The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski
Fans of THE WITCHER will be happy to see that another of Andrzej Sapkowski’s works has been translated into English. The Tower of Fools, the first in his HUSSITE TRILOGY, was published in Polish in 2002 (Polish title: Narrenturm), then other Eastern European languages, and has this year been translated into English by David French (translator of THE WITCHER) and published by Orbit (US) and Gollancz (UK).
The HUSSITE TRILOGY is a historical fantasy set in the time of the Hussite Revolution (the Bohemian Reformation) of the early 15th century. For those not as familiar with these historical events as Sapkowski’s Eastern European readers (or those who’ve studied the Reformation) would be, the Hussites were followers of Jan Huss (Johannes Huss/John Huss), a Czech priest and theologian who preached against the corruption and certain teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
You don’t have to have studied much European History to know that the Roman Catholic Church of that time was indeed corrupt and it maintained its wealth and political power by controlling what people read and thought, extorting money with various tricks such as selling indulgences, and not allowing any sort of deviation or dissent from their doctrine. Jan Hus was executed by the Church as a heretic but his Reformation theology took root in Prague and spread throughout Bohemia, setting up a conflict between the Hussites and the Church. This led eventually to a series of Inquisitions and Crusades by the Church against the heretics.
Into this intense and chaotic historical backdrop Andrzej Sapkowski introduces us to his fictional Reinmar of Bielawa, a young doctor with some magical powers who has been run out of town after getting caught in bed with someone else’s wife. Doggedly pursued by the nobleman’s henchmen, and thinking himself still in love with the lady who has now been sent to a convent, he alternates between trying to evade the men chasing him and planning to rescue the lady.
Along the way Reinmar meets several men and women who are willing to help him hide or escape. Things get complicated when he unwittingly becomes involved in the Hussite heresy as well as some strange supernatural goings-on and a prophecy.
Though Reinmar has little in common with Geralt of Rivia, it’s obvious that he belongs to Andrzej Sapkowski. In fact, he is very much like Geralt’s friend Dandelion. He’s handsome, charming, smart, witty, and skillful, but his libido or other urgent needs often lead him in the wrong direction. Andrzej Sapkowski’s authorship is also obvious in the clever dialogue, the self-deprecating humor, the amusing (and often scary and/or brutal) situations Reinmar gets himself into, and the cast of colorful characters that Reinmar meets on his travels.
Sapkowski’s Eastern European setting is enchanting and the fantasy elements fit into the story nicely. In my opinion, though, Sapkowski spends way too much time giving us the historical details (some real, some fictional) of the Hussite Wars. I was vaguely familiar with the Hussite heresy (weirdly, I watched a documentary about John Huss and other reformers a few years ago) and, as someone who attends a Reformed church, I’m somewhat interested in this history. But the level of detail that Sapkowski gives us is wearying.
I enjoyed Reinmar’s exploits and thought many of the scenes were spectacular but, though I love to learn, I have to say that all the lessons about the religion and politics of the period felt like an interruption of an otherwise entertaining story. (Maybe I should have realized this since the trilogy is called THE HUSSITE TRILOGY.)
As usual, David French’s translation is wonderful and Peter Kenny, who is so good with Sapkowski’s sense of humor, is the perfect narrator of Hachette Audio’s version of The Tower of Fools. The sequels, which we’re expecting in English sometime in the near future, are Warriors of God and Light Perpetual. I’m looking forward to those and hoping that, with the scene firmly set, the pace of the story will be better balanced.
Narrenturm is 100 percent not a Polish, but a German term.
The book was originally published in Polish with the title “Narrenturm.” Thanks for letting us know that the word is German. I had never heard it before reading this book but learned that it refers to one of Europe’s oldest “insane asylums” which is a tower-like structure in Vienna, Austria. It’s now a museum.
The part of the novel that takes place in the Narrenturm was probably my favorite part. The inmates of the tower are fascinating and I think Sapkowski is suggesting that there is sometimes a fine line between brilliance and madness.
Before reading The Tower of Fools, it would help for readers to read up a bit on the Narrenturm so they can visualize the building and get a feel for what it would be like to be imprisoned there.