Science fiction and fantasy                                            

The Enterprise Of Death

by Jesse Bullington


Even without witchcraft, early 16th century Europe was a turbulent and menacing place. With frequent wars breaking out and modern medicine yet to be invented, death is never far away. For Manuel, an artist from Bern who has turned mercenary in order to pay for his painting supplies, all this death means the chance to sketch bodies fresh from the battlefield.

Manuel's senior officer asks him to take an alleged witch to the Inquisition. He's not happy about this assignment for various reasons, nor with the team of men he picks to help him with the mission. But he's increasingly worried that the rough mercenaries will try to violate their captive before they reach their destination.

Death is also all too familiar for Halim, Omorose and Awa. These castaways were shipwrecked off the Spanish coast where they narrowly escaped drowning, only to be caught by bandits in the mountains. The eunuch Halim has been told to kill Omorose and Awa rather than allow them to fall into the hands of pirates, but he doesn't think he can bring himself to do the deed. However their nightmare begins in earnest when they are captured by a necromancer who can make the dead do his bidding.

The necromancer holds the three young people at his inaccessible mountain hideout and teaches them his dark arts. But he's no benevolent proto-Dumbledore who passes on his legacy to apprentices with a kindly smile. The necromancer is disgusting and cruel, often testing them harshly and refusing to allow them any freedom. They begin to suspect his motives, so they plan ways to escape their hated captor.

This novel is clearly very well researched, and it's full of rich period detail. But it wears its scholarship lightly, never weighing down the narrative with long passages of unnecessary facts. The history alone gives The Enterprise Of Death the fascinating allure of something exotic. It takes in the Spanish Inquisition, Paracelcus, the birth of Protestantism, the sale of indulgences, the art and medicine of the period, and more besides. When you add raising the dead and other supernatural creatures into the mix it only improves the story. This is a very refreshing fantasy because although it's steeped in history the author hasn't been content with telling the same old story using the same old motifs, especially when it comes to magic.

Omorose is a compelling character who has a hard journey to make from being a cosseted lady to becoming a fiesty, self-sufficient witch. But her former slave Awa is even more interesting. Awa's cunning and practicality has echoes of Terry Pratchett's Granny Weatherwax, but she also has a vulnerable side that makes her seem more human and likeable.

Both Paracelsus and Niklaus Manuel Deutsch of Bern were real people. As characters in the story Paracelsus is mad as a hatter, but Manuel is more complex. The painter's views on religion don't always chime with the unquestioning fervour of these witch-hunting, god-fearing times, but the doubt of the Reformation era and the willingness to question Papal supremacy is reflected in him. For Manuel, dealing with a witch sparks a crisis of faith, as much as it becomes a test of conscience for the denounced woman.

This is a rollicking story full of martial adventure, historical colour, and legions of the undead. Jesse Bullington strikes the perfect balance between breathtaking action, the heartbreak of Awa's relationships, the oddness of witchcraft, and a fair helping of soul-searching on the part of some of the characters. The result is sometimes as gory as a triple-tiered eyeball cake at a zombie wedding, but it's always thoroughly entertaining.

10th March 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Not For The Squeamish  

If you like this, try:

Cobweb Forest cover    

Cobweb Forest by Vera Nazarian
In the third part of the Cobweb Bride trilogy, parts of the world are disappearing and the the dead continue to walk the Earth.

Cobweb Empire cover    

Cobweb Empire by Vera Nazarian
Death has ceased in the kingdoms, but this is far from the only problem facing their inhabitants as their world is broken by growing dark magic. The second novel in the Cobweb Bride trilogy.

Cobweb Bride cover    

Cobweb Bride by Vera Nazarian
Death decides he wants a bride, and stops taking souls to the afterlife until he finds the one he is looking for. The first book in the Cobweb Bride trilogy.

5 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson