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Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter

The Hangman’s Daughter, or Die Henkerstochter in the original German, by Oliver Pötzsch hit a surge of popularity on Amazon recently.  It was first published in Germany by Ullstein Taschenbuch in 2008.  In 2010, Lee Chadeayne released his English translation for Kindle on Amazon Crossing where it proceeded to rise in popularity.  Mariner Books picked it up and will be releasing a paperback version in August.  So what is it about this book that allowed it to climb the Amazon lists with such success when so many other self-published titles struggle even to reach 100 sales?

Sometime in the fall of 2010, I saw the book as the example on the ad for Kindle that Amazon displays whenever you visit their site.  I bought The Hangman’s Daughter for my Kindle on a whim and because it was cheap.  The title intrigued me as something different.  Both title and cover suggested a gritty and dark tale with an element of romance.  Well, the cover was not too suggestive of romance, but the title referencing a woman fit with common romance practice.  The book did not disappoint in those regards.

While I have some issues with the book, which I’ll address shortly, overall, it was very enjoyable.  The book was so compelling I had a great deal of difficulty putting it down once I really began.  And, looking at Amazon.de, I see there are sequels, which, once they are hopefully translated into English since my German, at the moment, is crudely spotty, I will certainly check out.

As we go into why this book might have done so well, I want to touch on its flaws, which will highlight how well it executed its strengths.

First, The Hangman’s Daughter is a poor title for this book.  While the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, is a notable character throughout the tale, she is certainly not the protagonist.  While occasionally amusing and impressive through her knowledge of herbs, her stubbornness, and her resilience, she contributes little to the plot.  However, as I said above, it was the title that first caught my interest.  So, while not well reflective of the contents of the book, it is a catchy title.

The book opens with a prologue.  Yes, it was gritty and fascinating for its insights into the seventeenth century life of an executioner and his family.  Yes, it gave an interesting introduction to Jakob Kuisl, the true protagonist of the book, but it was not necessary to the actual plot of the book.  Much of what it introduced could have been integrated into later chapters or left out altogether.

Pötzsch also had his characters thinking and reviewing a great deal, which got tiresome.  However, he left enough questions open and made you worried about the characters enough to drudge through these parts.

But the biggest issue I had with The Hangman’s Daughter was Pötzsch’s habit of leaving out pertinent information that the POV characters knew and we knew they knew.  Had it not been for how much I liked the characters and was concerned for them, how well Pötzsch kept up a decent pacing, and how somehow he kept his story intriguing, not to mention a desire not to harm my beloved Kindle, I would have hurled the book across the room for these intentional withholdings of information.

However, for the most part, the characters were compelling, and it is this that I think carried the greatest portion of the book’s success.  But don’t look for pure and perfect protagonists here.  No character is without blemish of some sort, and many are honestly unlikable.  But they are an unlikeable that we hope gets it in the end because we want to see justice smack them hard in the face for the wrong they commit.  Villainy floods this book from The Devil (a title adopted by a soldier who terrorizes the town), his fellow soldiers, the court clerk Johann Lechner, and nearly every single member of the Schongau council.  Even Jakob Kuisl, the protagonist, exhibits a great deal of darkness that walks just behind all the good and healing he tries to perform when not doing his duty as executioner and torturer.  Simon Fronwieser, Watson to Kuisl’s Holmes, has his issues of disrespecting his father and vanity as well.  All in all though, Pötzsch’s characters are very human, and in that, it is easy to believe that we really are in a town in seventeenth century Bavaria.

Yet, in the midst of their flaws and darkness, the heroes of The Hangman’s Daughter have one thing in common: they swiftly generate our sympathy.  We see Jakob Kuisl fighting to save lives even as he grudgingly helps destroy others.  Even Johann Lechner, much as we despise the choices he makes and want badly to see him get his comeuppance, we understand his motivation to a certain extent: to ensure peace and prosperity in Schongau no matter the cost.  Simon, for all his bumbling, vanity, and a fracturing relationship with his father, is endearing for his desire to heal, his love for Magdalena despite the scorn of society and the resistance of her father, and little quirks like his frequent need for coffee.

So why did The Hangman’s Daughter do so well on Amazon?  In my opinion, much of that came down to its compelling characters, Chadeayne’s skilled translation that made the book feel natural in English, it’s intriguing title and cover, which is much different than the German cover, the fact that it had endured editing when taken on by the original German publisher, and, like so many things in this business and in life, luck.

What do you believe sets those books apart that make it on Amazon versus those that do not?  For that matter, what makes a book successful in any e-format or even in brick and mortar stores?

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