The Dark Monk by Oliver Pötzsch (translated from the original German by Lee Chadeayne)

TheDarkMonkA few months ago a friend asked for a book recommendation.  Something light and easy to take on vacation.  I told her to try Oliver Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter.  She sent me a text when she finished telling me it was perfect.  Without that exchange I don’t know if I’d have picked up The Dark Monk, the second book in the Hangman’s Daughter series.  I’m glad I did.

All the characters from the original book return.  The hangman of the stories is Jakob Kuisl.  Magdalena is his pretty and impetuous daughter.  Simon Fronwieser is the young village doctor (more or less) and Magdalena’s beau.  Set in Bavaria, in the middle of 17th century, the mystery this time is linked to a Templar treasure.  Not the most original plotline – the Templars and Masons have been pretty much bled dry – and in typical DaVinci Code fashion our heroes are led on a frustratingly predictable chase after a string of clues.  But the draw of this kind of series isn’t the plot, it’s the characters and the world they inhabit.  And, in the case of the Hangman’s Daughter books, it’s also the way Pötzsh weaves his family history into the stories.  Because Jakob Kuisl the hangman and his daughter  Magdalena were real people.  More than that, they were Pötzsh’s ancestors.

There are plenty of historical nuggets scattered through these pages.  The Kuisls spawned a dynasty of Bavarian hangmen.  And in researching his family tree the author learned several interesting facts about what amounted to an exclusive society.  Hangmen were responsible for the town’s garbage collection.  They made additional money not just for torturing and killing the condemned, but from selling their remains in various forms.  Hangmen could not be buried on hallowed ground and they married from within their class.  What this means is a hangman’s daughter was only allowed to marry another hangman – which adds an interesting twist to Simon and Magdalena’s romance – one that Pötzsh may have a hard time unravelling.  In the meantime, though, he’s having fun balancing facts with fiction.  Both books end with notes from the author.  The first discussed his family history, the second a travel guide of the region where the stories are set.  His enthusiasm is catching.

The Dark Monk is interesting and entertaining, but not particularly challenging.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  We all love the classic beach or airplane read.  The history raises it a level above most other books in the category. Oliver Pötzsh’s gift was in realizing what he had.  And until a non-fiction book comes out, or Ken Follett develops an obsession for the medieval Bavarian hangmen, Pötzsh seems to have a monopoly that guarantees his readers will keep coming back.

The English translation of the third book of the series, The Beggar King, is due out January 8th, 2013.

Publisher:  Mariner Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 05478 0768 3

The Thorn And The Blossom: A Two-Sided Love Story by Theodora Goss (spoilers)

The Thorn and the Blossom is, first off, a beautiful book.  It comes with a slipcase decorated in a William Morris style illustration.  The book itself, an accordion book, can be opened from either side and contains four illustrations (I believe done on scratchboard) by Scott McKowen.  Theodora Goss has made the most of the format by creating a romantic tale told from the perspectives of two separate characters: Evelyn & Brendan.  Each cover carries one of the lovers’ initials which corresponds with the text you’re about to read:  B for Brendan and E for Evelyn.  It’s all very nicely done.

(Warning! Skip this paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers!) Evelyn & Brendan first meet when Evelyn visits Cornwall on holiday. They have a whirlwind romance, and then separate under tense circumstances.  Years later they find each other again.  Intertwined with their story is a variation of the old Arthurian legend of Gawain & the Green Knight.  The implication being that these two characters are reincarnations of the lovers from the old tale, cursed to be apart for 1000 years.  Theodora Goss touches briefly on several of the directions she could have taken this story – but never really follows through on any of them.  There’s the obvious fantasy path. Or my personal favorite: whether Evelyn’s visions (which she’s been having since she was a small child) are memories of her past life or hallucinations requiring medication.  The Thorn and the Blossom is a short book, and both character’s stories combined clock in at under 100 pages.  So Goss doesn’t have much space to elaborate or develop these ideas.  And therein lies the rub.

Because of the parameters the format forces on the author (Goss was specifically asked to write an accordion book, rather than an existing story being adapted), The Thorn and The Blossom feels oddly incomplete.  As if we’ve been given the armature on which the author intended to build her plot.  Goss implies that this was her intention – to leave blanks for the reader to fill in and create an even greater interactive experience.  While I admire the intent, in execution the plot just felt like it was full of holes.

Despite this, the story is unusual and Goss still manages to take it in unexpected directions. In addition to the psychological implications, I particularly enjoyed how the ending resolves itself only after you’ve read both Brendan’s and Evelyn’s parts.  And as a package it’s wonderful.  Like everything Quirk does The Thorn and The Blossom is innovative and provocative in its possibilities.   I only wish they’d given themselves, and Theodora Goss, a little more space in which to explore those possibilities.

The Thorn and The Blossom is available for pre-order, release date January 17, 2012.

Publisher:  Quirk Books, Philadelphia (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 59474 551 5

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The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, translated by Lee Chadeayne

Looking for a historical thriller?  Some fast-paced beach reading? A page turner that you can’t put down? Oliver Pötzsch’s novel The Hangsman’s Daughter is all of those things.

The year is 1659 A.D.  Children in the Bavarian town of Schongau, specifically the orphans and bastards, are disappearing.  The bodies of those that are found each have a small tattoo on the shoulder – a known witch’s symbol.  That isn’t the only strange thing that’s been happening:  the construction site for the new leper house is being repeatedly vandalized; the Burghers’ warehouse is set on fire; and the devil has been seen on the roads at night.

Of course Schongau’s midwife, Martha, is accused of witchcraft.  The dead and missing children were known to visit her and – let’s face it – in a Medieval town it’s always the midwife who superstitious townspeople point their fingers at first.  Martha is taken prisoner and the hangman is brought in to make her confess.  What follows is a daring sprint against the clock to solve the mystery.  A week in which to find the real killer before more children are harmed, the midwife burned alive and Schongau descended into the madness of witch trials.  Jakob Kuisl (the reluctant hangman), his daughter Magdalena and the son of the town physician attempt to prevent the worst from coming to fruition.

Pötzsch has created a decent puzzle for the reader to solve along with his protagonists.  Nothing is clear-cut.  Red herrings abound.  The solution is far from obvious, but does not strain incredulity.  Jakob and the physician’s son Simon (who plays the role of Watson to Jakob’s Holmes) are appealing characters.  As is Magdalena, though I wish she’d had a larger role.  She spends more time along the fringes of her father’s and Simon’s investigation than the title suggests.  But she’s brash and earthy and one of the highlights of the novel.  The other being, of course, the hangman.

Jakob Kuisl is a kinder, gentler hangman.  He studies herbs and healing.  He keeps a library of books on those subjects which must have cost a small fortune in the 17th century. He philosophically sees his occupation – to torture and kill – as necessary to the public peace.  Despite that, he get’s drunk before being called upon by the Burghers to perform his duties…as did his father before him.  Kuisl comes from a long-line, a dynasty, of Bavarian hangmen.  Of whom the novel’s author Oliver Pötzsch is descended.  Johann Jakob Kuisl was a real life Medieval hangman. In fact the entire Kuisl family – wife, daughter and twins – actually existed.  The story may be fiction, but one of the most interesting things about The Hangman’s Daughter is that there is a tangible element of truth to it.  Genealogy.

As for the writing, it seems that lately every book out there is described as being “cinematic”.  But Oliver Pötzsch is a screenwriter for Bavarian television.  It’s not surprising that The Hangman’s Daughter reads like a script.  Which is what makes it perfect Summer reading.  This isn’t a deep, psychological glimpse into the heart of darkness.  It’s not Pillars of the Earth.  If anything, the story reminds me most of Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death.  It’s slick and clean and modern – filled with period details without becoming bogged down in them.  The company of these characters is highly addictive.  So much so that I wasn’t surprised to learn that there are two other books in the series so far.  Unfortunately, they’ve yet to be translated into English.

Publisher:  Mariner Books, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 0 547745 01 5

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Embedded with the Ottomans – THE SIEGE by Ismail Kadare

The Siege is a translation to the n-th degree.  Written in Albanian in 1970, translated into French in 1994, and from the French into English in 2008.  It’s like a game of telephone and I can’t help wondering how much was changed with each retelling.  Is the book that won the first Man Booker International Prize still the same book that the author intended it to be?

Doubts aside, The Siege by Ismail Kadare is wonderful.  It describes a fictitious, 15th century siege of an Albanian fortress by the Ottoman army.  The novel follows members of the army- smoothly transitioning from one character to another.  We see into the minds of the campaign’s Chronicler, the Astrologer, the Quartermaster, the Pasha (who leads the army) and his harem.   The fates of a cast of secondary characters are described as well, as they emerge from and return to the legions of nameless men.  The author pieces all of these descriptions together into a narrative that reads more like a historical account than a heroic epic.  The prose is straightforward and un-embellished, the story focusing on logistics rather than battles.  Tunneling, artillery, supply lines and siege tactics are shown preference over scenes of battle (though we are given some of that as well).  The overall feel is of being embedded in with the troops.

Intermittently, Kadare changes the perspective from which he tells his story.  The besieged Albanians speak in the collective voice, taking on the haunting quality of a Greek chorus.  It’s a powerful device, emphasizing the cultural distance between the Albanians and the Ottomans, and squarely placing our sympathies with the former.  In the Albanian segments the account of events is given in the first person, whereas the Ottoman side of the story is told through an omniscient narrator.  After long passages of observing activities on the ground,  the same events are described as they are seen and interpreted from the height of the fortress’s walls.

At the first beat of their drums, the sight that greeted our eyes was unbearable.  Such madness we had never imagined – neither in the orgies of ancient times, whose memory has come down to us through the generations, nor in the wildest carnival nights in our own villages.  Shouting, screaming, praying and dancing, men offered themselves up for sacrifice, made exhibitions of themselves which, as we were to learn later on, severed heads carried on talking as if still in delirium; soldiers wailed as if they were night owls and banged their drums dementedly.  All those noises wafted up to our castle like stinking vapors.

The light of the moon seemed to trouble and excite them at the same time.  What we saw spread out beneath us was Asia in all its mysticism and barbarity…

Kadare does this 360-degree style of narrative well. The novel carries a sense of movement.  The reader physically explores the camp, wanders from section to section, into tents, down tunnels, up onto the walls and then back down again.   There are defined geographical parameters.  (For example, you do not follow the akinxhis, or raiders, out of the camp and into the countryside.  Instead you watch them leave and listen to their news when they return, which in many ways is better).  But within the story’s borders there is a sense of space and layout.  Kadare created an universe in a bubble.  In my experience, this isn’t an easy feat for an author to pull off – the total immersion into a period and a way of life that no longer exists.

There is some action in The Siege, but not a lot by film standards.  There’s even less suspense, and absolutely no glory.  The overall pacing is slow.  But there was never a point where I was bored or wanted to put the book aside.  Quite the opposite.  I’m happy to say that a quick look-up on Amazon showed a whole slew of Ismail Kadare books available in translation.

Publisher: Cannongate Books, London, 2009
ISBN:  978 1 84767 122 6

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