The Folly of the World. Book Review

tFotWTHE FOLLY OF THE WORLD by Jesse Bullington

Orbit Books, p/b, £8.99

Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins

Sander is on his way to the gallows, the mob hurling rotten fruit and who knows what else at him. The priest, a proper, honest priest, says his part, not realising until it is too late that the condemned man standing before him is, in fact, looking forward to the noose. Is aroused by it, even. Sander knows it is not his time to die – nowhere near his time. There is a fortune to seek and dying is not part of the plan.

Jan Tieselen is also looking for something. Someone, in fact. Someone with the skills he needs to retrieve something that will change his life and grant him the fortune that should have been his by right. It is a difficult task that will take someone with exceptional skills. Unfortunately it seems exceptional skills are hard to come by and Jan’s search goes on. Good thing he doesn’t get emotionally attached to every potential helper he comes across.

Jolanda is the only daughter of a poor family of dye-makers. Poor, bullied and harassed, she doesn’t have a whole lot going for her, but she sure can swim. Not only can she swim, Jan discovers, she can hold her breath for a hell of a long time. It becomes a stand off between her breath and his patience. Exceptional skills meet a ruthless man with the promise of another life. The hardest decision is really no decision at all, but she hasn’t realised that yet.

Set in the Netherlands after a great flood, The Folly of the World is the story of Jan’s quest to gain his noble standing, and with a little manipulation the fates bring these three unlikely heroes together and pitch them towards the same goal. But when you put a madman, a swindler and a wild girl together, it is unsurprising that their individual motivations do not always add up to the same outcome.

Bullington delivers a story that is at times shocking, frustrating and more importantly brilliant. Very few authors have the ability to successfully make a reader empathise with murderers, liars, perverts and cheats but this one manages it in spades. All three protagonists are twisted, dangerous and damaged in their own ways. They are cold-hearted, relentless in their desires, and downright weird at times, yet you find yourself siding with them and rooting for them nonetheless.

The level of violence, graphic description, depravity and bad language in The Folly of the World means this is definitely not a story for those with weak stomachs or a rigid grip on right and wrong. It is brave, or perhaps daring is the right word, using language and description for maximum impact to disgust and delight the reader in fairly equal measures.

The anti-hero is becoming ever more popular in modern fantasy but this may be the first time a sexual deviant is at the forefront, at least with this level of vivid detail accompanying his urges. We are never really given an explanation as to Sander’s sanity or background, but that doesn’t seem to matter when you have a character who is so alive, so real, and so gloriously filthy and captivating on the page. What matters in this book is not so much the why but the what.

The plot unravels slowly to maximum effect and definitely makes the most of shock and awe to draw the reader in. Sometimes the action is so repellent, but the intelligent grasp of language and the level of visual detail makes you keep reading – a bit like watching a disturbing movie when you desperately want to look away but can’t bring yourself to do so.

Bullington has a gift for dynamic description which invokes all of the senses to woo the reader, willingly or unwillingly, into his world. In The Folly of the World we have the most coarse, base human instincts and the ugliest of emotions laid out on lavish display in a story that combines traditional fantasy tropes with that modern ‘grit’ and realism that defines contemporary works in the genre.

This book goes a step further than other similar attempts at this kind of writing by having a female protagonist who is just as strong, brazen, stubborn and at times cruel as her male counterparts. Jolanda’s character is a skilled combination of a vulnerable young woman and a self-made survivor. She can definitely hold her own against Sander’s psychotic outbursts and Jan’s arrogant need to control, and is a refreshing heroine.

Bullington also embraces something seen but rarely in the genre: the homosexual protagonist. There are a handful of notable gay characters that spring to mind from the last few years, maybe only one or two that depict homosexual love and sex in such graphic and honest fashion as we have here. The Folly of the World is certainly indicative of the way the genre is moving – towards a more open-minded exploration of sexuality that casts aside the taboos of the past – and is a prime example of books that push the boundaries of what is expected of the genre and force the reader to confront new realities within fantasy fiction.

Essentially this is a treasure hunt combined with double-crossing, inexplicable events and a string of misunderstandings and disasters, delivered in a genre cross that blends historical fantasy with elements of adventure stories, thrillers and dark humour. Tension is consistent throughout, and though appalling at times, this is both a cleverly entertaining story and a fascinating exploration of the human psyche.

The Folly of the World is a finalist for a Red Tentacle award at the The Kitschies 2012. Check out the other shortlistees here: