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Book Review: The Butcher

The ButcherAlan S. Kessler. Black Rose Writing, January 24, 2019, Trade Paperback and E-book, 205 pages.

Reviewed by Terrell Isselhard.

Allan S. Kessler’s The Butcher imagines a world where the worst people have grabbed power and only a miracle can change things. The novella is speculative fiction, and while it is a novella, it is broader and more ambitious than most books this length. The Butcher is an engaging read that isn’t just an escape into another world; it’s a reflection on our own.

Mikkel, the protagonist, is a boy approaching manhood who lives in a world with only two seasons, Spring and Summer, each three months long. This world contains two groups of people: those in the Party, and the Burners—a race of people Mikkel has been taught to despise. “He had been taught in school about Burners, this sly, parasitic race who, not content with their sheep and goats, wanted control over the pigs of the world. Elementary schoolbooks depicted Burners as fat, hog-shaped creatures eating mouthfuls of pig meat while blond, emaciated children looked on with pleading eyes. The captions under the drawings were all variations of the one idea: They Feast While We Starve.” The Burners are a reviled race, and Mikkel is on the verge of manhood and well positioned within the Party based on his father’s standing. 

Kessler creates a wonderful tension from the onset because we see that Mikkel, while positioned to succeed in the Party, lacks the bloodlust of his peers. We soon discover that there’s more to Mikkel’s past than just growing up in the Party. When he encounters a member of the Burners, who identifies him as the savior of the Burner people, he begins a journey that is far more challenging than merely conforming to the expectations of the life he was born into.

Kessler does a nice job making the life Mikkel could have enjoyed—if he continued to tow the Party’s line—thoroughly unappealing. The Party is a society built around ritual slaughter, the exploitation of Burner labor, and a patriarchal caste system that leaves even the elite beholden to a ruthless few. The flesh of slaughtered pigs is divided up among the elite, and every part of the pig, down to the dung, is used to such an extent that the ruling class of the society appears downright filthy. In particular, the Butcher, their founder and de facto leader, lives a strange, isolated existence, planning the Party’s next move, which we learn throughout the course of the novella is about to take a horrible turn for the worse.

The world Kessler has created—a world with only two seasons, where killing pigs and making full use of every bit of them while trodding on the miserable Burners—is oppressive, but Kessler crafts characters and effectively reveals information about how the world ended up in this terrible state. While the book opens in a rather grim setting, as we learn things weren’t always this bad and see hope is possible, a momentum builds, making this an exhilarating read. The novella is structured so that we are dropped in the middle of a story where the protagonist is living out the resolution of a struggle that started before he was born. Kessler isn’t just dreaming up some terrible world full of dead pigs; he has a point he wants to make, and I think most readers will find that, by the last few pages, he’s made it nicely. 

A recommended book for readers who enjoy speculative fiction, particularly with world building as a key component of the plot, Kessler's The Butcher is terrifying, fascinating, and surprisingly hopeful.

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