Some readers may be disappointed that nobody in Tower of Fools ever draws a pair of swords and begins an elegant dance of death. Although this novel comes from the pen of Andrzej Sapkowski, best known in America for writing the Witcher stories, it has no counterpart for his most famous character. Nonetheless, Reinmar of Bielawa (the protagonist of Tower of Fools) may seem somewhat familiar to Witcher fans because he’s much like Geralt of Rivia’s bard companion, Jaskier.
Like Geralt’s favorite jongleur, Reinmar is a well-educated minor noble, a bit of a cad, and impetuous to boot. We are introduced to him amidst his affair with a married man’s wife, which results in an entirely familiar and expected kind of trouble. He is forced to flee his home thanks to the cuckolded man’s family, which is unfortunate, as it results in the discovery of his alchemical laboratory.
Tower of Fools is set in Silesia in the 1420s, which was not a particularly good place or time for one’s alembics to be discovered – especially if, like Reinmar, one actually knows a few spells. Sapkowski’s Europe is a land that exists as people imagined it at the time, so magic is real and fantastic creatures abound.
Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is present as well, and particularly interested in what transpires in Silesia because neighboring Bohemia is, at this time, dominated by the Hussite faithful. These Czechs (and their allies) are viewed as heretics in part because they believe communion should consist of both bread and wine, but mostly because they believe priests should be poor.
With the Inquisition and angry noblemen on his trail, Reinmar is barely able to call on a few allies for help. He ultimately teams up with an ex-priest by the name of Scharley, and a very large man named Samson who may or may not be possessed by a strange spirit. Their plan is to escape to Hungary, but this keeps going awry due to ill luck and Reinmar’s perpetually bad judgment.
The resulting odyssey feels unfocused and sprawling. Nearly every significant development in the story results from coincidental encounters, which is a style of storytelling I find unsatisfying. Chance brings famous historical figures such as Nicholas of Cusa or Johannes Gutenberg into the story momentarily, but these rarely constitute anything more than a cameos or digressions. Less historically-significant characters that Reinmar knows are always turning up at just the wrong moment (or, more rarely, just the right one), and their plans, when they even exist, have no force against God’s dice.
It is also a disappointment that Tower of Fools is a sausage fest. The Witcher novels were notable for the way they centered on intelligent, powerful women. Such characters do exist in Reinmar’s adventure, but they flit around the edges, sliding onto the page for only a chapter or two and then disappearing again. This is especially noticeable since Reinmar himself is such a foolish, feckless character.
As time goes on, Reinmar is drawn inexorably into the Catholic-Hussite conflict. However, the coincidental nature of the story’s plot makes all of this feel like happenstance, rather than fate or intent. David French’s take on Sapkowski’s prose makes Tower of Fools an easy, entertaining read, but its lack of a strong character at its center or a recognizable arc for its adventure overall makes it feel flat and aimless.
Tower of Fools is written by Andrzej Sapkowski and translated into English by David French. It was published October 27, 2020 by Orbit Books. A copy of the book was provided for review by the publisher.
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