Daniel’s Reviews: The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

Daniel Haeusser reviews short works of SFT that appear both online and in print. He is an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Canisius College, where he teaches microbiology and leads student research projects with bacteria and bacteriophage. He’s also an associate blogger with the American Society for Microbiology’s popular Small Things Considered. Daniel reads broadly in English and French, and his book reviews can be found at Reading1000Lives or Skiffy & Fanty. You can also connect with him on Goodreads or Twitter.

I came upon The Witcher party late, probably upon the announcement of the Netflix series. Too tardy for me to consider picking up the multivolume novel series, and I stubbornly refuse to watch adaptations of anything before reading the source material. But, with elation I soon learned that Orbit would start publishing English translation of a separate series by Andrzej Sapkowski, The Hussite Trilogy.

The first book, The Tower of Fools, appeared in October 2020 with David French translating from the original Polish, and I finally got my opportunity to easily gain introduction to Sapkowski. One of my favorite things I read during that period, I have since bought the follow-up translation, Warriors of God, which I’ll have to devour before the upcoming October 2022 release of the translated final volume, Light Perpetual. In the meantime, I’m beyond due for reviewing The Tower Fools and encouraging readers to get into this fabulous series if they haven’t already.

Given this site is SF in Translation, a note about the translator: David French would already be familiar to Sapkowski fans in the English-speaking world. He has translated several of The Witcher novels to acclaim. I personally have no ability to assess the translation, but I have seen nothing but praise from those who do.

An opening section of the novel establishes the series’ historical setting to the Hussite (Bohemian) Wars of the early 15th Century in the region (Duchy) of Silesia, which is found mostly within modern-day Poland (as well as the Czech Republic and Germany). For readers like myself who are unfamiliar with this historical setting, the opening pages of the novel can be some dense text, akin to reading an actual history book. To really comprehend, appreciate, and enjoy the novel, I found it necessary to slowly crawl through the start alongside a browser tab opened to Wikipedia.

As the novel progressed and I became familiar with general historical details, I had to rely on this less often, and I’d enjoy skeptical or wary readers to bravely carry on. The little bit of slow effort is well worth it. The series is historical fantasy, heavy on the history, and as the historical introduction of setting is passed and the actual story beings, Sapkowski does do an admirable job at relaying relevant historical details through his characters in way that allow modern readers to get their bearings.

The main character, and protagonist of The Tower of Fools (and I assume the entire Hussite Trilogy) is Reinmar of Bielawa, also known as Reynevan. Trained in Prague as a physician, Reynevan also has some secret knowledge of alchemy, and a bit of experience with its magic. However, a young and lustful scoundrel at heart, he has more practice with seducing women, and escaping any resulting complications, than with the medical or magical arts.

One of Reynevan’s sexual dalliances set in motions events, and a journey of, that pits the young man against multiple powerful forces personal and political, secular and religious, from a dishonored family to the Catholic Church and the pre-Protestant offshoot followers of Christian reformer Jan Hus. Though cognizant of the dangers he faces on multiple fronts, and always willing to flee them to preserve life and limb, Reynevan also meets his circumstances with callow and careless disregard. Bordering on blissful buffoonery, he allows the chaotic reality around him storm and surge, carrying him wherever it happens to and only then worrying about responding or dealing with things to continue on.

Sapkowski writes his protagonist as a lovable, blithe fool, a man who we forgive and adore for his ignorant good intentions, despite some moral defects and an inability to make responsible decisions. He is our window into this history (and fantasy) that we can then read with equal parts humor and horror befitting the ruthless historical context. He’s an approach to the absurdity of life, being equally absurd right back at it. Reynevan’s personality (as well as events in the novel) provide its title The Tower of Fools, or Narrenturm in its original. Translating as Fool’s Tower, a Narrenturm refers to physical towers where people with mental disease might be isolated during the Middle Ages. Later in history than the novel is set, an actual Viennese hospital called the Narrenturm opened, which remains standing today.

Reynevan’s journey through the Silesian region from city to countryside, from freedom to the tower, intersect with forces of the Church Inquisition and the Hussites, as he makes new friends and finds old acquaintances to help him along the way. These secondary characters are all constructed as richly as Reynevan himself, a strength in characterization that Sapkowski is apparently well-known within his better-known series as well.

What sets The Hussite Trilogy apart from The Witcher Series most glaringly is not style, but genre and intellectual demands. From what I gather second-hand, the latter series is entertaining and easy reading, full of fantasy elements. The historical details of The Tower of Fools make it relatively more demanding. But the fantasy elements are also far more nuanced and infrequent. I may discover that this focus changes in latter novels of the series, but The Tower of Fools takes a while to make the reality of the magic apparent and to fully introduce non-human intelligences amid the large cast of shifting characters.

The rich historical detail and vivacity of characters within The Tower of Fools made it both an entertaining and educational read. Unless one is really averse to put any work in reading fiction, the only aspect of the novel that I would consider that some might find problem with would be Sapkowski’s treatment of women. Even with historical context to consider, he doesn’t write women well or provide them significant agency or investment in the plot.

Each chapter of the novel begins with a summation of events that occur, but phrased in witty. tongue-in-cheek fashion and flowery vocabulary that leaves some enticing mystery for just what might occur, and how. This architecture, along with its overall balance of genre and blend of dark and humorous overcame any of the defects in the novel for me. Beneath the story and its characters there is also a deeper philosophical discussion going on regarding the nature of humanity. While I may not agree with Sapkowski’s thoughts entirely, I found this another nice layer to the novel that made it well worth consuming with care. I look forward to starting its sequel soon, and hope I’ll get to review the series conclusion along with that second volume later this year on SF in Translation.

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