Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington

For some reason I still manage to be surprised when the book I’m reading tends to fit in with whatever conversation is currently going on in the SFF-intranets world. The conversation of the moment is all about grimdark, the term that seems to have emerged to describe the ‘gritty’ fantasy that maybe even could be called its own sub-genre (here are a few links to get you started on the discussion). But, I’m not going to quibble about the definition of grimdark, how appropriate it is attach the label to author X or Y’s books, or any of that. But, the book I am here to discuss – The Folly of the World by Jesse Bullington (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) – arguably falls right in with the new kid dressed all in black at the back of the genre party who is buy angrily staring down everyone while (s)he trims his/her fingernails with a large knife.
The Folly of the World was wholly unexpected for me – I had heard good things about Bullington’s writing, but really didn’t know anything about it when I started the book (I hadn’t even read the back cover). So, it took me quite a while to figure out how felt about the book – honestly it took until after I finished reading it. The first thing that literally slaps the reader in the face is the very coarse language of the book, particularly in the first half. In the context of the book, it works, though it is above and beyond the coarseness of 99% of the books in fantasy. The dialogue is harsh, ugly and offensive. The descriptions are dark, evocative and unpleasant. And there are graphic descriptions of sex – man on man sex – that is needfully violent rather than sensual and loving.
After adjusting to the ruthless writing style I began to wander just where this novel was going. First, it’s not epic fantasy or even second world fantasy. It’s really much more historical fiction, or gothic horror (if gothic horror can apply to a setting in medieval Holland), with only the barest hints of the supernatural. In fact, I have no idea if there really is any supernatural element in the novel – and it doesn’t matter. The hints serve to increase the horror, set the mood, and relentlessly drive home the inevitable and hopeless end – or at least the perception of an inevitable and hopeless end.
Throughout this review I’ve used words like ruthless, horror, relentless, hopeless, harsh, coarse, dark, and …grimdark. The world is violent. There is death. There are battles. Horrible things are said and done. One could choose to describe things as tragic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though I think folly is the better choice as the title itself clearly alludes to. The story shown, the actions and thoughts undertaken are often far too absurd to be anything but folly. The story at its heart is about a bastard seeking his noble birthright. Or perhaps it’s two highwaymen working a con to become noble. Or maybe it’s a rags to riches story. As expected, things don’t go as planned, but one of those cons does become noble, a peasant is lifted to the heights of society, and the fall from the edge is precipitous.
The view that Bullington chooses to tell his story through is important. The two conmen I mention above are front and center, though the real story is that of a peasant girl who is literally bought and paid for to help them recover a lost object. These three make up a motley trio representing the worst of the worst in society and genre alike. The two men are homosexual lovers, one is a bastard and the other is severely mentally ill. Both are killers. One will do and say anything to achieve his goals while the other is madly unpredictable. The girl is an uneducated peasant sold into service. She is harsh, violent, and a survivor. Horrible things happen – yet the girl is never raped and remains ‘pure’ through to the very end. It’s all gritty, dark and grim. There are very real conflicts, there is betrayal and death. Characters are wounded and they rise and fall from tragic archetypes to simple folly, though the usual, the obvious, doesn’t happen. There is much that can be said to all this – Bullington’s writing is layered with thematic depth and historical context. And frankly, I didn’t get it (at least not all of it). I typically consider that a good thing as it shows the book has deeper context and meaning than can be easily gained. And for that context, I recommend reading Indrapramit Das’s review over at Strange Horizons, it goes farther and deeper than I could ever hope to.
So far this review has meandered, only hinted at plot and character, and gained and lost momentum. In this, it mirrors The Folly of the World. The Folly of the World starts out fast, slows in the middle, only to pick up pace again toward the end. In all honesty, I almost did not finish this book. I kept waiting to see where the book was going, when that twist would occur. One twist occurred, and the second I kept waiting for felt like it never happened. Yes there were events and happens of importance to the story, but not at the level I was expecting (or hoping for?). With less than a hundred pages until the end I put the book down and seriously questioned whether I should bother continuing. I wish I could say that I felt that I had to know the end, but really I only continued because I felt that I had put in a lot of time already and just a bit more to finish it off made sense. I simply didn’t care – the title indicates that it’s the folly of the World, perhaps indicating a story of great significance to the world itself. It’s not. In fact it’s barely even significant in the dusty forgotten historical context it’s presented in. It’s only significant to the actual characters of the book.
Upon reflection I think this fits with the book. The book is folly, it’s the folly of humanity. It’s about unexpected love and dedication. It shows that what is important and significant varies greatly by perspective. It’s a book that the reader must love to hate and hate to love. It’s a book that works best when one can’t decide if it should be finished or not. That’s the folly of the book as well as the story within.
Did I enjoy The Folly of the World? That’s an answer I’m still searching for, but overall I think I can only say marginally. Do I appreciate The Folly of the World? Yes, Yes, YES. What Bullington does in this book is masterful, especially in the context of the conversation occurring in genre right now around grimdark, what it is and what, if any, value it brings. It’s a harsh truth, it’s a lot of harsh truths, it’s folly, it’s no easy journey to take, and not everyone will finish it. This only increases the ultimate value, if not necessarily its overall appeal.

1 comment:

Pabkins said...

This is similar to how I felt about Black Feathers. But I think I'll stay away from this one...some things are just too graphic for me.


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