For me, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart was a highly anticipated read. It was by a young, new author; the story seemed intriguing and wholly new; it didn’t shy away from being rough or violent and sought to characterize thieves and murderers as nought else but that, which is to say the opposite of how they’re treated in Red Seas. (I can enjoy both sides, no worries.)
Sad Tale begins violently and murderously. And then, somewhat mysteriously, it lets up. The level of violence and sheer brutality at the beginning was a bit of a shock, but one that I was waiting for, so it didn’t make it too bad. I actually thought it was well described and seemed to convey an apt sense of the horror that something like home invasion (medieval style) would have. Bullington shied away from nothing. And it served its purpose; you simultaneously were disgusted by Hegel and Manfried and yet wanted to read more about them. Despite their occasional comical moments and their even rarer (yet surprisingly present) moments of brotherly affection, these are not characters I ever came to like, but I don’t think I was supposed to do so.
As the story developed, it took a turn for the religious (or sacrilegious, perhaps). The grave robbing aspect of the story, while staying the characters principle motivation throughout, never really developed into any action at all. It was always around the next corner. There always seemed to be something in their way, whether that be a demon, a witch, a town to sack, etc. The demons of the story were interesting, growing out of what was probably the real fear of 14th century persons, and they proved difficult opponents for the Brothers. But never opponents by which they felt overmatched. They were very well thought out and described demons, too. Very scary stuff. And this is where the religion got interesting.
The Brothers believed they were pseudo-soldiers of the Virgin Mary, whom they held in higher regard than Jesus (they dubbed him a wuss of a boy) and God himself. The Virgin Mary was where it was at for them, one of them even naming the other a saint of the Virgin by the end. This caused me to think a lot about how the Virgin Mary has been extolled by the Roman catholic church, especially in the middle ages, sometimes to the downplaying of Christ, and how that might be interpreted by uneducated, unchurched people such as the Brothers. I thought it was an interesting historio-social commentary.
By then end, I was actually ready to be done with the book. The anti-heroes as main characters left me with nothing to root for or hope for and the bleak secondary characters did little to relieve that pressure. When the book never delivered on the promise of a graverobbing adventure (well, it sort of did once, but it was unsatisfying) I found myself disappointed. I kept waiting for it, but it never came, and I think that led me to enjoy what I was reading about even less.
At the end of the day, this is a well written book, but not one I enjoyed reading and not one I’d likely recommend to too many people. I do applaud Mr. Bullington for not only getting published, but also for sticking to his guns about the kind of story he wanted to write. I hope he continues to do so because I think with more practice, his prose will get more fluid, his plots tighter, and his characters might develop the ability to be enjoyed even if not liked. When I read a book, I want to have at least one character to enjoy reading about, otherwise, no matter how good the writing, no matter how extensive and thought out the world building, no matter how irresistible the plot, without an enjoyable character, there is little point to continue.