skin, Manfried detested handsome people on general principle."

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is engrossing, disturbing, grim, humorous, disgusting, and intriguing all at the same time. Set in 1364, little more than a decade after the Black Death, the brothers wander through a very realistically painted medieval Europe. One in which supernatural things occur all the time. They run into knights, monks, yeomen, sea captains, beggars, rich men and poor men. The brothers themselves are terrible people who think they are not only right, but downright sainted as well.

The book begins when the brothers murder a man's entire family. Wife, babies, small children. In gory descriptive detail. They steal horse and cart, and escape the village. You see, the brothers profession is grave robbing. A profession which has been passed down from father to son. And according to family legend, their grandfather robbed graves in Egypt, amassing a fortune. The brothers decide they'll travel to "Gyptland" to dig up what their grandfather left behind, which will also serve the additional purpose of getting far away from the village where they've just committed mass murder.

That's all in the first chapter. This ain't exactly Harry Potter we're talking about here.

The prose style of this novel is excellent. Bullington manages to weave in a great amount of realistic detail into this very fantastical novel, resulting in a book that really is unlike anything I've ever read. Oh, and it's also funny as hell. In a sick way.

How does he pull this off? I'll try to describe it. Early in the novel, the brothers encounter a demon that spreads the Plague. The demon is a disgusting creature that reminded me of the alien symbiote in The Hidden (a great little film that far too few people have seen, by the way. ). It grows its body out of the pus nodules extruded from its victims. Then, once the body is dead, it invades a new host by pushing its way down the victim's throat until it is living inside of it. This is all accompanied by a great deal of blood, guts, torn limbs, decapitations, and descriptions of every horrific form of injury and decay that accompanies them.

Now, if all that wasn't offensive enough (and I mean that in a good way), throw in loads of bizarre heresy as well. The brothers are followers of the Virgin Mary. But they call her son a "lousy coward", and have long theological arguments about how they are the only true believers in the world, and everyone else is a heretic. Of course, along their journey they team up with an insane defrocked priest who agrees with all of their theological points, which frequently include murdering anyone who doesn't agree with them.

And yet... intermixed with all the actual religious turmoil that was going on in the middle ages, it doesn't seem that ridiculous. Bullington manages to thread the Grossbart's heresy into King Peter's invasion of Alexandria, for example, and it fits perfectly.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. There were a couple of places where I actually got sick to my stomach, and had to put the book down for a minute or two to quell my vomit reflex before I resumed reading. I'm not kidding about the extreme level of violence, mayhem, and just sheer, utter, disgusting gore. The Grossbarts are profane, foul creatures who look down on anyone who is not like them. Every supernatural entity they encounter is grossly and unremittingly evil. This is the categorical opposite of the Twilight approach to the supernatural. This is no book for children.

At one point in the book, the brothers kill a shape-shifter in the middle of its change. The bottom half of the corpse is animal, the top half still human. Being hungry, they butcher, cook, and eat the bottom half. But they won't touch the top half, because that would be cannibalism. So they hack up the top half of the body and throw it away. Then they wonder if maybe they should have waited a few more seconds to kill it – so they could have eaten the whole thing.

Several other reviews I've read have called the novel "gritty". I'm not sure that word applies, although I understand why so many used it. When reading a book in a genre that includes Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, and the like, how do you fit in the awful Brothers Grossbart?

There's a sub-genre of literary fiction dubbed "magical realism" (exemplified by one of my personal Top Ten Novels of All Time, One Hundred Years of Solitude). The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart might be called "historical magical realism".

I also want to give a shout out to whoever was responsible for formatting the Kindle version of this book. This is one of the best e-books I've seen. Each chapter is cleanly delineated, even including the illustrated chapter headings and larger fonts at the beginning. The table of contents is full and expertly linked. And the publisher even threw in some extras at the end, including a long interview with author. I can't help but contrast this admirable layout job to the very poor formatting of Under the Dome, which I reviewed last week.

My only real criticism is that the last five chapters seem a bit rushed. I got the feeling the author was getting tired of writing in so much detail, and just decided to get to the ending already. But this is a minor quibble about an altogether excellent novel.

I guess it says something about my sick personality that I enjoyed this book so much. If, like me, you've got a dark sense of humor, a strong stomach, and don't offend easily, you definitely should read The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.

Because I can almost guarantee there will never make a movie version of something as depraved as this.


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