Bullington (The Enterprise of Death, 2011, etc.) delivers another dark historical tale, this time set in 15th-century Holland.
In the 1420s, a few years after a catastrophic flood caused widespread devastation, the deeply unpleasant Jan has a plan to recover a special ring bearing a family crest so that he can claim his noble title and the riches that go along with it. But there’s a problem: The ring is inside a house which has been deeply submerged by the flood. So, Jan sets forth on a mission to retrieve it, with his recently purchased servant Jolanda, and his lover, Sander, an escaped criminal. Betrayal and violence quickly ensue, leaving one of the three dead and leading to a yearslong masquerade among the noble classes. The plot takes a particularly dark turn, however, when the body of a murdered child is discovered. Bullington has clearly done plenty of research on the early history of the Netherlands, and he includes an extensive bibliography at the end of the book. It’s a time and a place that rarely appears in historical fiction, but it serves as the setting of a very long and, at times, oppressively grim novel. While Bullington does have an unusual and original voice, his maximalist style and exceedingly slow pacing may limit the book’s audience. It also seems likely that the novel’s unsympathetic characters, brutal violence, graphic sex, unrelenting profanity and frequent descriptions of bodily fluids will not be to every reader’s taste, to say the least. That said, it will certainly appeal to fans of Bullington’s previous work.
An ambitious but rather harrowing novel.