“Life went on, despite all the dying.”
Six word summary: Murdered orphans. Witch tortured. Illicit love.
I rate it: C+
The short of it: The hangman of Schongau, Jacob Kuisl, lives as an untouchable with his family, shunned like an impure person in spite of the essential nature of his work. But when the Lech River washes up a child stabbed to death and with mysterious tattoos on his back, the villagers’ suspicions immediately fall on the midwife, who is promptly accused of being a witch and dragged off to the gallows. Convinced of her innocence, the hangman, with the help of his daughter Magdalena, and Simon, the son of the local physician, must stop the village council from using her as a scapegoat by finding the real culprit. But the murders do not stop, and the trio must race against time to save the rest of the village children, as well as the maligned and tortured midwife.
The Hangman’s Daughter has the tone and mood of a Tim Burton movie. It pins the atmosphere of 17th century Bavaria perfectly. Modern medicine and science are still half a century away, and the combination of fear and ignorance is ripe for witch-hunting. The book does a beautiful job in bringing alive the sights,sounds, and smells of those unhygienic times.
The mystery starts with a perfectly creepy tone; slaughtered orphans, witch’s symbols, and a chilling entity with a skeletal hand who people whisper about. But the problem is, as more and more things come to light, the puzzle gets slightly drab and mundane, and Potzsch is unable to hold on to the element of blood-curdling fear he created so masterfully in the beginning of the book.
But ultimately what kills the book in my opinion is the translation, which is not only stilted and unwieldy, but also uses language that is totally inconsistent with the aura the writer is trying to create. For instance, the word ‘grinning’ is used all too often in respect of all the characters, even those who have been described to be really sombre or sinister. Now ‘grinning’ is an adjective I generally use to preface something like ‘idiot’ or ‘maniac’, and I don’t know anybody who grins this much. Imagine how the carefully carved mood of darkness and danger is smashed if every paragraph has a grin in it.
Also, too many modern expressions for a historical novel. Things like “Bug off”, “Hey guys” and “Whoa” make for a glaring mismatch between the background and the conversation, which sounds nothing like the Dark Ages, and is closer to modern American in resemblance. However, all this could simply be because of irresponsible translation, and it is not fair to judge a translated book on its language. Just sayin’ it kills the pleasure of reading big time.
The biggest promise The Hangman’s Daughter had for me was awesome characters, and at least in one case I was not disappointed. Jacob Kuisl is remarkable as the strong, silent, fearless, wise hangman who really doesn’t give a single fuck. Mysterious, scowling (except the occasional grin), with dangerous secrets in his past, Jacob Kuisl is my favorite type of hero. Of the other two central characters, Simon, the physician’s son, doesn’t believe in his father’s ancient and ineffective cures like bloodletting, and has nothing to replace those beliefs with. Sadly, he hasn’t been given much color by the writer, and is overshadowed by the hangman to such an extent that I barely remember anything about him besides his crush on the hangman’s daughter.
Which brings us to the character for whom the book was named: Magdalena Kuisl, the hangman’s daughter, the devil’s wench, the witch, the whore. She is none of these except the first of course, but that doesn’t stop villagers from talking evil about her. Magdalena plays a sort of role in solving the mystery, but it is very minor compared to what her dad and her boyfriend do. The only remarkable thing Magdalena does in the whole book is get kidnapped by a band of crazy rapists, and, to her credit, escaping unharmed. The rest of the time, she pouts, sulks, and flirts, leaving the actual adventuring to the men. Which is fine for that time and place, but then why name the book for her? Maybe she will play a bigger role in the next book (EDIT: Nope, not in book two, The Dark Monk, at least), because otherwise it looks like the publishers just wanted it to look like the protagonist is a beautiful young woman and not a burly middle-aged man, to draw in the YA readership.
On the whole, I really liked the atmosphere and the main character, but these will carry a book only so far. A stronger plot and a creepier solution to the mystery would have made this an amazing book. As it were, by the end of the book I couldn’t care less who killed the goddamn kids.
Read it if:
- You are travelling and are looking for something to read in transit
- You like witch-hunting
- You are not turned of by a bit of torture
- You like strong, silent heroes
-Amritorupa “Don’t leave me hanging baby” Kanjilal