Book Reviews (27)

Witcher - baptism of fire

The Witcher #5-endAndrzej Sapkowski

Baptism of Fire

I really like the Fellowship-vibes in this one, with Geralt and his motley crew travelling between marauding armies. We get a range of varied characters, some clearly playing off LOTR. The dwarf Zoltan joins with Dandelion, the archer Milva, [redacted] Regis, and that other interesting guy.

Regis is great, like here to a sulky Geralt – ‘Life differs from banking because it has debts which are paid off by running up debts with others.’

As for Ciri and Mistle: man is that situation fantastically fucked up. I like how Sapkowski refrains from giving us a moral judgment here, because a lot of writers would insist on telling us it’s fucked up.

The sorceresses step up the game with some great manoeuvring and manipulation.

Some points felt a touch like exposition-excuses, and at some places – with otherwise-great Regis particularly – the philosophy went a bit overboard.

The ‘Geralt of Rivia’ ending is delicious lmao.

The Tower of the Swallow

Multiple factions hunt for Ciri, now with a touch of wild-west influence to the narrative.

Great use of multiple POV in telling/showing the story, keeping right in the action while still pacing out the players and their roles to hold and build tension.

Mixed feelings on the elf in the cave exposition dump. But the Kovir worldbuilding segment is really fun, giving it a deep sense of history and a place in an established world.

We could use some more time inside Ciri’s head. It’s changed a lot, understandably, but the vengeful disillusionment can come across a bit generic, especially without seeing the process of change from the inside.

The Lady of the Lake

This ends the main thrust of the saga.

It wasn’t as good for a while. The world-hopping is fun imagery but it doesn’t help form a tight plot, and Condwiramurs isn’t interesting. Ciri’s magic/swordplay being forgotten when someone wants to try and abuse her (and that ongoing theme in general) is an… uncomfortable contrivance.

The Aen Elle are a properly ominous bunch, though, building out what’s really going on in the wider story. And the big battle sequence is fantastic in its action, its interplay of different characters including some from much earlier in the series. The Stygga showdown is brutal.

The ending… hmm, the ending. I don’t find it very satisfying – too abrupt, too inconclusive, a bit deus ex machina. Though I can appreciate the Arthurian elements, and the twist on other material which Sapkowski gets so much out of.

Season of Storms

A prequel novel about Geralt’s time facing two conspiracies in Kerack between the stories in book one, The Last Wish, though with some flashforwards to Nimue and stuff.

This is a good story, one of the most cleanly plotted and one of the darkest at times. I appreciate the epilogue – it doesn’t change anything from LotL, but reinforces what Sapkowski is trying to achieve in a nice way.

Neat to get more of Geralt actually being a witcher and using signs.

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So that’s the whole series read! A few thoughts overall:

The male gaze and themes of sexual violence – can be rather cloying, just too much. There are strong female characters and I can see the argument of them exploiting looks for gain, but c’mon. Geez.

The pacing is a bit weird and choppy. I think part of that is because Sapkowski was trying to subvert an ‘epic fantasy hero’ story – Geralt isn’t a hero at the centre of the world, just one guy in wider currents, like everyone. Ciri has power but not control. Everyone is dancing parts of other’s tunes without full understanding.

To focus on those wider currents, a range of viewpoints which sometimes connect more thematically than causally, to have people waste time and fail and flail about – that’s hard to plot tightly in a normal forward-driving way. It’s compelling, though, once you accept what it’s aiming for.

But it could be better executed, especially in connecting the story-characters to the novel-characters. Like, Dandelion is a rapey asshole in the first stories, then in novel #1 he’s a likeable rogue and seems tight with Yennefer? What happened? Were the characters still in flux back then, or was a period of change never really shown? Season 1 of the show does a better job getting started and e.g. putting Yennefer’s desire for fertility in context.

Worldbuilding is really nice. The details, the thought, the influences from folklore, western, lotr-fantasy, arthurian legend. Occasionally a new thing does seem to appear out of nowhere, and on a reread I might spot points where ‘damn wouldn’t [that] be useful here?’ And yeah, could use a map!

Weird how little Geralt uses signs and elixirs in most of this!

Well worth a go for some great writing, a unique blend of influences and subversions, character and world depth. Has its flaws, but what it’s trying for is worth engaging with.

Book Reviews (26)


Time of Contempt – Andrzej Sapkowski
Witcher #4

A bunch of pieces are pushed forwards – Nilfgaard and the four northern realms, Ciri and Yennefer, Geralt and Yennefer, the sorcerer’s council, the desert onwards. It feels a book of separate parts, a little disjointed even though it all fits together.

The world and character are just very enjoyable. Yennefer’s gaslight/gatekeep/girlboss energy, Geralt the spooky dude who #lifts but is lowkey an awkward sensitive himbo, Dandelion continuing to be much better than in the stories. Ciri’s note at the inn. The whole banquet sequence with its high-class sophisticated bitchy wit and my G trying to get some damn shrimp.

The world in general is strongly built, with the political machinations and detailed economic consequences and so on. There’s a good balance of defined facts and a sense of history to a sense of mystery and possibility. One weakness/strength, depending on perspective: how specific some of the terminology for armour, ranks, etc can be. It can be a good thing to send the reader to a dictionary, but it’s gotta be necessary.

The desert: I was not at all expecting that, a real shift. Intense.

The one translation issue I notice here might be ‘contempt’ – the original Polish must’ve been snappier, because it feels a bit too wet a term for people to be using all the time when they’re talking about literal razing armies and pogroms.

Worth mentioning – c/w sexual violence. Brought up a fair bit, depicted non-explicitly in one grim scene. Won’t debate the whole ‘it’s realistic’ vs ‘this is fantasy, the middle ages didn’t have elves either, you didn’t have to include that’ thing here, or the merits of that particular scene, but c/w.

The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel
Cromwell #3

Mantel’s trilogy about the tumultuous career of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII comes to a close. Anne Boleyn beheaded, Jane Seymour queen, and Cromwell risen to unprecedented heights – a height before a fall.

As with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – stellar, rich prose; historical detail, intrigue, and character depth. The trilogy is an incredible window to a particular time and a key figure within it.

This took me a hella long time to read. I’ve got to say that this trilogy – and maybe this book particularly – would benefit from some tightening. I definitely enjoy its sprawl, its atmospheric prose, its reflection. If the narrative were told in the manner I’d normally expect, it would miss much of what makes it special. But by the Mass is it long. It’s simply difficult to hold tension over that span, keep a grasp on all the players and their games. The big events can lose some impact from being cushioned between all the careful manoeuvrers, adjoining stories, and mythic atmosphere.

Still, though – a beautiful account of court intrigue in all its brutal and farcical elegance, growing success bringing with it growing threats and resentments, and a suite of engaging figures trading rumors, banter, and threats. Delightful, weird details and startling twists make the familiar story of Henry and his wives a thoroughly fresh account, an immersive, heartfelt exploration of power through the lens of one man who rose dangerously close to a king.

Book Reviews (24)

Warbreaker – Brandon Sanderson

A standalone in which two lands approach war, divided by beliefs about an intriguing magic system centred on colour and Breath – an essence each person is born with one of, with more usable to Awaken objects to do tasks or the dead to kill. It’s versatile: and makes for a good nuke-analogue.

For the first 40-or-so% I enjoyed it but found the characters and beliefs at play a bit simplistic, edging toward Flanderized. Then began the real character development, everyone and their ideals getting challenged and drawn out further. Vivenna goes from devout, prim princess through a wringer of trials, Lightsong’s dope, and Siri and Susebron… in retrospect the kneeling is hilarious.

The climax is a lot of fun, full of surprises and logical payoffs, if a little dependent on overly-mysterious tinges to the worldbuilding. The character arcs are fantastic, though I wonder if there could’ve been a touch more nuance and internal conflict in the first parts. And I have to ask what happens to [instigator] after the end? I mean, there were valid reasons to be pissed off.

The madlad even has this free on his site – here.

Worldbuilding For Fantasy Fans And Authors – M.D. Presley

(h/t WASBC)

Presley starts with a somewhat plodding overview of what worldbuilding is – you can probably skip to p.35 without missing much – then becomes more interesting. The book provides insightful new terms, and gathers common points on the subject like Sanderson’s laws of magic or the warning to avoid smeerps in a compact package.

While sometimes his way of phrasing things felt a bit knotty to me, the underlying points generally make good sense. The analytical approach picks out the fundamentals, expands on standard fare in interesting ways (separating show-vs-tell into five options from ‘hard impart’ to ‘hard deduct’), but (outside the intro) avoids bogging down in minutiae.

Blood of Elves – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. Danusia Stok
Witcher #3

Fun.

The first two sets of stories provided just enough context to understand what’s going on here, but the novel gives more chance for the characters to breathe. Geralt, the pretends-to-be-gruff himbo mess. Dandelion, who either had a lot of off-page character development or is just written differently in such a way that I no longer want the scamp immolated. Yennefer, evolved from an interesting character who’d then inexplicably become a ‘uwu Geralt pwease’ smol bean to a more consistent, sardonic, hard-willed tsundere. Triss, Yarpen. Ciri! 😭

Aside from a little cringe (fear!), seeming anachronisms like ‘the secret virus cultures’, and highly specialised and undefined swordplay-vocab, yeah, I like it. The worldbuilding is very rich, down to detailed discussion of a trade war during customs inspection of a barge. All the interactions are nice, especially involving Ciri and the ‘good friend’ letter. Sapkowski is really good at showing a large crowd interacting, sketching out each character and group. The story emerging, concerning the threat of Nilfgaard, the Scoia’tael/human-other relations, and the prophecy, already has some good turns. The ending is a little abrupt, leading on to #4.

Book Reviews (21)

The Republic For Which It Stands – Richard White

Intimidatingly subtitled ‘The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896’, I wouldn’t have picked up this thicc tome but Matt Christman made it sound interesting.

Turns out the period is quite interesting. White’s perspective raises similarities and challenges to our current time, and not just for the US. A core point is the failure of liberalism to meet its promise of egalitarianism and opportunity in a society of independent producers, as the realities of industrial capitalism and wage labour held sway – a story we’re still living in.

Liberals had believed that laissez-faire, contract freedom, and competition would eliminate corruption, sustain independent production, and prevent the rise of the very rich and very poor. Contract freedom quickly revealed itself as a delusion when those negotiating contracts were so incommensurate in wealth and power.

Liberalism had been forged in opposition to a world of slavery, established religion, monarchy, and aristocracy, and the victory of liberals in that contest sealed their own doom.

White’s account is at its most interesting when he’s uncovering sweeping ideological/cultural narratives – the role of ‘home’, the courage and fate of natives in western expansion, the significant struggles of race and gender – and their connection to dramatic industrial unrest. The importance White places on the environmental crisis in growing industrial cities, and its close connection to all his other threads, is insightful.

Surprising and amusing anecdotes pepper the story, with recurring figures like William Dean Howells, Frances Willard, Frederick Douglass, etc, highlighting shifts over the years. I also liked his references to contemporary fiction – the way he views The Wizard of Oz in light of the period’s themes is brilliant.

Some of the denser financial and legislative wrangling had me flagging a little. White couldn’t have done much about that without taking from his impressive scholarship, but I still think certain segments could use a touch more condensing. It’s difficult to remember the details of bills and financial intricacies as well as White himself, and he sometimes refers back to a figure where a brief reminder of who they are would be helpful.

The Sword of Destiny – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. David French
Witcher #2

The first set of stories were enjoyable, this second set a step higher in quality. Geralt’s character is stronger and more consistent: mercenary but sensitive, conflicted, a relatable mess. The frame narrative is gone, with the stories themselves having a loose chronology. While I’m unqualified to really comment on translation, there weren’t any points, as were occasionally in the first book, where I was uncertain about it.

Yennefer plays a larger role, and seeing some of that terrible dynamic the pair have – yikes. There are points where she flips instantly from brittle rage to ‘I am smol bean uwu Geralt pwease’ that don’t feel real to me, but I’m interested in where this train wreck goes. Other new/returning characters I also want to see more of. No idea why anyone tolerates Dandelion’s crap, frankly. Rapey, loudmouth, parasitic prick. Hope Yennefer immolates him at some point lol.

Which brings me to the main things that pull me out a bit: Geralt continually running into some of the same people while riding all over the place, and some anachronistic-feeling language. Cellular memory? Really? And I found the combat scenes less crisply portrayed than the first book for some reason – they’re fine, but I didn’t get the same clear sense of motion.

Yeah, looking forward to the novels.

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Special mention: Disco Elysium – ZA/UM

A game, not a book, but it’s a text-heavy experience (with stellar voice acting) and one that beats a lot of books. In this detective RPG you explore the city of Revachol 50 years after a defeated revolution, investigating the murder of a man hanged behind the hostel you’re staying in. The case itself is engaging, but it’s the other things that truly sell this.

Your partner on the case, Kim Kitsuragi, is a fantastic character. Straightman to your amnesiac drunkard (who, depending on your build and choices, could be trying to pull himself together, ranting about a coming apocalypse, doing speed…), Kim’s personality shines in small gestures and things you can uncover in the extensive, well-crafted dialogue.

Your character’s skills embody different components of your psyche, talking to you and each other with unique voices and perspectives. They can be a major help or – particularly when failing a skillcheck, which can have hilarious results – massive hindrances. ‘Encyclopedia’ gives you helpful information, but if it’s too high you risk boring people and getting sidetracked by trivia. ‘Electrochemistry’ helps you understand the seedier side of Revachol – e.g. discerning what drug a character is on – but also yells at you to lick a rum stain. If you regularly take certain options in dialogue, or encounter certain prompts, you can be invited to ‘internalise’ a thought in your ‘thought cabinet’, further shaping your character and the things you can say and do.

The worldbuilding is great – from the geopolitical situation of Revachol, in the hands of the Coalition which defeated the Revachol Commune; to the more out-there things like Innocences and the Pale. The lead dev wrote a book set in this world which I hope gets into English eventually, because Elysium has cool ideas.

I’ve seen people complain that it’s communist propaganda. I really don’t see it. While I lean hard to port politically myself, I wouldn’t enjoy propaganda just from agreement. People who say this either missed a lot of dialogue, missed the jokes, or are triggered by left-wing views getting airtime. Internalising ‘Mazovian socio-economics’ lowers your authority score. A communist character you can meet talks movingly about how the Coalition forces blitzed all his friends in the name of capital, but he’s also a bitter tankie who thinks everything is bourgeois and everyone is a ‘pederast’. Disco Elysium treats itself and its left politics with a wry touch.

Funny, smart, emotive – my only real complaint is some quests need alternate routes. Great game, especially if you like reading stuff.

Book Reviews (19)

May We Be Forgiven – A.M. Homes

After Nixon scholar Harry has an adulterous kiss with the wife of his TV exec brother George at Thanksgiving, a chain of unexpected events hurls them into new lives.

At first this felt like it might be the sort of thing people make fun of litfic for: a struggling academic, an affair, everyone’s a bit unpleasant, etc. But then – everything kept ramping up. The drama. The dark, farcical comedy. The character growth. Bizarre twists and diversions combine with pathos and an extraordinary depth of character. The nephew, Nate, felt particularly real, with insight and conviction but also, well, 13 and trying to deal with a lot.

It’s hard to critique. Sometimes dialogue switches line in a way that threw me for a moment. Some of Harry’s romantic endeavours seemed a bit forced to me. Occasional lax forward momentum. These are minor quibbles, because it succeeds in depicting a tumultuous year in people’s lives – affecting, deeply perceptive, and often very funny.

Covenant – Dean Crawford

Take a thriller where an archaeologist is abducted in an Israeli desert, add some Ancient Aliens stuff, and… eh… The idea could be good, but neither component gets past cliché here – unless things improve after I gave up on page 67.

The sci-fi side is somewhat interesting, but relies on laboured exposition and didn’t really add a fresh angle to the well-worn idea that aliens helped kickstart civilisation. Sometimes a character will rattle through polysyllables, other times they’ll be idiotic as required.

The thriller side is painfully clichéd. The stony-faced agents, the nihilistic and good-at-punching guy, the evangelist preacher who wouldn’t pass a Turing test, the arms company bigshot ‘in this for the money’. I didn’t go in expecting a sophisticated take on Israel/Palestine, but the lazy centrism of Crawford’s ‘brutal military occupation bad, but on the other side rOckEtS’ still grates.

The writing is passable but not good: a big guy ‘swept through the crowds like a tornado through an olive grove’; Troubled Tough Dude becomes a dog who ‘reveled’ in the breeze though a car window; the Jordan Rift Valley is ‘an ancient seismic scar slashed by the tributaries of long-extinct rivers that snaked their way into the endless deserts’.

The Last Wish – Andrzej Sapkowski trans. Danusia Stok

The opening set of stories, prior to the main narrative of The Witcher, introduces an intriguing world drawing on folklore and fairy tales with twists and bite.

Geralt of Rivia stars as the mutant monster-slayer, alongside a few others. His character leans more to the mercenary side than I’d thought, particularly in the first story, which opens with him cutting down a few people for not much reason. Discussions around money are entertaining and sharp, with Nenneke’s comment on exchanging Temerian orens for gems (cheap due to a dwarven mine near Wyzim) and gems for Novigrad crowns highlighting the guy has really made this place. Combat is gritty and dynamically written.

I’ve heard of translation concerns. While some Polish idioms and references are inevitably missed out on, I found the prose perfectly clear and fairly stylish, aside from very few minor points where I couldn’t grasp what it was getting at. But irony lost in translation could explain some of the times where Geralt comes across misogynistic. In any case, he’s a flawed character and better for it.

The Lesser Evil particularly works together various fairytale allusions, questions of morality addressed by flawed characters in a messy world, dramatic combat, and holds the tension of its framing – how Geralt came to be ‘the butcher of Blaviken’.

The weakest parts are a section of the frame narrative where Geralt expositions at a priestess who’s following a vow of silence, and the title story – which at points I found a little vague, a bit too fanservicey over Yennefer, and didn’t do enough to justify the extent of their infatuation (previously hinted in the frame narrative). Maybe I’m missing something there. But both these parts are still definitely good.

Selective Accuracy in Fantasy

Walpurgis
source

Some guy on the Daily Wire reviewing Netflix’s The Witcher: ‘No woman can fight with a sword. Zero women can fight with a sword.’

His complaint is, by the way, inaccurate. Many people have brought up Julie d’Aubigny, a bi opera singer/swordswoman who – among other adventures – attended a ball dressed as a man, kissed a woman, got challenged to a duel over it by three men, beat them all in succession, then went back to the ball.

Everybody knows that, on average, men have a strength advantage. But that’s an average, and besides skill in weaponry is supposed to make it possible to defeat someone who may be stronger than you. His reference to a ‘5 to 10-pound sword’ is also a joke, considering even claymores were around 5.5lb, with most swords much lighter.

More importantly, fantasy isn’t real. That’s sort of the point. Why is this fairly mundane area the point where his suspended disbelief snaps?

In Taking Artistic License I considered times when strict accuracy may or may not be convincing or entertaining. But there seems to be a particular trend for selective demands for accuracy in fantasy, based in reinforcing certain social attitudes. This can be at the expense of actual accuracy, or represent an arbitrary block on imagination:

‘But this historical period…’ Are you absolutely sure? Really, no foreign traders or anything? Nobody’s in the closet? You might be right, in which case fair enough. But if your version of Ancient Greece is completely straight, your research slipped up somewhere.

‘Ah, but in my fictional world of…’ So your worldbuilding has the full details of a steampunk society powered by burning the blubber of sky-whales – daily life, ecology, politics, history, five paragraphs about perfumes made using sky-whale bile. But you can’t (or didn’t choose to) imagine [multiple demographics or alternative social attitudes]

Samantha Shannon pins this down in her essay:

[E]ven in fictional worlds, the oppressed must remain oppressed. Any attempt to do otherwise is evidence of liberal fragility, box ticking, the sanitization of history or the shoehorning of unwelcome “politics” into entertainment. […]

It is typical that the same critics often base “historical accuracy”—both in historical and fantastical stories—on the fiction of a white and heteronormative past. In their minds, people of color, queer people and powerful women only had the nerve to exist in the last couple of centuries. […]

Creators can and have used fantasy to highlight both modern and historical inequalities to great effect, and they must always have the opportunity and space to do that—but, lest we forget, fantasy is not history, and is therefore not beholden to it. It can be exhausting to read about the same racist, homophobic and sexist worlds over and over again.

Fantasy as a genre is rooted in being able to picture radically different realities, where not only history and geography, but the laws of reality itself, can be reshaped from the ground up. So to me there’s something very petty about insisting that issues such as gender have to match with the comparable real-world place and time.

I’m of course not saying that every work of fiction has to be actively progressive, or that there aren’t ham-fisted ways of trying to be that can detract from entertainment or believability. But I can’t relate to the mindset where things like a medieval society being cool with gay people are less believable, and need more justification, than the dragon flying overhead or the dead raised from their graves.