The Hangman's Daughter is translated from the German original as part of the Amazon Crossings programme. The background to the book is interesting, as Potzsch explains in the postscript. The executioner and torturer is Jakob Kuisl, who in real life was an ancestor of the author, although the actual events portrayed in this book are fictional. The action takes place in a small Bavarian hamlet called Schongau, and Kuisl's profession was very much a family business, being passed from father to son so that there were dynasties of executioners of which the Kuisls were one of the most famous in Bavaria. They were shunned by the other inhabitants and generally intermarried.
Briefly the plot involves the discovery of a dying and tattooed orphan, who is pulled from the river. Suspicion falls on the local midwife, who has delivered Kuisl's own children. It will be his responsibility to torture her to extract a confession. Convinced that she is not to blame Kuisl and his daughter, helped by Simon who is daughter's boyfriend, set out to find the real culprit. Meanwhile more children disappear, which casts further suspicion on the midwife. The race is therefore on to solve these crimes, before hysteria about witchcraft results in the execution at the stake, not just of the midwife, but of other innocent local women.
Jakob Kuisl is the very interesting central character rather than the hangman's daughter, Magdalena as the title would have suggested. He is a reluctant executioner and torturer, who has to psyche himself up with drink before performing his duties. He behaves with sympathy and compassion towards those who he has to deal with, and does his best to spare them mental and physical suffering often using his skills as a herbalist. Although an executioner is an unlikely hero, he comes across as likeable and intelligent.
The book is well translated in the main and the description of the sights and smells of Shongau are so graphic that you really feel you are walking in the town. There are just a few points where the translation is rather grating with modern phrases which do not seem to fit in with the time setting. As an example, at one stage Magdalena refers to `having it off' which does not seem quite in keeping! On the other hand the translation generally flows well and does not use antiquated language.
The plot is interesting and complex and the story gradually develops in a way which keeps you turning the pages. The ending is satisfying without being a surprising revelation. I imagine that the majority will enjoy The Hangman's Daughter even if historical novels are not their normal reading, and I am looking forward to further books in this series being translated. To date The Hangmans Daughter and The Black Monk (2009), and The Hangmans Daughter and the King of the Beggars (2010) are subsequent offerings which hopefully will be added in due course. Two further additional titles are apparently planned.
on 21 April 2012
It was quite a change reading a historic novel set against the background of mid-17th century southern Germany, a time that does not feature too heavily in German literature - far less so in English publications. There are plenty of novels dealing with witchcraft and witch hysteria, however, the plot and its characters are imaginative and I found it difficult to put the book down until I had read the story's conclusion. However, my enjoyment was somewhat spoilt by the clumsy translation (Who on earth wrote that glowing review of the traslator on the back pages?!). Being bilingual, I can see the original German "filtering through" on almost every page and it really grates! Some of the literal translations make little sense in English. If the translator intended to convey a sense of time and place he would have done much better to employ the slightly archaic style one often finds in, say, English civil war novels.
As it stands, it's a good story (that would also make a good film), however, it will win no literary prizes!
The Hangman's Daughter is a medieval mystery set in 17th century Bavaria.
Schongau, a small German town recovering from the ravages of the 30 Years War finds its fragile prosperity and economy threatened by accusations of witchcraft after a young boy is dragged dying from the town's river with a mysterious Venus mark tattoo.
The Schongau's hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is tasked with clearing up the matter quickly, irrespective of evidence or guilt, by the council eager to avoid any unrest. As Jakob investigates, aided by Magdelena, the eponymous daughter and the town's underestimated young doctor.
The Hangman's Daughter is an entertaining and easy read. Potzsch includes enough description to allow the reader to visualise but doesn't overcomplicate the story or setting and as a result it it much more accessible and enjoyable than more serious books from the medieval mystery genre such as The Name of the Rose or The Instance of the Fingerpost.
The narrative rattles along quite well and the characters are well defined and easy to distinguish. An dramatis personae is included at the front for easy reference should you forget or become confused. The Uncorrected Proof edition I had excluded the Schongau map and the author/translator biogs, but as space is left on headed pages I would assume they wii be included in the published version. The translation form the original German works well and flows in English
Overall, I liked this book a lot. Good story, good characters, a bit of intrigue and a medieval setting. Not at all bad! 4 stars, recommended read.
on 3 September 2011
I carried on reading this book because I was intrigued. However as far as translations go... I winced so many times that I may have a permanant tic in my eye. The translator seems familiar with British expressions ("having it off" is definitely a British expression) and American ones too... but has missed the finer points of what to say when. Telling someone that the potions created would give him a "hard on" in a HISTORICAL novel is crude and just wrong phrasing in so many ways. It just jars on the nerves and I do believe this is bad translating.
If Oliver Pötzsch has paid someone to do the translation for him he should demand his money back. If he's written this slang into an historical novel then he should go back to being a journalist.
on 6 March 2013
Potzches tale captures the true zeitgeist of seventeenth century Germany at the height of the hysteria with the witch trials.
This absorbing book tells the story of the hapless Martha a midwife who is idicted in the suspected murders of three children who all possess markings on their bodies which according to the blood letting residents was a sign of witchcraft which Martha is accused of. Due to the protocol of the authorities Martha is subjected to torture to eke out a confession even though the town clerk and Jakob the hangman are convinced she is innocent.
Jakob encourages Martha to endure the torture while he investigates the killings, which brings him into contact with a group of soldiers who led by a disfigured leader nicknamed the devil terrorise the town in search of an ancient treasure rumoured to be buried at the work site of a half buiilt leper colony inhabited by a group of feral orphans. All these revelations bring Jakob closer and closer to the truth and save Martha from a grisly death.
The book is a thrilling tale of compassion and the perils of corruption resulting in murder. It was an enjoyable read and accesible even though it was translated. I would give it a deserved 8\10
As part of the Amazon Crossings project, this book was selected for translation from German. Why is an interesting question as although its a fairly entertaining story, its by no means a classic.
Obviously any book in translation is hugely influenced by the translator and there were a few phrases that jarred a bit, but the Gothic tone which I'd imagine is from the original is maintained.
As historical fiction its certainly different from the usual run. The story is set in Bavaria in the 17th century, at the start a child is killed and someone in the town is accused of witchcraft. The author doesn't dodge some of the disgusting realities of the age, the torture and the political need to execute the innocent as scapegoats to purge mass hysteria. The mystery of who is killing the children is a good one, but the plot didn't really make a satisfying whole, there were a few clunks and bumps and although the narrative is modern and fast moving, it did slow down towards the end and I was getting impatient about 50 pages before the conclusion.
The torturer and executioner Kuisl is our complex and fairly interesting hero,whom we meet first as a child when an execution goes very wrong. Subsequently he becomes an ex soldier with a sideline in healing and herbalism, who nonetheless has followed his father as the town hangman and does as commanded by the town council in order to keep his job. His way of dealing with it is to get plastered the night before. The hangman is central to the book, probably because the author is descended from the Kuisl family being represented here, this is his imagining of his own ancestor(s). Simon the trainee doctor is less vivid, but serves the purpose of Watson to Kuisl's Holmes, but Kuisl's daughter Magdalena is too modern and the accused midwife came across as a more realistic person than the eponymous "heroine". I found a lot of the minor characters were indistinguishable.
So, worth reading if you like Gothic whodunnits and have a strongish stomach for torture, but not all of the characters are well realised and interesting plots take unlikely turns. Nothing in this book is wholly good nor bad, so that I don't regret having read it, but would be unlikely to recommend it.
This is part of the Amazon Crossing iniative that tries to bring books from different languages that are considered to be of distinction, to the English speaking world. This is the first novel by this author, and he is himself descended from the Kuisl clan.
It is in the first half of 1659, in Schongau, Bavaria, where this tale takes place. When a child dies and is found to have what is considered to be a witch's mark on his body the townsfolk become worried, especially when it happens again and children start to go missing. With the local midwife accused of witchcraft it is hoped that things will get back to normal with her execution. But the hangman, his daughter, and a young physician see things differently, and without so much superstition. So starts a story of intrigue and politics as these three people set out to discover whether the Devil and witchcraft are behind the events, or something much more earthly.
This is a fast paced thriller that will be enjoyed by most people, and with superstition rife in large parts of the world to this day, it can still give us an insight into things that are happening around the world.
I know they say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I loved the look of this one. Not just the cover design, but also the title, the blurb, the premise of a historical mystery set, somewhat obscurely, in a 17th Century German village, and the idea that the author was the descendant of a famous German executioner clan. It all seemed terribly promising, in a Tim Burton-esque way. Unfortunately the story never quite, for this reader, fulfilled its promise. This is a translation from the German so it's difficult to tell whether the problem lies with the author or the translator, but some of the language is horribly jarring. For example, the villagers believe the titular character is "having it off" with the devil - a phrase which seems utterly out of place in a historical novel. Perhaps these occasional lapses would be forgivable if the story was stronger but it seems to be a case of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts. The characters were not grotesque enough for caricatures and yet not interesting enough to care about as real people, the plot was pretty standard and predictable, and I never felt that the author fully capitalised on the potential here. Full of possibilities but finishes by being an okay novel rather than a good one.
on 11 July 2011
This was one of the first books I read on my Kindle and I was seduced by the marketing and good price. The premise is fascinating- an historical novel set in Bavaria with witches, hangmen and conspiracy seemed right up my street. Overall, it is a good read, but I found that I wasn't desperate to get home to read it at night. I'm not sure why that was; maybe it was that something was lost in translation or maybe I felt that the title didn't really reflect what the story was about.
A good summer read though.
on 20 September 2014
This was originally a German novel and I don't know how the author's German reads, but the English translation is quite well and simply written. It's an interesting setting: 17th century Germany in a small town, which is far from the developing cities and still very medieval. When a young boy is murdered, the town begins to cry for a witch trial. Basically, this is a murder mystery tale in an unusual place. The 'detectives' are two locals who find themselves searching for the truth to save an innocent woman.
I thought that the detail from the time about medicine and herbs, town professions, and the executioner's role was very interesting. However, like most historical novels its failure is that it transplants the author's 21st century ideas and views into the minds of its characters. The three main characters are all agnostic/secular and act like modern Germans in an old setting.
For all the details about medicine and town life, authentic religion is disregarded, which makes for an unbalanced view of the medieval world. The author has a witch trial at the centre of the story and yet his understanding of medieval Christianity seems quite low. The town's people have superstitions but that's it. They are mostly portrayed as idiots, keen to burn the witch, callous and utterly selfish and without a care as to whether she is innocent or not. There's no feel of how difficult life was, and the struggle and fear of the unknown, their understanding/misunderstanding of God, and why the belief in witches could occur, nor of any Christians standing against it. The whole topic is only viewed through the modern lens of secularism and 'the psychology of crowds.'
However, it is a readable story. The main characters - although they had modern views - were interesting and engaging. (I'm not sure why it's called the Hangman's Daughter, as she was the third of the main characters - perhaps she has a bigger role in further books)
It's also very refreshing that the writer didn't try to get sales with unnecessary details. There is enough detail about torture for it to be imagined, without it becoming gratuitous; also the love story is clean and good to read, and despite the postmodern characters it stays within the morality of the time.
An interesting story.