Presumably for want of a better word, the work of North American author Jesse Bullington has been branded fantasy, but stand his latest alongside a cross-section of novels more obviously of the genre and you’ll see immediately how inept a description this is. The Folly of the World features no firebolts, has Belgians where banshees might be, and most telling of all, it occurs in the real world...or else a setting very much resembling what you’d expect from said six centuries ago:
“They’d done a decent job building things up to accommodate the raised waterline, and the city walls were the city walls were the city walls, but now the great gray ring of Dordrecht was an island of stone and not a river town in the midst of bustling farmland, with huts and barns pushing up to the marshy edges of the place. Dordt was alone now, a great tombstone for the people of the sea-taken Groote Waard, and there was not a building in the city that didn’t have a watermark somewhere along its flank from where the flood had pushed in before admitting defeat and retreating back to its newly conquered realm outside the walls. [The] place still stank like bog rot a year and a half on.”
Welcome, one and all, to the Netherlands—albeit in the ghastly aftermath of the Saint Elizabeth Flood of 1421, which sucked something like 70 villages and many thousands of unsuspecting residents into the greedy sea. In a rather happier accident, the aforementioned natural disaster also installed a body of water between two cities which had warred historically: Dordrecht and Geertruidenberg.
The Folly of the World largely ignores the latter, taking place primarily in and around the alien yet earthly landscape of drowned Dordrecht. Here, Bullington introduces readers to a pair of poor men who plot to win riches beyond reckoning. Jan and Sander are partners in crime, and lovers in time, but as self-sufficient as they seem, they need another to pull off the longest con they’ve ever attempted.
Jan finds their third in Jo, a wild dyer’s daughter who can swim like a seal—who has had to, in fact, to escape her brothers’ savage advances. Thus, though she is hardly glad to be bought—and for a paltry quantity of counterfeit coin, to add insult to injury—Jo reasons that the life stretched out ahead of her can only be better than that she abandons to the past.
Alas, Jan and Sander have other plans for Jolanda, whose mastery of the mouldering meer is exactly what our morally tawdry twosome require to recover a rare treasure long thought engorged by the water: a signet ring which could see Jan a rich man and Sander his upscale squire.But what cost their venal scheme? Far too high a one for two of the three, as we shall see.
All this occurs around the exhilarating outset of Bullington’s harrowing narrative, in advance of a twist so significant that The Folly of the World becomes a whole other story hereafter. I shall not speak its name, except to say that sadly, this second tale—which is perhaps thrice as prolonged as the novel’s masterful first flush—seems supplementary at best, as the would-be beneficiary of a fortune for squandering all-too-knowingly acknowledges:
“Everything that came after this was less important, if Jan were to be honest with himself, everything beyond this flooded land was dreamlike, insubstantial as clouded breath on a winter’s morning, and only by taking the physical artifact could he transform—it was a witch’s tool, a magic ring, a relic, not something to be faked. [...] The point was, the ring was down there in the dark, waiting, and he would have it, and then he would be graaf instead of grift.”
Narratively, Bullington’s book can’t quite recover from the sheer shock and awe of its elaborate opening act, but even at its weakest—specifically amidst a bland, meandering middle—The Folly of the World is incredibly immersive. Dordrecht’s deadlands make for a truly singular setting, underpinned by a desperate sense of dread and an atmosphere so taut with tension that for safety reasons movement should be strictly forbidden.
In the interim, a welcome wealth of character development. Initially, our adult protagonists are a fairly straightforward pair:
“Sander might be more eager to wade into a fight or, sure, yeah, a murder or two, but Jan had a whole different sort of edge to him, maybe the difference between a sword and a fish knife of something, a shaving blade. Whatever. Point was, part of the attraction had always been Jan’s willingness to overlook Sander’s more violence excesses.”
By the end of The Folly of the World, however—again avoiding spoilers—Jan and Sander are so changed by the choices they’ve made, and in such different ways, that they’re almost unrecognisable. The only viable path through this novel’s manifold madness is Jo, who comes into her own both above the tideline and whilst fighting its tow below. She may be the most memorable character Bullington has created to date; if The Folly of the World were more Jo’s narrative than Jan or Sander’s, I suspect I would have felt differently about it.
As it stands, though, I applaud the author for writing a fantasy so absolutely stark—or a historical horror novel so very hellish—there’s so little warmth in The Folly of the World that when Jo isn’t about, or the tale itself takes a time out, one’s interest and engagement invariably wanes.
Even then, from a distance, there remains much to admire: the fiction’s confounding first act features Bullington’s best storytelling yet, and the gripping conclusion some 300 pages later almost recalls it. Unfortunately, the Morningstar Award-nominee simply takes far too long to figure out where he’s headed during The Folly of the World’s distressingly disparate middle section for me to recommend the whole wholeheartedly.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons and Tor.com. Sometimes he tweets about books, too.