The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Tower of Fools Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 October 2020)

English Translation by David French

Series: Hussite trilogy – Book One

Length: 549 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From legendary Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski comes the first English translation of his 2002 release, The Tower of Fools, an intriguing and exciting fantasy/historical fiction hybrid novel that takes the reader on a weird and entertaining adventure.

1425, Silesia (South Western Poland and parts of Czechia).  War is brewing as the Catholic Church fights against the Hussites in a brutal religious struggle.  As the entire region begins to degenerate into conflict and chaos, a young doctor and amateur magician, Reinmar of Bielau, known as Reynevan, finds himself in all manner of trouble when he is caught in bed with the beautiful wife of a knight.

As Reynevan makes his escape, a member of the knight’s family, the powerful Stercza clan, is unintentionally killed, and the rest of the Stercza’s swear vengeance upon him.  Worse, Reynevan’s forays into magic have made him a target of the inquisition, who wish to have an extended and unpleasant chat about his arcane hobbies.  With a massive price on his head, Reynevan is forced to flee into the wilderness to survive as bounty hunters scour the countryside trying to find him.

Calling upon old friends, Reynevan looks for anyway to escape from his pursuers while also attempting to ‘rescue’ the knight’s beautiful wife.  Teaming up with an odd group of comrades, Reynevan makes his way throughout Silesia while attempting to outfox his pursuers.  However, his adventures have inadvertently placed him in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy, one that could change the entire fabric of the region and which threatens everyone he loves.  As Reynevan attempts to work out just what he has become involved with, his path leads him to the infamous Tower of Fools, an asylum for the insane and the heretical.  Can Reynevan escape the danger he finds himself in, or will his adventures cost him his life and his mind?

The Tower of Fools is a compelling and unique novel from veteran author Andrzej Sapkowski, who is best known for his iconic The Witcher novels.  This novel is the first entry in Sapkowski’s Hussite trilogy, which is the main series he has authored outside of The Witcher books.  The Tower of Fools was originally released back in 2002 under the original title Narrenturm, and while it has previously been translated into several other European languages, this version represents the first English translation of the book.  The translation of The Tower of Fools was done by David French, who has previously translated several Witcher novels, and no doubt we can expect the next two novels in the series (previously published in 2004 and 2006) to be translated and released in the coming years.  While I really enjoyed The Witcher television series, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Sapkowski’s writing, having so far only read the 2018 translation of The Witcher standalone novel Season of Storms.  However, due to the inevitable interest that was going to surround The Tower of Fools, I was quite keen to check out this book, and I ended up really enjoying it due to its captivating narrative, outrageous characters and excellent use of some distinctive historical fiction elements.

This novel from Sapkowski contains a fantastic and enjoyable narrative that proves surprisingly hard to put down at times.  The author has done a fantastic job blending together interesting historical fiction and fantasy elements that come together to create a distinctive adventure story.  The Tower of Fools is mostly told from the perspective of its central character, Reynevan, although several other perspectives are occasionally used throughout the novel.  What I liked about this book was the fact that it was a fast-paced, event-laden narrative that showered the reader with all manner of action and intrigue.  Reynevan and his companions essentially run into a different dangerous obstacle, major historical event or dastardly opponent every chapter, which they are forced to overcome or escape from in short order.  This ensures that the reader is constantly on their feet as they are never certain what new trouble or adventure lies on the horizon.  In addition, there is also a subtle line of intrigue that sees a sinister conspiracy begin to unfold around the protagonist as he finds himself in the midst of a series of murders and political manoeuvrings.  While this seems like a lot of elements for one book, it comes together surprisingly well into a cohesive and exhilarating narrative that I quite enjoyed, and which serves as an impressive start to the entire Hussite trilogy.  There are a lot of fun elements to this book, and I particularly want to point out the rather entertaining introductions that occur at the start of each chapter, giving the reader a humorous heads-up of what is to come throughout the series.  I did find it interesting that the titular Tower of Fools, which is referenced strongly throughout the official synopsis for this book, does not show up until really late in the book and is only a setting for a relatively short period.  While this book does contain several great and dark scenes in this location, this novel might have been more interesting if more of the story was featured in this asylum.  Still, I had an awesome time getting through The Tower of Fool’s cool story, and it was an absolute thrill ride from start to finish.

One of the major things that I liked about The Tower of Fools is the way in which Sapkowski complimented his entertaining narrative with a huge selection of distinctive characters.  This includes the main protagonist of the novel, Reynevan, the foolhardy student doctor and magician who serves as the main point-of-view character.  While he is the driving force for most of The Tower of Fools’ narrative, I actually found Reynevan to be a little annoying, especially as his impulsive nature, which is mostly driven by unrealistic ideas of heroism and romance, continues to get him into trouble.  This becomes especially annoying when his stupid decisions endanger his friends, whose determination to point out Reynevan’s mistakes help to make them more likeable.  Despite being a typical foolish young male protagonist, Reynevan does grow on you a bit as the book progresses and it proves hard not to relate to some of his impulses at time.  While his actions did occasionally exasperate me, I really did enjoy him as a character, and his keen insights and fun antics ensure that the reader has a great time following him throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to Reynevan, the main two side characters of The Tower of Fools are the fun duo of Scharley and Samson, two very different men who become Reynevan’s travelling companions.  Both of these characters are extremely entertaining in their own right, and Sapkowski weaves some great narrative threads around them.  Scharley is a crude, belligerent and surprisingly dangerous priest who leaves his imprisonment in a monastery to assist Reynevan.  Scharley serves as the main voice of reason and caution for much of the book and proves to be an interesting counterpoint to the youthful and impulsive Reynevan, whom he often has to threaten with violence in an attempt to get him to do the logical or sane course of action.  Their other companion is Samson, a giant of a man with an intense intelligence, who may or may not be possessed by a demon.  Samson is a really fun addition to the group, and I really enjoyed him as a character thanks to his unique demeanour and characterisation.  These two companions are quite intriguing in their own way and it was a lot of fun to see them interact with Reynevan and the other characters they come across.  This book also contains a multitude of extra characters, many of whom have their own intriguing storyline or character trait.  While many of these characters are entertaining and interesting additions to the plot, I think that Sapkowski might have slightly overdone it with the side characters.  While I did my best, there were honestly way too many supporting cast members to keep track of at times, especially as a lot of characters appeared or reappeared out of nowhere with very little explanation.  Still, this chaotic use of characters fits in very well with The Tower of Fool’s event-laden narrative, and it did not have too severe an impact on my enjoyment of the book.  The more distinctive characters proved to be quite entertaining and I had a good time seeing where some of their arcs ended up.

Sapkowski also makes impressive use of some cool historical fiction elements to tell his unique story.  The Tower of Fools is set in the early 15th century in an area of the world that is experiencing a lot of turmoil, Silesia.  Much of the book’s plot revolves around the major conflict of the period between the Catholic Church and the Hussites, a religious offshoot that was declared heretical and which the Church launched several Crusades against.  This proves to be a fascinating background to the main story, and Sapkowski features a lot of interesting Eastern European historical inclusions throughout his book.  This includes a range of references to key elements of regional history and politics that were quite intriguing, as well as the use of several major historical figures in varying roles, including some cameos from people like Gutenberg and Copernicus.  The author does a pretty good job of explaining these historical elements to the reader, although I did have to do some independent research to answer a few questions and fill in a few gaps.  A lot of this was due to my somewhat lacking knowledge of Eastern European medieval history, and those readers with a little more appreciation for the location will no doubt follow along a little better.  I did think that The Tower of Fools contains a rather excellent depiction of the landscape and the people that would have existed during this bleak period.  The various bits of intrigue, plots and war that occur throughout the book really fit into Sapkowski’s impressive and dark, setting, and it definitely helped to enhance part of the book’s story.  This was also the perfect setting for the various magical elements that occurred throughout the book, as their darker aesthetic matched the location to a tee, especially as there are a number of scenes set out in the dangerous and monster-filled woods.  All of this makes for a great setting, and I had an excellent time seeing this historical setting be put to amazing use throughout The Tower of Fools.

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski is an enjoyable and fun novel that takes the reader on an epic adventure back to a dark version of historical Eastern Europe.  Filled with some great characters, intriguing historical features and a fantastic story, The Tower of Fools turned out to be quite a captivating read.  I look forward to seeing how the rest of the Hussite trilogy unfolds and I imagine I will be in for an exciting ride.  The Tower of Fools comes highly recommended and it should prove to be an excellent read to any fans of Andrzej Sapkowski and The Witcher novels.

Guest Review: Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun by Guillermo del Toro and Cornelia Funke

For this entry, my editor and future wife Alex managed to talk me into letting her do a review.  We hope you enjoy this guest review, and Alex may do some more in the future.

Pan's Labyrinth Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2019)

Series: Pan’s Labyrinth

Length: 297 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

As the chief editor for The Unseen Library, I read far more book reviews than books, but every now and then the mood strikes just right, and I am fortunate to share a house filled to the brim with books waiting to be enjoyed. I thought I’d commemorate the latest occasion by writing a review of my own:

Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish-language dark fantasy film written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Thirteen years after its release, Guillermo del Toro and bestselling author Cornelia Funke have transformed the screenplay of the film into a beautiful work of prose.

Pan’s Labyrinth is part of a modern tradition of fairytales in which children have fantastic adventures whilst the adults are busy with war. In Spain, in 1944, young Ofelia and her mother join the household of Capitan Vidal, who is responsible for hunting down the anti-fascist guerrillas hiding in the mountainous forests nearby. Left to her own devices and enchanted by fairy tales, Ofelia is drawn to the ancient stone labyrinth near their new home. There she meets the Faun, who tells her she is in fact the missing princess of the Underground Kingdom. In order to reclaim her place in the kingdom and escape her terrible new stepfather, she must prove her courage and worthiness by completing three tasks. This is easier said than done; these tasks themselves are life-threateningly perilous, but Ofelia must also try to protect herself and her heavily pregnant and ailing mother from the ruthless Capitan and the rebels at the door.

Guillermo del Toro is renowned for making visually stunning films, and Pan’s Labyrinth was no exception; in fact, it won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Makeup. I am happy to report that the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth faithfully re-imagines the amazing sets, characters and creatures of the film. In the absence of cinematography, visual design and Doug Jones in monster makeup, the authors have relied on using a great deal of descriptive language to bring scenes to life in text. This is also supported by a number of illustrations throughout the book which clearly drew from the art of the film. It had been many years since I last saw the film, but the imagery of the story is so well produced that I was easily able to imagine many long-forgotten scenes according to del Toro’s vision.

There are many advantages of this novelisation. In particular, the book gives a great deal of insight into various characters not afforded by the film. We see Ofelia’s thought processes as she observes the adults around her and as she obeys or defies the Faun’s instructions. We understand the fierce motivation of Mercedes and Dr Ferreira as they desperately try to assist the rebels in the hills without being discovered. Most terrifying of all, we catch a glimpse of the inner mind of Capitan Vidal, the Wolf, whose horrendous acts of violence rival those of the Pale Man. The inner monologues of these characters provided in the book enable us to have a greater appreciation of their perspectives, actions and motivations.

For the most part, the novelisation follows the story of the film faithfully, but it also includes a number of additional chapters. These feature stories of the Underground Kingdom and its magic bleeding into the Upper Kingdom, creating the lore and mythology that surrounds the Spanish landscape in which the story is set. These grim and interconnected fairy tales provide amazing context for the enigmatic Faun and the nature and gravity of the tasks Ofelia must complete, as well as being beautiful and moving stories in their own right.

Fans of the film will know exactly what to expect from the novelisation of Pan’s Labyrinth and will appreciate the additional fairy tales and insights it provides. Those who haven’t seen the film (and there is always a cohort of cinemagoers that dislikes or struggles with subtitled films) will feel as though they had, as this gruesome and fantastic story has been beautifully transferred onto the page.