Sword or Sorcery?

How can I wear the harness of toil
And sweat at the daily round,
While in my soul forever
The drums of Pictdom sound?

Robert Howard – The Drums of Pictdom

I am a fan of Sword & Sorcery. I am a big fan of Robert Howard’s Conan and completely in love with Karl Wagner’s Kane, and there are a good number of things I really like in Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I also am not much of a fan of what is in this current decade called Epic Fantasy. (Probably going to be named something else again soon.) It’s mostly the 1,000+ page trilogy format that isn’t doing it for me. It’s not so much the number of pages, but the broad scope and also the endless cliffhangers that keep you waiting for answers for years and decades. At the same time, I have searched my feelings and know it to be true, I don’t have the ability to commit to multi-installment works that will leave readers hanging with an unfinished story when I lose interest halfway through. But in Sword & Sorcery you generally get very tight stories with a clear focus on actual stuff happening, combined with a short length format. It was actually my first reading of Conan that made me consider writing as a medium for my creative ideas in the first place. So writing Sword & Sorcery seemed the obvious choice.

But success has been very limited so far, with a long break in which I pretty much forgot about the whole idea entirely. The format of Sword & Sorcery, with it’s length and scope certainly seems like the right one for me, but I am having doubts if it might be the genre that is holding me back. Conan is fun and Kane is great. But while they are both very entertaining characters to read about, it’s more with a morbid fascination. (Which in the case of Kane seems to have been Wagner’s intention.) Everything that they stand for does nothing for me or is outright repulsive. While I consider Conan to be honorable and behaving rational in the environment he inhabits, his values mean nothing to me. And for Kane there is one simple word that perfectly describes him. Evil. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, observing him is fascinating and I dare say meaningful, it is not the exploration of evil that fuels the flames of my creativity and imagination.

While Robert Howard was a great writer, I am not Robert Howard. The drums of pictdom are not sounding in my soul. Conan is fun, but he is not moving me. Neither daring the world to try to impose its will on me and then crushing it to assert my individual autonomy, nor struggling with living in a society that doesn’t value or respect my personal inner life are things that are reflecting my own ideals and aspirations. The craving for conflict and need to prove my worth that is so central to the Sword & Sorcery genre has nothing to do with what I value and consider meaningful.

Instead, the works that have much more relevance to me are things like Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and The Empire Strikes Back. Which now that I think about it are all about striving to be good and freeing yourself from greed, hatred, and delusion. (It’s all Zuko that interests me in Avatar, I don’t care much for Aang.) Then there is also Raiders of the Lost Ark (which I admit has a lot of pulpy action concealing a much more interesting subplot), Ghost in the Shell, Mushishi, and Seirei no Moribito. And one very significant work for me is Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher and the videogame series that expands on it. In many ways, The Witcher exists within the context of Sword & Sorcery. It has all the ingredients, but it doesn’t become a story about a great warrior displying his might and challenging the world to try and fight him. Instead, in many ways, it is a rejection of these things. Geralt is an awesome badass warrior with inhuman powers, but he is a character who looks inward is a compassionate and humble as you can expect a man to be in a world where it’s going out of style. It’s a series I have not been thinking about much in terms of my own writing because the setting has a very medieval European style with a culture in which people are deliberately thinking and acting in the terms of Europeans from the 1990s, while Kaendor is meant to not be just uneuropean but actually unearthly and I want to attempt to portray a different mindeset “inspired” by ancient peoples. But I think thematically it’s actually quite appropriate as a comparison or reference point. In its issues and meanings itis one of the closest works to what is driving my own need to tell stories. And it does so in a world of magic and monsters, which is a really nice bonus.

I am still not entirely sure what shape precisely I want to go for with A Wanderer of Kaendor. But I feel that using Sword & Sorcery (and Raiders of the Lost Ark) as my main reference point has become more of a crutch than a means to go forward. Princess Mononoke might actually be much more helpful as an example for a combination of magic, monsters, action, and stricing to do the right thing and become a better person. (And I even like the scale and scope of that story.)

5 Important Books

A discussion on Fantasy Faction raised the idea to put together lists of the most important books to your aspiration to write fantasy. As a means to get some clarification for yourself to understand what actually drives and inspires you, and to look closer at them to find clues to figuring out what is your prefered style. I first thought it would be very easy to name five books that I really enjoyed a lot, but when it comes to books that have been important and influential, this does actually become a bit harder. In the end I was able to come up with five books that left very strong impressions on me, and of which I feel quite certain that they really are the five most important.

In chronological order:

  1. Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver by Michael Ende: There are three books by Ende that we had read to us at an early age, which were Jim Button, The Neverending Story, and Momo. All three are amazing books, but in hindsight Jim Button was the one I liked the most. It’s an adventure story that has the heroes travel to many weird places and encounter lots of strange people and experience all kinds of amazing things. And how can you beat character names like Sursulapitschi, Mister Shufulupiplu, and King Alfonse the Quarter to Twelfth. It’s not as bleak and The Neverending Story and Momo, which are highly existential works, though there is still some actually quite heavy stuff going on that was inspired by the Nazis and World War 2.
  2. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: This book isn’t on this list because of it’s quality, but for the impact it had on me as a fantasy fan. I never make a secret of how massive an influence Star Wars has had on me, and during those great years in the 90s I was also reading a good number of books in addition to playing lots of games. I think when the new movies came out, me and my brother had read about all the novels that had been released in German up to that point, except for those written for children. And among these books there clearly is no contender for the throne other than Heir to the Empire. It was the book that laid the foundation for Star Wars being more than just three fun movies, but a massive setting with a huge body of works. And it was also one of the first that we got. And in addition to that, it also is actually a really decent book. It’s good and still quite fun to read. I’ve read it again a while back but still somehow have not turned my extensive notes I took into a proper review.
  3. Conan by Robert Howard. All the Conan stories fit neatly into a single volume which is why I am treating them as one book here. Conan is the starting point of Sword & Sorcery and set the gold standard by which any other works are still being measured. The scale goes from 0 to Conan. Despite being the first real Sword & Sorcery series (though Howard’s proto-Conan Kull did get two story released a few years earler) it set a standard that has never been reached again. Really, what can you say about Conan? It’s amazing. Reading Conan was what got me into Sword & Sorcery and also gave me the inspiration to try writing myself as it shows how great a story can be within a format that I feel I could be able to tackle myself.
  4. Death Angel’s Shadow by Karl Wagner: While Conan has never been rivaled, Kane is perhaps the one that ever came the closest. Death Angel’s Shadow was the first Kane book that I read and I was nothing but amazed by it. Reading Conan made my love Conan. Reading Kane made me love Sword & Sorcery. Hard to describe the greatness of this series in a few sentences, so I am simply linking to the three full reviews I did here.
  5. The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski: I encountered the Witcher in the first game adaptation of the series and was so impressed by it that I eventually gave a try to the books. The first one of which is The Last Wish. Like the previous two works I listed, this book is a collection of stories but one that acually has a very tight chronological order that give it more of an episodic character than a collection of different works. It’s a really damn good book. The series has the best written characters I’ve encountered in a book so far, really no contest there. Like Conan and Kane, it’s also quite existential, which makes the conflicts the characters find themselves in feel so much relevant and meaningful. As with the previous series, I’ve written four reviews about it so far.

Looking at the completed list, I noticed something that really doesn’t surprise me at all. Except for the first entry, all the others are from series that I have given their own categories for posts here. And they are the only four series that I have treated that way. Looking at the categories list on the right could have speed this up by a bit.

My favorite style of fiction I never knew I had

Having recently seen Drive and looking around for interpretations about it, I came upon a term that I had never really paid much attention to.

Neo-Noir.

What is Neo-Noir? It really is pretty much the same as Noir except that it’s used for works made from the 80s forward instead of up to the 60s. Other good recent examples are basically the whole Nolan movie catalog, with Inception and The Dark Knight standing out prominently. (Memento and Insomnia also really look like it, but I have not seen them yet.)

Inception is my second favorite movie of all time, beaten only by The Empire Strikes Back. And when you stop and think about it, that movie also has Noir aesthetics all over it. Pretty much everything happening in Cloud City is prime Noir material.

Looking back at it, the first works of this style that I really fell in love with were Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell (including the TV series). Of course, you could argue that these are perhaps the two biggest cyberpunk movies ever made. But what is cyberpunk other than Noir with futuristic elements?

Which reminded me of Mirror’s Edge, one of my favorite videogames that I’ve always been thinking of as “cyberpunk without the futuristic elements”. Yeah, once you consider Neo-Noir to be a distinct category, it falls perfectly into it. The socially isolated protagonist living in a blurry gray world on the edge of legality. Characters looking for meaning in a heartless world and coming to bleak realizations about their own lives. And they hang out in a place that looks like this.

And suddenly it all came together: Mass Effect 2 is also a work of Neo-Noir. The first game had already blown my mind, but I was amazed when I came out to the street on Omega. And never had a game felt so perfect as when I first stepped through the door into Afterlife. It is my favorite game of all time, with no contenders.

After the really cool opening and time jump, the game starts with the Illusive Man smoking in a dark room with his Femme Fatale henchwoman Miranda next to him. I could write a whole article about that. (And I probably will, eventually.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but I feel that there are at least a great deal of thematic elements of Noir in the Witcher books. The world went to crap, there’s no justice, characters with questionable morales are trying to do the right thing when dealing with those who are morally bancrupt, and there’s always a slight doubt that maybe everyone getting conquered by the Empire might not be the worst idea. And while it would probably be a bit nonsensical to call Bound by Flame a noir fantasy game, the mood of dignified despair is certainly there.

Bonus content: All my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. You know, basically everything with Garak in it. (The Wire, Improbable Cause/The Die is cast, and In Pale Moonlight stand out.) And then there is Hellboy, Thief, The Big Lebowsky, Leon the Professional, True Detective, and Breaking Bad. I think it’s probably much harder for me to come up with a list of amazing movies, videogames, and TV shows that don’t have a strong Neo-Noir aesthetic.

It comes as a bit of a surprise after all these years that there’s an umbrella term that encompasses pretty much my entire top list of greatest works of fiction ever made. But then, many of the works I mentioned are considered to be really great by a lot of people around the world, so it’s not like this is a style that hasn’t proven itself over the past decades. The period of their making also started just before I was born, which probably isn’t a coincidence either. It’s a style that I’ve been exposed to all my life. While the aesthetics of Noir and Neo-Noir are generally pretty easy to pin down, definitions of the genre are usually rather blurred and unclear. Yet at the same time, works tend to fall into a pretty narrow band of stories. Socially isolated protagonists who are living with one foot in prison and one foot in the grave whose lives have become empty and who are searching for any kind of meaning in their seemingly bleak worlds. Sometimes they catch a faint glimer of hope they can pursue, other times they doom themselves.

Questions about identity and filling an inherently meaningless existence with meaning are the basic foundations of Existentialism, which to me is really the only thing worth exploring in a story. I’ve been watching, reading, and playing stories of this type for all of my adult life and so I probably already do know most of what there is to know about it on an intuitive level. But as someone interesting in writing my own stories this seems like a great opportunity to refocusing my research.

Game Review: The Witcher

I was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.

Background

The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.

Gameplay

The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)

Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead.

There are a few alternative steel swords throughout the game, but you probably end up using only two or three different ones throughout the entire game, and there’s only a single silver sword that you can get slightly upgraded towards the end. There is also a total of only three suits of armor and no magic rings or amulets. What you get instead is alchemy. Which really is a very innovative and fun way to handle combat customization. Throughout the game world you find huge amounts of magical plants and monster parts which you can make into potions once you have found the right recipes for them. And there’s a lot of them. You can either make potions that increase your own health, endurance, resistances, and so on, or make oils for coating your blades that deal additional damage and status effects to various kinds of enemies. And since ingredients are extremely plentiful, you are pretty much always able to make any potion or oil that you want. All you need is to rest at a campfire, which are usually found less than a hundred meters away wherever you are. In practice I mostly used the Swallow potion which gives you health regeneration for about 10 to 15 minutes, and the Cat potion that lets you see in total darkness and eliminates the need for a torch. Swallow is one of the shortest duration potions in the game, most others will easily last you through several dungeons in a row. Even though I played on Hard there was rarely any need for other potions or oils, but when it comes to the tougher fights it really is a very fun system. The only limitation is that you always can have only a single oil on each of your swords and that all potions are slightly toxic. Most people would drop dead immediately when drinking them, but witchers are able to handle four or five of them in a row. One time I was so heavily drugged up and in immediate need of a fast acting healing potion that I actually keeled over dead from an overdose of potions rather than from my injuries. The very last thing I did in the game after the big final battle and before the final cutscene ran – which I didn’t know at the point – was to drink my last remaining cleansing potion that ended all my active potion and removed all the poison from my body. A wonderfully poetic way to end a game of drug fueled mayhem.

And finally Geralt has some limited magic abilities in the form of five simple spells. The ones I most almost exclusively are Aard and Igni, which create a blast of air that can knock enemies over or unconscious or create a big burst of fire for direct damage. There is also Quen, which creates a short lived shield to absorb a bit of damage, but even with considerable upgrading I found the added protection not worth the while. Keeping moving and having a Swallow potion ready is usually sufficient and trying to raise a quick Quen spell doesn’t seem to make any difference for more than a few seconds. There is also Yrden, which creates a stun trap on the ground, and Axii, that lets you turn one enemy against his allies. But stunning all the enemies around you and finishing them with your sword or throwing fire at them always seemed much more practical.

The Story

While there is a good amount of fighting throughout the game, I think it really is primarily about talking with people, solving mysteries, and progressing the plot. The game begins with Geralt finding himself in the wilderness near the old witcher stronghold Kaer Moren with no memory of how he got there or even who he is. His old master Vesemir and the sorceress Triss are not too particularly surprised by his loss of memory because to everyone’s knowledge he had been killed five years earlier and several of his friends had been there when he died. But now he’s back, appearing in the middle of a supernatural thunderstorm somehow linked to the mysterious Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, there is not much time for Geralt to try to figure out what happened to him as the ruined castle is attacked by a sorcerer and a gang of bandits that find their way into the lab and steal the alchemical books and ingredients that are used to turn witchers into superhuman warriors. The few remaining witchers decide to split up and try to find any trails that might lead them to the sorcerer and his base, with Geralt going to the kingdom of Tymeria. Most of the game takes place in the Tymerian capital Vizima, where the city guard and the knights of the Order of the Flaming Rose are fighting against a criminal gang called Salamandra, and the elven and dwarven rebells of the Scoia’tael who are hiding in the swamps. The Scoia’tael are one of the most interesting elements of the setting, being a militant group that desires to remove all humans from the Northern Kingdoms and reclaiming the lands for themselves. The human monarchs and their subjects are everything but sympathetic to their cause and react by systematically subjugating any nonhumans on suspiscion of aiding the terrorists. On the other side, the Scoia’tael consider anyone who doesn’t support their cause to be a traitor and collaborateur and also deserving death. At the same time, the great Nilfgaardian Empire in the south is well known to give some reasonable degree of autonomy to its nonhuman subjects and has long had great ambitions of invading and taking over the independent Northern Kingdoms. Even though the Nilfgaardian aristocracy conists of humans, that makes them allies of convenience to the Scoia’tael. Everything considered, it’s a situation that just isn’t going to get a happy ending for anyone involved.

While the plot itself turns out to be nothing to write home about, the game does an incredible good work at bringing the world of the Northern Kingdom to life. It may not be a great Witcher story, but it certainly is an amazing Witcher adaptation. Many characters from the books make an appearance in the game and both they and Geralt are captured perfectly. There are few things I hate as much as comic relief bards in a fantasy story, but I love Dandelion. I love him in the books and I love him in this game.

I believe not many people have actually finished this game, because if they did the ending would be much more infamous. It’s not so much confusing, but certainly pretty weird and going into completely unexpected directions and coming out of nowhere. While sitting through the final dialogues and cutscenes, I couldn’t help but being more and more reminded about the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Usually I am a big fan of esoteric endings, but here it feels somewhat out of place and something more conventional might probably have been more appropriate.

Technical Things

Back when the game was first released it was notorious for being quite troublesome to getting it work and run well. And while I believe the current Enhanced Edition is a lot better, it’s still partly the case. While many people say it’s running completely fine for them on Linux, I wasn’t able to get it work at all. In the end I had to boot up an old WinXP installation I still had on my computer and that mostly worked quite well. But in about 50 hours of playing I had about the same number of complete crashes. Which is a lot. The game does have four separate autosave slots, but when the game only saves at major area transitions that isn’t terribly helpful when you can stay on the same map for quite a considerable time. Including several major fights. By regularly saving the game manually I was able to play through the whole thing with only minor inconvenience, it’s still very annoying. However, on the positive side, that was the only kind of error I ever experienced throughout the entire game. Not a single time did I have to deal with broken dialoges, a messed up questlog, characters that failed to spawn, or anything like that. I never had to go back to an old save because a quest became unfinishable. For a notriously buggy RPG that is a major achivement.

Visually it looks quite impressing, especially considering that it uses the same engine as the unspeakably ugly Neverwinter Nights. Especially when you can put all the settings to maximum on an average modern computer, the faces and many of the outdoor environments look really very good. The same can not be said for character animations, though. It’s wobbly heads and twitchy arms not much better than what you’d get in the first Resident Evil or Deus Ex. But it doesn’t really hurt the game. The biggest problem I have with the visuals of the game are the colors and most of the lighting. I can get what they were aiming for, but pretty soon seeing nothing but washed out, faded, and dusty colors everywhere was starting to get on my nerves. Especially with the sky being overcast 90% of the time. There are a few spots where the lighting is pretty interesting, but mostly it’s just dreadfully dreary. The environments appear to be heavily inspired by Poland, with the architecture, fashion, and armor being based on 14th century Northern-Central Europe. And as someone who grew up in the German parts of this greater region, it’s really great to see a game that so faithfully draws on the environment and sights of our homeland. And yes, while the weather is pretty accurate too, it’s not working well for a fantasy game. There is such a thing as too much realism and permant overcast sky with slight drizzle is among that. Thankfully the second game went to great lengths to avoid this and uses stark lighting and high color contrast that makes everything look slightly overexposed and I think it works beautifully.

Another thing I feel worth mentining is that the camera work on the cutscenes is pretty amazing. Whoever was responsible for this really knew what he was doing. Lots of very interesting and unusual shots that have various interesting effects on the presentation of the scene. It’s very much unlike anything else I’ve seen in a videogame. It’s actually considerably better than the camera work in the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy. (If you watch the movies again, try to pay attention to it. They consist almost entirely of the most basic and boring shots you can do.)

Final Thoughts

Making a final judgement on this game is difficult. There is a lot to praise about this game, but also a very great amount of reasons to complain. The story is not great, the gameplay is mostly rather poor, and it doesn’t really look great either. The main selling point of the game is that it is a Witcher game, and as I mentioned, I think the adaptation is done really well. The way that people think, talk, and behave in this world is quite unique and probably the most interesting part about the whole game. If the game were set in any other generic fantasy world, I don’t think anyone would have taken any notice of it because it would be just plain boring. I played the game again because I am a big fan of the book and really enjoyed the second game a great lot and plan to play it a second time soon. So I wanted to finish The Witcher at least once, mostly for the sake of completeness and because I wanted to experience the strange ending for myself instead of watching a video of it. And I don’t regret that I played the game. But I feel very certain that I won’t be playing it again another time. Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t really see why I would want to play it again. The best thing about it is the world of the Witcher, and you can experience it even better in the second game, which is so much more fun and enjoyable in every way. And given that the story of this game neither ties in directly to the book nor the other games really doesn’t make it a big loss for anyone who doesn’t play it. It’s not a bad game and I won’t tell anyone to avoid it. But for anyone who is only now getting interested in the Witcher, I would actually rather recommend starting with The Witcher 2. I would say there is a good chance that this game won’t be fun to play for many people and you have to bring some already existing enthusiasm to it to properly enjoy it. If you’re not already fully on board with The Witcher, I really recommend starting somewhere else. Either with The Witcher 2 or the books.

Book Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves is the third book of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, by Andrzej Sapkowski. Unlike the two previous books that were collections of stories, this one is the first novel, but they all can really be seen as a single series following a common storyline. In The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny, continuity consisted mostly of regular characters that would travel alongside Geralt for a while and there were several references to previous story. In this book the plot begins to become concrete. Geralt and his friends stop wandering around wherever the road and coincidence take them and start pursuing a common goal. Now they have a purpose.

Right from the start it is made clear that this story is revolving around Ciri, a girl whose story began in The Last Wish and who first appeared in person in The Sword of Destiny. The one who is going to be Geralt’s Destiny, even though nobody knows what this is going to mean. But the circumstances of her childhood and previous encounters with Geralt are too strange for anyone to dismiss as coincidence. War is brewing in the Northern Kingdoms. The mighty empire of Nilfgaard has already conquered all the lands in the south and already devastated and occupied Cintra and nobody believes that they are going to stop. To make matters worse, the Nilfgaardians have open support within the Northern Kingdoms in the form of the Scoia’tael, radical young elves and dwarves who are hoping for autonomy as provinces of the empire instead of opression under the feudal lords and kings. Maybe they are impatient or under direct order of the emperor, but many have already begun striking at the human lords and their subjects wherever they can, causing chaos and destruction and forcing others of their kind to pick a side. All nonhumans become suspect and the situation in the towns is only going to get worse for them. In these dark times Ciri is having regular terrifying visions she can neither make any sense of nor remember, and out of ideas the witchers turn to their friends among the sorceresses for help. Meanwhile a mysterious assassin appears in the Northern Kingdoms, looking for both Ciri and Geralt.

The book includes many of the old characters. In addition to Geralt and Ciri, there is of course Dandelion, Geralt’s frequent sidekick on his adventures. Also a major roll goes to Yeneffer, the sorceress Geralt met in the last story of The Last Wish and whose complicated relationship was an ongoing theme in The Sword of Destiny. There’s also the dwarf Yarpen Zigrin, King Foltest of Tymeria, and the priestess Neneke again. First appearing here in person are Geralt’s old master Vessemir and the sorceres Triss Merigold, and we also get introduced to Philippa Eilhart and Shani. There’s quite a lot going on.

However, as it is common for the Witcher, there is not really that much happening yet. This book introduces a lot of information and explanation, and I think there’s only a total of three fight scenes. It is far from being a boring book, though, and it never feels like info dumping. There are a few moments where characters are having conversations and they spell out in several sentences thing that everyone present already knows, and I think it’s often pretty obvious and easy to spot. But these moments are short and happening alongside discussions and debates that feel a lot more natural and not as artifical. You can see when it happens, but it doesn’t hurt the story in the long run.

Blood of Elves is a novel, but it’s written in a way that blends together very well with the previous story collections. There are only seven chapters and each one sticks with only a single character, generally in a single location and a timeframe of perhaps a few hours at most. Then the next chapter follows a different character in a different place, days or weeks later. Sometimes the main character of the previous chapter will be a supporting character in the next. The chapters would not make sense as stand alone stories, but the format is very close to the previous books. It’s very different from any other novels I’ve read but works really well in my opinion. It reminds me a bit of TV.

While I felt somewhat disappointed with the writing in The Sword of Destiny, here it is a lot better again. I think even the best in the series I’ve read so far. Dialogues are well written, characters feel natural and very interesting, and it has lots of really funny pieces of the very dry humor I already loved in the previous books.

So, how is the book overall? Yay or Nay? Clear and unambigous Yay from me here. This is a really excelent book that I think everyone should read who really liked the style of The Last Wish. One of my favorite books I’ve read.

Book Review: The Sword of Destiny

The Sword of Destiny is the second collection of stories of the witcher Geralt of Rivia by Andrzej Sapkowski that predate the novels. The events of the stories are only losely connected, but there are frequent nods to previous stories that establish some degree of chronological order, that appears to cover a couple of weeks or months, several years after the stories from The Last Wish. This is quite similar to how Fritz Leiber often connected his Lankhmar stories. Unlike the previous book, this one does not have an overarching “meta-story” in which the other stories are inserted as kind of flashbacks. I thought it was a pretty clever device (and I believe added long after the individual stories were originally written), would have been fun to see something similar done with this one as well.

I am having a bit of a hard time reviewing this book in my usual format, because frankly my main impressions pretty much comes down to “The Last Wish was much better”. Giving away my final opinion of the book right here at the start, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But not as great as The Last Wish, that comes before it in the series, or Blood of Elves, which comes after it and I have been putting on a break after being about two thirds through it to read this one first. And having read the entire thing as a whole, I think it’s really worth reading for fans of the first book who want to continue with the series. But more on that later.

The Sword of Destiny consists of six stories, which in a similar fashion to the first book all have titles that sound corny and pretentious at first, but have a real meaning that only becomes apparent after you completed them. You can’t get any more cliched with a fantasy book title than “The Sword of Destiny”, but though the term comes up several times there isn’t any actual magic blade to be found anywhere. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. Overall, the book is a lot more introperspective than the other two books I’ve read so far, which I think is a major reason why it felt so odd, especially at first. For stories about a monster hunter in a brutal world, the Witcher always has remarkably few and often quite subdued action scenes, but here even more so than usual. Very little is done and the center of the book is really Geralts inner life. Which particularly in the first two stories is not very well done. Geralt is gloomy, talks almost nothing, and I can’t help to think of the word “moody” or maybe even “moping”. He’s always there, but all the talking and acting is done by other characters while the main hero stays in the background with a bleak mood. In the third story he seems to have gotten over it and from then on I enjoyed the book a lot more. But even then I never felt like “Fuck, yeah! Geralt is badass!” However, Dandelion appears in half the stories and he’s always having a blast.

Usually I am never a fan of funny bard characters in serious fantasy stories, but Dandelion just always works for me. And he’s actually a particularly irresponsible and outright irritating example of a bard but Sapkowski just makes it work. I think the main thing that helps making him both believable and likeable is that despite his careless general attitude and shameless womanizing, he does have a real awareness of what is going on around him, what people think of him, and when he’s getting into real danger. He does not care what most people think of him, of what he does, and of the people he’s with, and he’s not concerned about women yelling at him in public or husbands hating him. But he knows when things are getting out of hand and doesn’t fool around when it’s about life or death. And even though he’s regularly traveling with one of the meanest and most badass swordsmen in the region, he is not a fighter himself and always very concerned for his own safety and that of others. And that’s what makes him different from the standard funny fantasy bard. He’s not a liability to have around who almost certainly is going to get you killed sonner rather than later and then not grasping that he did anything bad. I love Dandelion. He’s fun.

Yennefer, the sorceress Geralt met in the story The Last Wish, also makes several appearances and the strange relationship between her and Geralt is an overarching theme of the book that connects many of the stories. To say “it’s complicated” is putting it mildly. Both Geralt and Yennefer are far from normal people and both odd in very different ways. Their love does not only seem unlikely, it’s also not the result of ordinary attraction and they both are well aware of it, which probably is the main reason why they both feel so uncomfortable being together. But at the same time they truly are in love and both unable to forget about each other. A big love story in a dark and often violent fantasy series about a monster hunter? Somehow Sapkowski makes it work, probably precisely because the relationship is such a strange on. It’s interesting to read and doesn’t feel tacked on at all.

Other names that might be familiar are Vessemir and Triss Merigold and we also meet Yarpen Zigrin and Ciri, as well as the druid Mousesack from the first book. Also, the whole business with the Nilfgardians is introduced, and the encounter with the elven warriors from The Last Wish gets expanded into the Scoia’tael. Both become hugely important in Blood of Elves and the recent videogames Assassins of Kings and The Wild Hunt.

As I mentioned above, the stories in The Sword of Destiny are relatively low in regard to action. Only three of them deal with fighting a monster. One is a relatively lighthearted fooling around with preconceptions, another one has the monster being only of secondary relevance. The third one is about a big dragon hunt. If you’ve read The Last Wish, it will come as absolutely no surprise that the story does not end with the heroic hunters proudly carrying home their trophy. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. One story is entirely about Geralt and Yeneffer. And the last two really serve as staging grounds for the novels. I like those two the best. Though I have to say the last one was also the strangest story of chapter I’ve read of the witcher so far. It’s quite good, but at times slightly surreal and for large parts literally delirious.

I am not really very happy with this review, but that matches my overall perception of the book. It’s weird. It feels really quite different from the one before and after it, and I don’t think that’s a result of the translation. It feels odd and at many points made me wonder what the writer’s intentions where when he wrote the stories. They feel a bit out of place between the other books on either side. And somehow I really don’t know how to put a finger on it. It’s not a terrible book. I’ve read much, much worse and for many long sections I really did enjoy reading it. But in the end it really comes all down to my initial impression. “The Last Wish was better.”

So, Yay or Nay? This one is difficult. To anyone who hasn’t read anything about the witcher yet, I think there really is no reason to start with this one. If you’re interested in the series start with The Last Wish. For people who read the first book and thought it was okay, I also can’t really recommend this one. But for people who read the first book and totally loved it and want to read the entire series, I think this one really needs to be read. It’s not a long book and it’s not terrible or a chore to read. But having read most of the novel that comes after it, there are several pieces of continuity that are not exactly important but I still believe very much worth having read in their original form. And getting ahead to my next book review, it gets so much better again after this one and for fans of The Last Wish it will be totally worth it!

Book Review: The Last Wish

I’ve been reading a lot of Sword & Sorcery books recently, both classic and (relatively) new, and I now got around to finish The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Spoiler for the end of this review: Oh boy, am I happy!

The Last Wish was released in Polish in 1993 and contains stories written both before and after the release of Miecz Przeznaczenia (no English translation) the previous year. The stories also take place earlier, which makes The Last Wish both the second and also first book in the series, depending on how you want to count it. The book consists of seven stories of Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter from an old but fading orders of warriors who have acquired special powers through magic and alchemy. Six of the stories are conventional narratives with a beginning, middle, and end in the correct order, while with the seventh Sapkowski did something rather unconventional and quite clever. The Voice of Reason is about as long as all the other stories in the books, but split into seven different parts, between which the other six stories are inserted as flashbacks. It’s not like Geralt sitting down and telling another character a tale from his past, but instead we cut to those other stories so that Sapkowski can give us the necessary background info we need to understand the context of the next scene in The Voice of Reason. May sound strange, but in practice it flows very smoothly and works perfectly well.

Even though the book is kind of an anthology, I am not going to go into detail about each story individually, as they are all by the same author about the same character and they do form a single coherent, if very loosely connected work. In my previous Sword & Sorcery reviews there were always two things that really had me disappointed in a story: Lack of evocative descriptions and lack of thrilling action. While the former is mostly a personal preference, action, passion, and thrill is what I consider the most fundamental essence of Sword & Sorcery. You can change and experiment with all the common archetypes and conventions, but if there is no passion and fury, a story will always just be Heroic Fantasy. The Witcher has all the hallmarks of a Sword & Sorcery hero: An outsider who uses descisive action for selfish gains. And at least in the first two books, the tales of Geralt use the classic short story format as well. (The other six books don’t.) So I gave The Last Wish a try, hoping to find something for my Sword & Sorcery craving. And does it deliver?

Oh yes, and how!

Many descriptions of him make Geralt sound like a gloomy anti-hero, but in practice he is at least as good and compassionate as Conan. I would argue even considerably more so. In Geralts case it’s not that he doesn’t like other people, but simply that most people don’t like him for what he is. In the world of the Northern Kingdoms, which seems to be inspired by 17th century central-eastern Europe, the few witchers that are still around are clearly categorized as nonhumans, bunched together with elves, dwarves, and more monstrous creatures. And given the extensive modifications they underwent when they were recruited as children, that assesment is not completely unfounded. In addition to being much tougher and with a much higher resistance to poison and disease, the ability to see in the dark, limited spellcasting powers, infertility, and other unnatural traits clearly sets them apart from other people. And being basically a mercenary who show up wherever people are terrorized by monsters doesn’t exactly endear him to most normal folk. He never works for free, but that often seems to be more because he can’t allow getting a reputation to help everyone out of charity than being greedy or uncaring, and he is willing to negotiate for prices that his employers can afford. He is also very strict about only fighting monsters for pay and not doing any work as a mercenary or killer for hire. And while he likes being grumpy and sarcastic, he can actually be very diplomatic and reserves his contept for people who are calling for it. Even though Geralt is a lone wanderer who deals with peoples monster problems, he is quite different from characters like Conan, Fafhrd, or the Gray Mouser, in that he doesn’t revel in brawling and carnage. (Though he does admit to himself that his job not only pays reasonably well, but he also really likes doing it.)

Geralt is a person who is both very strong and good with swords and can shrug off considerable punishment, but he is also someone who doesn’t get into fights lightly. One problem with many Sword & Sorcery heroes is that they are almost invicible to the point where normal people don’t pose any possible thread to them and only main villains and boss monsters have any hope to injure them. Not only do I consider that weak storytelling, but it also trivializes death and glorifies violence. Now I love me some really cool action and furious battles, but I want both writers and characters to take fights with sharp weapons to the death serious and aknowledge that people are dying and mutilated. All to often, action fiction takes lethal violence as a joke. The Witcher is different. To Geralt, killing his enemy is a means of last resort, when everything else has failed. To him, violence does not solve a problem, it just ends a conflict by taking one side out of the picture while the real source of the problem doesn’t get adressed at all. The story The Lesser Evil is the most explicit about it, of the eight monster Geralt is dealing in the book, he kills only two. He also kills eight humans, of which six gang up on him at the same time and it can be counted as self defense. That’s really not a lot. Many fantasy heroes rack up higher body counts in a single scene.

Though that doesn’t mean that there are few fight scenes and lots of people end up getting hurt quite badly. In fact, The Voice of Reason takes place in a monastery where Geralt is staying while the wounds from his last adventure are healing. The book also has one of the most brutal and violent fight scenes I’ve read in a book. The fight itself is very short and ends with a headbutt to the face. But where most books would simply have the enemy knocked out cold and immediately forgotten, the rest of the scene brings up at several times that the woman got really badly hurt and while the leader continues interrogating Geralt, the rest of the group are busy tending to her smashed face while she is held to the ground in huge pain. At the meantime, some of the other characters are getting increasingly terrified by the situation escalting more and more. That’s the type of things I meant earlier, when I was talking about treating violence serious and not trivialzing it.

In fact, I think Sapkowski was quite ahead of his time, though probably it was also a major factor that the book was released in Poland in the early 90s, less than four years after the Poles had set into motion the mostly nonviolent collapse of the Soviet Union and its vassal states. He certainly had a quite different background and approach to writing than someone who had been watching endless Hollywood movies all his life. The major themes of the book are minorities, violence and nonviolence, accountability, terrorism, and state violence. You’d have no problem telling someone the book was written in 2013. But even 20 years earlier there were already people who felt like they had something relevant to say about them.

Another, minor thing I just love about the book, which makes it so much stand apart from American fiction, is the generous swearing. This is one of the most annoying things about American entertainment, this silly panicing about some casual swearing. Fuck that shit! ^^ The Witcher is about a badass dealing with lots of terrible people of both high and low station, and those people don’t threaten each other with death and torture in a child friendly language. And it’s really quite surprising how much character it adds to the people.

One more thing I feel like mentioning is how well picked the names for each of the stories are. They do sound rather poetic, but most of the time they are actually quite significant to the plot and often get mentioned word by word. However, it’s only during the later parts of the stories that the meaning really starts to make sense. Most books and stories have titles that are pretty much meaningless, describing either just a thing that appears in the story at some point, or being some banal and generic phrase. With this book it’s different. I recommend reading the stories while always keeping the title in the back of the head and occasionally pausing to think what meaning a scene might have in regard of the title.

  • The Voice of Reason: This story turns out to have many scenes in which a character tries to convince another to do a certain thing or another, because that would be the reasonable thing to do, and not causing themself unecessary trouble out of pride. However, many of the various character have rather different oppinions what would be reasonable, and quite often the appeal to reason starts drifting into bullying someone into compliance.
  • The Witcher: I believe this was the first story ever, and there is no deeper meaning to the title, other than it introducing the character.
  • A Grain of Truth: Things are not as they seem and often more complex than at first look, especially when it comes to thinking monsters. There’s quite a lot of half-truths and selective ommisions in this story.
  • The Lesser Evil: I really liked this one. As Geralt sees it, there are no lesser evil. Evil is evil, no matter how you want to rationalize it. But like the voice of reason, the lesser evil can be a matter of perspective, as well as a method to veil a threat.
  • A Matter of Price: Again, Geralt is resisting being forced to compromise on his principles. It first seems someone wants to hire him as an assassin, but things turn out more complicated.
  • The Edge of the World: I think the English translation of the title, while catchy, does not really capture the finer nuances of the original name. Looking at some online dictionaries, Kraniec doesn’t seem to mean “edge”, “border”, or “end”, but more like “periphery”, “outskirts”, or “extreme”. The story deals both with a place that is very far away and removed from the big centers of civilization, as well as the people who live there. Both literally and figuratively.
  • The Last Wish: I can’t say much without giving away some funny twists in the story, but this most probably isn’t anything like what you first think at the title at all.

I think it comes not as much of a surprise that I really love this book. This is pretty much exactly the kind of fiction I’ve been looking for in my search for modern Sword & Sorcery. I am dabbling myself in some early attempts to get words on paper, and the stories that inspire me the most are from Ghost in the Shell, Mass Effect, and Metal Gear Solid, which ironically are all science fiction and not fantasy at all. But they are all dealing with themes that I think would also work really well in a world of magic and monsters (and the technology in all three work a lot in the same way) and which I think could add some new relevance to Sword & Sorcery other than masculinity, courage, and honor. (I don’t consider Robert Howard a dumb macho writer in any way, but he wrote Conan four generations ago in a world and society that was dealing with things very different from the issues of today.) Geralt is a character who adresses exactly the same things that matter to me and does so successfully in a fantasy world. I also think that Sapkowski is really quite a step up from the common fantasy author. Not only has he something to say and important things to say, his style of storytelling is also quite sophisticated. As a reader, I really don’t have a high standard when it comes to the writing style of authors. If the plot is solid and the sentences allow me to keep up with what is going on and I don’t have to cringe at weirdly constructed sentences, I am perfectly happy. But in The Last Wish, Sapkowski is doing a lot more than simply telling us what happens. I mentioned the structure of the book with the six stories being put as flashbacks between the parts of The Voice of Reason and how the title of each story sets the overarching theme for the story and considering its meaning is part of the reading experience. I also remember when reading The Witcher, that I was very impressed how much personalty the characters had simply from the way they are speaking. At some points I did take notice that certain scenes were slightly drifting into socratic dialog, where two people arguing really is a vehicle to present a philosophical argument. But even though I noticed it, it did’t become annoying, because the characters were discussing genuinly interesting points. This book isn’t your average B-List fantasy novel to rush through and then pick up something else. I really recommend reading it to anyone, especially since it’s just a single book and not a particularly long one, so it’s not a huge investment if the subject and genre doesn’t normally interest you.