Fortune (Lenny Bartulin, A&U)
Lenny Bartulin—who cut his teeth with the Jack Susko crime series—made a dramatic shift with his rollicking 2013 historical novel Infamy. But the visceral energy and dirty, real descriptions that drove his previous book seem to be lacking in the Hobart-based author’s long-awaited new epic. Fortune marches through 17th-century Berlin, a world held hostage by the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte—and the brutal reckoning of plantation slavery as a source of wealth and power. The multi-layered plot (divided into 11 ‘books’) and dizzyingly populated cast spans colonial empires from Europe to Africa, with an attempt to ground each character and action in somewhat overheated, fleshy detail. But despite Bartulin’s clear skill in juggling competing narratives and revelling in at-times enjoyable minutiae that marks him as a genre stylist, this book fails to engage. It is weighed down by the odd opening gambit (disparate characters are introduced as each spy a couple having sex), need for exposition, awkward historical fictionese, and—difficult to stomach, even in a clearly damning historical context—use of the n-word. Those who love epic narratives, intrigue and detailed historical writing will find a lot to enjoy here, and Bartulin’s ambitious marriage of crime, adventure and historical research should be applauded. But, as a whole, Fortune falls short.
Melissa Cranenburgh is a Melbourne-based writer, editor, broadcaster and writing teacher