‘The Tower of Fools’ has the same translator, David French, as Andrzej Sapkowski’s ‘Witcher’ series, and the narrative voice is undoubtedly the same. However, unlike the ‘Witcher’ books, this first instalment in Sapkowski’s ‘Hussite War’ trilogy is much heavier on the historical than the fantasy. I enjoyed the insight into a period of history I know little about – but unfortunately, as the novel continues, the constant references to more and more historical figures become a little draining. It’s like reading ‘A Game of Thrones’ for the first time magnified by ten – it’s impossible to remember who each character is.
The novel follows Reinmar of Bielewa – known as Reynevan – a scholar and physician from Prague who fled after the invasion of the Hussites. Now safely ensconced the other side of the border, he makes the mistake of having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. The nobleman’s family are enraged, and Reynevan is forced to flee. Thus begins a story in which Reynevan runs from town to town, makes generally bad choices, and survives thanks to good luck and much smarter friends.
Reynevan has great potential as a character. An accomplished physician – and secretly, a far less accomplished mage – he comes across as a generally nice man (unless women are involved). Unfortunately, his constant terrible decision making makes him a very difficult character to like. He’s rash, hot-headed, and – unless medicine is involved – generally a bit clueless about everything. I have no idea how he’s ended up with so many useful and helpful friends without picking up a lick of common sense himself.
The cast of supporting characters evolves, but some of the most interesting are Scharley, Samson, and Urban Horn. This is a plot-driven rather than character-driven novel, and all three characters are left mostly mysterious, but hopefully more will be revealed in book two – especially about Samson, who is far more than he seems.
The fantasy elements are mainly the existence of mages – of which Reynevan is an amateur, but far more accomplished mages and witches are encountered – demons, and mysterious shapeshifting creatures, including one known as the Wallcreeper. There’s no specific magic system, but each element is worked neatly into the story. The Wallcreeper appears to be the true overarching ‘enemy’ of the trilogy, but remains a peripheral figure in this first instalment. The witches are brilliant and, whilst they only make cameos, deserve their own book.
The main issue I have with this book is one that I also have with the ‘Witcher’ novels, and that’s the attitude towards women. Of course, ‘The Tower of Fools’ is a historical (15th century) book written through a man’s perspective, so misogyny is to be expected – but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read about for 500 pages. Sapkowksi appears to try to make Reynevan marginally less misogynistic than his peers, but his thoughts about women are regularly unpalatable. Overall, this is a solid historical fantasy novel that will likely appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell-esque historical fiction, Sapkowksi’s Witcher novels, and fantasy novelists like Mark Lawrence – but perhaps not fans of more modern fantasy that’s moved past medievalist fantasy tropes.
Published in the UK by Gollancz
Paperback: 27th October 2020
(Originally published in Polish in 2002)