A lesbian slave-girl, unwillingly trained in the art of necromancy, falls in love with the reanimated corpse of her former owner. In her attempts to lift the curse laid upon her by the necromancer who trained her and escape the revenge of her reanimated former owner (who took her affections somewhat amiss), the heroine of The Enterprise of Death collects a small band of ne'er-do-well adventurers, including a down-on-his-luck artist and a brothel-owning, trigger-happy gunsmith.
And that's sort of what this book is about.
It's hard to write about The Enterprise of Death, because a straight-up summary of the plot doesn't do the book justice - the richness of its world and the depth of its characters are poorly served by any bald description of the book's action. Because The Enterprise of Death isn't really about what it's about.
There's a character seeking to end a curse that's been placed upon her. There's a character seeking revenge. A character seeking love. A character seeking redemption. There are sword-fights, magic spells, wars, and magical creatures. Even a prince in disguise... sort of. These are all lovely, traditional fantasy hooks. But, somehow,The Enterprise of Death takes place in the spaces between those high-fantasy beats. It's a picaresque jaunt through the lives of a group of people who are, more or less, trying to put off dealing with all the high-fantasy weirdness their lives have inexplicably accrued.
Something amazing happened when I read this novel: I experienced one of the quickest, most visceral reactions to a book I’ve ever had. I loved it. By the time I finished the prologue, (six pages), I loved it. (Another of the Kitschies judges reportedly found The Enterprise of Death so engrossing she read it while she vaccumed.)
It contains, for example, one of the most thoughtful and mature meditations on rape and sexual consent I’ve ever seen in a fantasy novel. And it is fantasy, for all this – an alt-history high-fi down-and-dirty low-fantasy. And it is down and dirty; it is, in fact, totally disgusting. It’s Don Quixote meets Queer as Folk by way of Best Served Cold – with a dash of Martin-esque The Girl with the Pearl Earring and a sprinkling of Heironimous Bosch thrown in. It’s cheerful, roundabout, jovial, and unutterably grim. And funny as hell. I think I mean that literally.
Mr. Bullington writes with equal parts elegance and a puckish wit; he examines the meaning of art, the importance of history, the very nature of life and death with the same energy and enthusiasm he brings to his descriptions of the reanimated, skeletonized bandit who befriends his heroine. And oh, his heroine. Awa is a masterpiece of characterization; a smart, tough, brittle, funny, lusty, occasionally self-loathing, entirely self-sufficient woman who’s utterly impossible not to root for.
Bullington’s greatest accomplishment, however, is his constant subversion of expectation. He’s writing in a real-ish real world, and relies on his readers bringing their expectations – about the world, and how it works, and how it worked in the sixteenth century – with them. And he delights in subverting those expectations. And then subverting those subversions.
For a novel about a lesbian slave-girl with a goat’s hoof for a foot and the ability to raise the dead, The Enterprise of Death is, ultimately, a wonderfully human novel about the very meaning of humanity
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.
You can find the complete list of Red Tentacle finalists on The Kitschies' site. Please join in the discussion below and on our Facebook page.