The Master’s Apprentice: A Retelling of the Faust Legend

Written by Oliver Pötzsch
Review by Kristen McDermott

Pötzsch’s popular Hangman’s Daughter series of historical mysteries has reached eight volumes, but the prolific author switches gears in this novel to tackle his childhood obsession, the legend of Johann Georg Faustus. The sorcerer/scholar/con artist is the German equivalent of Robin Hood, figuring in countless songs, legends, and Faustbücher (medieval superhero comics). He apparently lived from about 1480-1540, although there is little historical evidence of his actual life.  His most famous literary appearances are in Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 play, The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 19th-century drama, Faust.

Pötzsch recounts in an afterword his youthful first encounter with the Goethe play and his lifelong fascination with the mysterious man who received amazing powers from the devil in exchange for his soul. However, successful writers who choose childhood heroes as subjects often create projects that are clearly labors of love, but not necessarily compelling novels. The Master’s Apprentice is a very long, often repetitive meander through the details of life in 15-century Germany in the company of an unpleasant, narcissistic genius who, for all his brilliance, is not able to see the coming crises that are obvious from the start even to readers who don’t know the two plays. Setting the fantastical tale of Faust in the realistic world of the dawn of European humanism is a potentially brilliant idea that bogs down in too-detailed descriptions of Faustus’ crisscrossing wanders around middle Europe, pursued by a cartoonish villain. The breezy translation that renders the dialogue into colloquial modern English also lessens the emotional impact of what should be a psychologically gripping tale. The research is faultless, however, and readers finish the novel (which is apparently the first of a series) feeling fully immersed in the sights and particularly the smells of real life in medieval Germany.