I'm going to start by describing my favorite part of reading this book. Halfway through, I realized that the entire narrative was a complicated retelling of a popular cartoon from my childhood. The sudden and unexpected realization that I had missed all of the parallels, that the whole time the story had been winking at me (sometimes quite unsubtly) and I had never even realized it, was hilarious. It was quite a surprise, one of several thrown by this surprising and clever novel.
An Unclean Legacy is the story of the sorcerer Groeneveldt, his impending death, and the bequeathment of his legacy to his seven children. It is told nonsequentially, each chapter representing a separate fairy tale-like story that may come just before, just after, or far removed from the chapters on either side of it. These chapters form a wending history that explains: the formation of the world and its personages, the rise of Groeneveldt and the manner in which he gained his power, the histories of each of his seven children and the seven monsters which they have become, and, finally, the ultimate fate of Groeneveldt, his children, and his unclean legacy.
The writing takes many cues from fairy tales, the omniscient third-person narrator using little description, painting the mind's eye with action and dialogue, referencing traits and attributes only when they are important. When the Devil appears, the narrator assumes we know who the Devil is. When we are first introduced to Sophie, no mention of her shapshifting ability is made; that does not bear mentioning until she wrestles aforementioned Devil in the novel's latter half. Insinuation and allusion fill in for scene setting, allowing the tedious exposition to be skipped whenever necessary. But for all of its thoroughly fairy tale-like traits, the text is infused with a whimsical, almost child-like wit. Its characters, even when utterly unsympathetic, are charming and clever, and the author's offbeat psuedohistorical, psuedochristian fantasy world is just delightful.
At first, the nonsequential, haphazard order of the chapters felt offputting. But as the book's deeper structures became apparent, the organization became obvious, revealing setting details at the perfect moment to affect that character's actions in later chapters. By the end, I was clamoring to learn the fates of the flawed (some would say doomed) but sympathetic Groeneveldt children and their definitionally doomed patriarch.
An Unclean Legacy is one of my favorite fantastical novels of the last several years. It has a timeless fable-esque quality, combined with a modern wit and eye for the absurd. It is dark and witty, folkloric and modern, and lighthearted despite including well over one hundred deaths (and the Devil!).
Also, Santa Claus is in it! If you're good, perhaps he will bring you a copy of An Unclean Legacy. If not? Well, it will definitely be coal. No way around that. But you can still buy a copy yourself!
(reviewed 9 months after purchase)