Most of the books I’ve reviewed on here have been ones I’ve read for Different Skies, the sci-fi and fantasy reading group I run with Matt at work. We try to read a mix of old and “classic” novels, and this has lead to a noticeable issue: when you read old sci-fi, you invariably get a rotating cast of white, cis, middle class dudes as your protagonists – I’m looking at you, Asimov, Clarke, Silverberg. There’s only so many times you can say, “well, it’s a product of it’s time” before you come across as a ridiculous ass.
Still, this month we’ve done much better, and the book is brilliant; we’ve read The Enterprise of Death, by Jesse Bullington.
As the witch-pyres of the Spanish Inquisition blanket Renaissance Europe in a moral haze, a young African slave is unwillingly apprenticed to an ancient necromancer.
Our protagonist is Awa, a witch – a necromancer, to be specific – and a black, Muslim, lesbian woman, living in France and Spain – during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. It’s safe to say her complete lack of social privilege necessarily affects all of her actions and relationships throughout the novel. Despite this, Awa is a strong, capable protagonist; she never feels weak, and she rarely inspires pity.
Likewise, Awa’s sexuality is never portrayed as something wrong or unpleasant, and the cast is diverse enough that her gender, ethnicity and sexuality never feel like tokenism. The gay characters don’t magically pair off into romances without exploring their relationships first – indeed Awa and Monique (who is a brilliant character) pointedly don’t end up together, having decided they’re not best suited for one another.
It’s also brilliantly genre-savvy fantasy. The magic of necromancy is explained to Awa, and the reader, through the teachings of her cruel and amoral master, the always un-named Necromancer:
“The power is in the symbol… what are we but symbols? Our flesh is merely an imperfect shadow cast by our spirit, what your imams call the soul. Our bodies are powerful because of the soul they symbolise, and with that power we can alter them, and we can alter other symbols.”
Reader, be warned – necromancy is an incredibly grotesque art, to the point of absurdity. I felt a twinge of panic as I realised I’d sent my reading group home with a book containing not only cannibalism but necrophilia – thankfully not described in lurid detail or for erotic effect, but rather to foreshadow the powers of the necromancer, to show character, or to build relationships (there’s a scene of necrophilia that is – and believe me I never, ever thought I would have to write this – touching and loving and not really revolting at all).
Still, I had a lot of fun with this book, and if you can handle the macabre subject matter, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly.