The Brothers Grimm are responsible for some of the most terrifying fairytales ever committed to paper. Disney has also played a part in bringing them to the attention of children the world over, albeit in toned-down versions peppered with musical numbers and dancing forest-animals. Death’s Apprentice: A Grimm City Novel does the exact opposite, combining the original and terrifying Grimm tales with a plotline that literally takes you to Hell and back.
Nathaniel is Death’s apprentice; seventeen years old and collecting souls on his boss’ behalf. It’s a position he didn’t ask for, but thanks to a deal made between Nathaniel’s dying father and Death, he doesn’t have much choice in the matter. Throw in the devil, a mysterious character called Blake, who cannot be described as entirely human, and a hulking brute, Hank, who is dangerous beyond measure as a result of an affliction that renders him fearless, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for action. Nathaniel seeks answers and must uncover the reasons behind his descent into his somewhat unsavoury profession. Also in search of answers is ex-soldier, Blake, who is hunting the devil for tricking him while he was still on duty in Afghanistan. Hank, however, is offered unlimited money from the devil to kill an allocation of marks, many of who are more dangerous than even he. The strands eventually integrate with the appearance of Ling, whose daughter is kidnapped by a savage dwarf (inspired by Rumpelstilzchen). The trio must work together in order to rescue the missing child, Ren-Lei, and set up a final showdown with the devil, where losing would be unthinkable.
Death’s Apprentice combines some of the lesser-known Grimm tales – primarily, Der Birnbaum auf dem Walserfeld (The Pear-tree on the Walser Field) – to weave a fantastically visceral story of good versus evil. The evil, in this instance, comes in the shape of the devil, and it is his character which really stands out. In one scene, a man tries to back out of the deal he and the devil had made with very little success, and it’s these moments – and the tension created in them – which keeps Death’s Apprentice ticking along nicely.
The noir undertones are also a nice touch, giving it an almost Sin City texture. The city is as much an integral character as the book’s protagonists, with its rich descriptions and the constant threat of lurking shadows prevalent throughout. The fight-scenes are written with great flair, something which is often difficult to get right; with every punch thrown you can almost hear the crack of ribs or the sound of blood hitting the grimy walls of the city. It would be wrong to assume that Death’s Apprentice is suitable for younger readers, as some of the more violent scuffles would make Tony Jaa cringe. Once the action starts, which is somewhere after the first third, it is pretty unrelenting and a lot of fun to read.
Overall the writing is strong. With collaborations it is often noticeable that the prose fluctuates in intensity and style, but that is not the case here. Another exemplary trait would be the packaging. This is a first-class production, both in terms of design and typesetting, and it’s because of books like this that we can only hope print doesn’t go the way of the cassette.
This is the first book in a series which offers endless possibilities thanks to the sheer volume of Grimm material to choose from. And with an opening novel as good as this, these authors have set the bar high for the impending sequel.
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