What do all the things noted in my title have to do with this work? Well, of late I have read a couple of fantasy-comedies. This seems to be a new sub-genre of fantasy—at least it is not one of which I previously had been aware. In any case, kudos to those—like Joshua Grasso—who have taken to this concept, run with it and successfully created tales worthy of attention.
As The Count of the Living Death opens, Grasso introduces readers to Count Hildigrim Blackbeard. (What a great name that is! Hildigrim!) Blackbeard is an eccentric wizard, the “legendary Conjurer-Magician and Sorcerer of the Sixth Circle (whatever that means).” Feared by some, pursued by others, Blackbeard has been called to attend Count Leopold of Cinquefoil. It seems the Count’s now-deceased father is/was responsible for a comedic chain-of-events that is about to unravel. So fearful had the late Count been of the possible death of his son, he had arranged for Blackbeard to capture Leopold’s “Death” and to leave it in a chest under lock and key. (Well, three locks, to be more precise.) But, the box called out for Leopold. Indeed, the very fact that it existed “planted a seed in [Leopold’s heart], which grew year by year, watered by his dreams and the occasional nightmare.” Eventually Leopold, though repeatedly warned not go near the chest or to unlock it, was overcome with curiosity. He simply had to know what the chest held. . . . And so, the fun begins.
The Count of the Living Death is almost slapstick in its comedic ways. The story revolves largely around the Count himself who is short on patience and forethought, (not exactly dim-witted, but not the brightest of bulbs) long on his desire for the delightful Lady Mary Bianca Domenica de Grassini Algarotti. As to Mary? Well, Mary has been taught to stand like a goddess and so, we read that “[h]aving never seen one in person, she did her best impression: she stood like her mother.” (Funny.) Mary is a bit flighty, dreaming of a future with Leopold and their future children, yet in many ways she is the key ingredient to the eventual solution to Leopold’s problem.
Into the mix of characters, add Ivan (The Terrible) a half-brother (?) charged as “an assassin, a spy, a cutpurse, a highwayman, and most unforgivably, an actor.” We first meet Ivan when he is in prison. He a man whom Leopold had never before met but who over time, also falls for the delightful Mary. It is here that I find the story miss just a beat. Specifically, Leopold and Ivan—quite at odds with one another—are suddenly the closest of brothers. Yet, for me, there was not a sufficient rationale for this change in their relationship. Likewise, Mary first despises Ivan—and for good reason—yet she is able to look beyond the vilest of acts with little further thought.
Moving on, we meet Lucas, a servant to the man to whom Mary is actually promised (and who also falls for the delightful Mary!) and Philip, a terror of a child in charge of the local prison (who thinks that “[s]ometimes, toys had to be broken when they wouldn’t follow the rules”). Finally, there is Death himself, who wreaks havoc. Add in a deserted island, a dragon, a staged hanging, a prison break. . . . Well, together these make for a fun-filled tale. Along the way, readers are asked: without death, a “vital ingredient to life,” can anything give us peace, rest or fulfillment?
In general, my reading preferences are for a bit more complex characters, sophisticated relationships and a world that engages all my senses. Even so, I am fully able to appreciate the many ways to tell a great tale—and Grasso has lit upon one of them! He has done so with some clever insight and, of course, humor.
As to insight, I note Blackbeard’s comment: “If we could see all the wisdom of the universe, it would blind us.” (This line reminds me of a theory of mine that if a person could take on all the pain he will feel in his lifetime in one moment—just to get it over with—it would kill him. Thus, we should be grateful that we do not know what the future holds. . . .)
As to humor, consider Mary’s thoughts when she faces Leopold’s (?) apparent lack of interest. Concerned for her future, we read: “Suddenly ‘forever’ seemed a forbidding prospect.” Again, when Mary’s father tells Mary about his forcing her to marry a man she does not love, an act he takes by virtue of his “right of seniority,” we read his comments to Mary: “One day you will be able to buy whatever you like: love, happiness, my head on a plate.”
Yes, I believe Grasso has delivered, in The Count of the Living Death, a fun-filled, slapstick fantasy tale that readers are sure to enjoy! Well done!
Find The Count of the Living Death on Amazon here. Note: there is a sale starting December 16—just in time for the holidays! Don't miss it!
Spend some more time getting to know Joshua Grasso with my interview of him here on BookLikes or on my website here. Also, find him on BookLikes here and on GoodReads here. Joshua's Facebook page is here. Finally, Joshua has a terrific website here.