Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter

There is an almost guilty pleasure in reading The Hangman's Daughter. The writing - and translation - is wonderful; the story glides along, quietly reeling you in until it's almost impossible to put the book down; and the ending is really fascinating. I especially appreciated the short author's note on the history behind the book and its setting.

Taking place in 1660 in Germany (those of you familiar with the alternative fiction world from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay will immediately be comfortable with this setting as it's the same era as that game), the book follows the story of a murderer or murderers hunting some of the town's children. The protagonists are the hangman (who does not believe the most "convenient" suspect is actually guilty), the hangman's daughter (an herbalist who is toying with becoming a midwife), and a young doctor who is growing increasingly frustrated with the state of medicine (or lack thereof) practiced during this time period. While the doctor may be a somewhat familiar archetype, particularly if you've read Ariana Franklin's series starting with Mistress of the Art of Death, I think it's reasonable to assume that during this time period, a number of these types of young professionals helped to propel the Renaissance into the Enlightenment; thus, I don't think the doctor character detracts in any way.

Throughout the story, there are a number of mysteries that pose interweaving threads. It's such a pleasure to read as Potzsch brings these threads together, then back away from each other again, then together again, over and over. All the while, one is thinking, "Well, this obviously means that X and Y are related" and then 20 pages later, "Oh, I see, X and Y could never be related...no, no...it must be that X is the cause of W and so that means that...." The result: a book that, by page 90 or so, is near impossible to set down.
Who is killing the children? Why? And why just some children and not others? Why couldn't the "convenient" suspect have done it? When will folks realize that some of the clues clearly contradict others - or maybe they do realize it and the "truth" is a bit more scary to them? And why does the hangman understand intuitively but yet is struggling to put clue 1 with clue 2 with clue 3 (and so on) together to build a better picture of who might be doing this? Okay, and who put clue 4 there? That throws off the whole puzzle the reader was building up until that point.

There's murder, witchcraft, mercantile intrigue, political intrigue, and just plain ignorance and superstition all working together to hide facts and confuse clues. Just brilliant.

  The Hangman's Daughter is one of the best historical fiction / mystery / suspense books of 2010. I was really pleased to see that this is a series; I'm really looking forward to seeing the characters develop. I'm a bit leery to draw the comparison as inevitably someone will vehemently disagree, but in terms of historical mystery, Pozch has created a setting and story just as enjoyable as Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Frankly, it's enough to make one want to learn German just to read the others in the series; I may check out Amazon's sister in the UK to see if they are already translated.

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