In most historical fantasies, real-life figures are granted mythical status and woven into plots that mix magic with fact. But Jesse Bullington regards the past with a far less reverent eye. His sophomore novel, The Enterprise Of Death, is set in 15th-century Europe—but rather than depicting the events of the era as some stuffy epic, the book inverts the grandiose and gazes at the milieu’s filthy underbelly. Columbus is “that dreadful Genoan sailor who hung around Isabella like a fly around a chamber pot.” Machiavelli’s name is hilariously misremembered. And the hallowed Swiss alchemist Paracelsus, who figures prominently in Enterprise’s events, is portrayed as a near-Falstaffian buffoon who’s roundly mocked by the primary cast of fictional characters.
Bullington’s barbed iconoclasm is the sharpest weapon in his arsenal, but he doesn’t shoot for satire with Enterprise. Instead, he’s content to mock the tides of history as his characters themselves might have. And unlike his debut novel—2009’s bawdy, horrific, and similarly equipped The Sad Tale Of The Brothers Grossbart—Enterprise brings Bullington’s formidable wit to bear on a far tenderer subject. The story follows Awa, a young lesbian slave from Africa forced to learn the sordid occult art of necromancy before embarking on a quest to free herself from that curse—pursued along the way by the ghost of a former lover and a zealous Inquisitor. As poignant as Enterprise becomes, it manages to match The Brothers Grossbart in its gleeful slinging of the grotesque. But amid gruesome instances of necrophilia, bestiality, and cannibalism (and the occasional orgiastic combinations of all three), Awa’s tale unfolds delicately, and she begins to come to terms with what it means to love and be loved in a world that doesn’t tolerate gay women any more than it does witchcraft.
True to form, Bullington rolls out a vibrant, richly realized cast of original characters, including soldiers, eunuchs, and prostitutes. But he also broadly appropriates another historical figure: artist and Reformer Niklaus Manuel Deutsch. Through the sympathetic, initially hapless Deutsch—a sensitive soul and progressive-minded family man reduced to serving as a mercenary—Bullington puts the theology and politics of the early Renaissance into perspective and probes them mercilessly. It’s never from an academic point of view, though Bullington clearly knows his history; rather, his penchant for dark fantasy comes alive (so to speak) in the fresh deployment of zombie-like undead, sentient hyenas, and even a clever re-imagining of the vampire mythos. Beautifully balancing putridity, profanity, and poignancy, Bullington renders The Enterprise Of Death resonant and achingly human—even as it brims with the unhuman.