The Tower of Fools, Andrzej Sapkowski; Peter Kenny, narrator (Hachette Audio 978-1-54910162-5, $24.98, digital download, 19 hr., unabridged). October 2020.
After the popularity of the Witcher novels, games, and Netflix series, it’s no wonder that US publishers would seek out Sapkowski’s other works. Originally published in Polish in 2002 and newly translated into English by David A. French, this is the first in the Hussite Trilogy, a historical fantasy set during the 15-century conflict between the Church and the followers of Jan Hus, a Czech precursor to Martin Luther. Our “hero,” Reinmar of Bierlawa, also known as Reynevan (I think having multiple names is a cultural convention, but it does make things a bit confusing for the listener), is a skilled doctor (by the standards of the time), a gifted if not entirely well-trained wizard, and an absurdly lucky and well-connected doofus. The story opens when he’s caught in the bed of a Crusader knight’s bored and lonely young wife, Adele, by an angry mob of her in-laws. One of the mob dies by accident during the frantic chase that follows, leaving the survivors even angrier. Reinmar then begins a long, bumbling journey through eastern Europe, first seeking to rescue Adele, believing that she loves him and needs his help (big surprise: neither of these prove to be the case), and then in a reluctant flight toward Hungary, judged to be far enough away from an ever-growing list of Reinmar’s pursuers, which, in addition to the vengeful in-laws, include the Holy Inquisition and a sinister cabal of murderous knights who can change shape into flying creatures.
The story is incredibly episodic, perhaps because it’s inspired by medieval tales of the time, but it nearly comes across as if the author intended its adaptation into a TV series. But, as noted, Reinmar is no Geralt of Riva. He’s kind and book-smart, but incredibly rash, and it’s monotonous and credulity-straining to observe him brainlessly charging into situations over and over, only to be saved in the nick of time due to the not-entirely earned loyalty of his friends.
There’s some good worldbuilding and the chance to pick up some history I never learned before (I know very little about proto-Protestants), but the real saving grace here is narrator Peter Kenny, previously appearing in this column as the reader of Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebas and Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. He invests the story with dignity and a richness that brings it closer to the epic tale Sapkowski seems to be envisioning. What’s more, Kenny does my favorite thing in an audiobook: He sings, in English, Latin, and what I think is Old German, no less. Musical selections include a variety of hymns as well as several pieces drawn from the 12th-century poetic cycle Carmina Burana (not the part about Fortune’s wheel that everyone knows, but the parts involving carousing and sex). Obviously, Kenny does not employ Carl Orff’s music here; not only would 20th-century music not be contemporaneous with the story, but securing the rights would’ve been prohibitive. I’m assuming Kenny invented the music or perhaps used some public domain tunes, because there’s no music credit listed; whatever the music’s provenance, I loved it. It both redeemed the novel somewhat and Kenny himself entirely (for not knowing how to pronounce “Houston Street” in the Claire North novel).
I do applaud Hachette Audio’s continuing efforts to inject music into their productions. Nevertheless, I doubt I will accompany Reinmar/Reynevan on further adventures; his story is too undirected, and his person too irritating, for me to go along.
This review and more like it in the April 2021 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.