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.
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.