Jesse Bullington

Orbit (2011)

ISBN: 9780316087346

Reviewed by Ben Julien

This is the story of a young servant girl, Awa, who is captured by an ancient necromancer, and is then unwittingly and unhappily apprenticed to him. She learns the dark arts of raising and manipulating the dead and is drawn into the machinations of the necromancer and his bid to continue possessing new bodies.

Awa eventually escapes his clutches and the story shifts to her misadventures in a dark, continental Europe. The other two main protagonists, Niklaus and Monique, are introduced and their combined stories initially focus on questions of how to survive, and to some extent fit in, with Awa, a non-Christian, dark-skinned woman in a superstitious world ruled by the sword and a predatory Church.

Niklaus is an artist-turned-mercenary, willing to subvert his morals for short periods of time for money but always wanting to return to his wife in Switzerland. His empathy for Awa stems from his own love for his family and when he is initially tasked with transporting a captured Awa to be tried as a witch, he finds himself defending her from the predations of his unscrupulous companions.

Monique is another mercenary, a pistolsmith and blackpowder specialist with a dream to own her own brothel. She becomes Awa’s erstwhile companion when Awa saves her from a slow death by healing her of the pox.

The last part of the novel shifts gear again and returns to resolve the issue of the ancient necromancer and his hold on Awa. I found the ending satisfying, but the sections of this novel something of a Frankenstein’s monster, or to use a metaphor more appropriate to Bullington’s writing, the novel feels like a jumble of bones added from different creatures that as a whole creates something that works well despite its heterogeneity, but that is somehow a little less than the sum of its parts.

Bullington’s previous work, his debut novel The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, I found hilarious and intensely sympathetic despite, or because of, its anti-heroes. The Brothers Grossbart were unabashedly villains, with fantastic dialogue and wit to match. Enterprise of Death, by comparison, is less convincing because of the moral ambiguity of its protagonists that leaves them floundering in the narrative at times. It was a much more difficult start as well, with different time shifts and no clear main protagonist.

It is also worth mentioning that much of the novel focuses on disturbing practices and will not appeal to many readers.

This was, despite my above reservations, an entertaining novel, well-researched, profane and bawdy and a worthy edition to Bullington’s own brand of anti-fantasy.