Witcher Series Review

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark Fantasy
Number of Books: 8
Total Pages: 3,404
Rating: 3 of 5

If you enjoy grimdark fantasy and don’t mind moderate amounts of profanity, sex, and gore, this is probably right up your alley. Personally, I swung back and forth on how much I enjoyed it depending on the book and my mood (but enjoyed it enough to finish the series).

Our hero, Geralt the Witcher, makes his living by slaying monsters with his magically, genetically, pharmacologically enhanced fighting ability…kind of. He actually spends the bulk of his time bedding sorceresses, navigating political intrigues, and attempting to rescue/protect the Child of Destiny. I enjoyed his character’s sense of responsibility and overall decency in a dark world, but his need to sleep with every attractive woman he comes across (especially if she’s a sorceress) got really old (especially since he’s supposedly so in love with Yennefer).

The first two books (The Last Wish & Sword of Destiny) are short story collections that mostly involve monster-slaying and fairytale mashups, but also set up a few characters and situations for the main Witcher Saga. Once the Saga starts (in Blood of Elves), monster-slaying largely falls by the wayside and we are treated to a complex swirl of rebellions, invasions, pogroms, court intrigue, and any other nasty human behavior you can think of…most of it centered in some way around the remarkable young woman, Ciri, to whom Geralt (and various companions met along the way) are bound by destiny.

The plotting of the Saga is impressive, but the farther you go into it, the more depressing it gets. Even when a character survives a dangerous situation, Sapkowski often feels the need to jump ahead and describe the pointless/ignominious way in which they will die in the future. The Lady of the Lake ends the saga ambiguously enough that you can kind of decide for yourself how sweet or dark you want it to be. The final book (Season of Storms) is a prequel to the Saga that goes back to being more monster-slayer oriented, but it should not be read first since the ending would make little sense without having read the other books.

As far as narration, large parts of the story are told in flashback with a wide variety of framing stories. One chapter will be [Character X] catching [Character Y] up on what has happened since they last met, and the next chapter will be a storyteller recounting events surrounding Geralt as legends from the misty past or a historian researching “what really happened” with Geralt and company several centuries ago. It’s odd and a bit disorienting, but I think it works to give the sense of these being legendary events of which there might not be a “definitive version.” Bolstering this impression, there are frequent references and parallels to fairytales, Arthurian legends, Shakespearian plays, etc.

I listened to the audible versions read by Peter Kenny, and he did an excellent job providing character voices and accents. To me, the audiobook format made it a little more difficult to keep track of the many, many characters involved in the various intrigues, but it was worth it.

Overall, I don’t know if I would ever read or listen to these again, but that probably has more to do with my personal taste than any deficiency in the author’s writing style. I think that the Black Company novels are about as grimdark as I can comfortably go in the fantasy world.

Several Series Started

This year I have started reading/listening through a few different series and trilogies. I don’t plan on reviewing every book because that can get a bit repetitive and/or spoilery, so I’ll be doing a big overall review as I finish each series or trilogy. That said, here is my current impression of each one (picture is of the first book in each series):

A Dead Djinn in Cairo: A Tor.Com Original by [P. Djèlí Clark]

Series: Fatma el-Sha’arawi
Author: P. Djèlí Clark
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Alternate History / Detective
Read: 2 of 3 (first 2 are novellas)

This alternate history features a fascinating early 20th century Cairo transformed by constant contact with the world of the djinn. There are elements of magic, steampunk, and liberal politics. The author has a tendency to be a little bit preachy, but it doesn’t generally come at the expense of a good detective story. I am looking forward to reading the first full-length novel in the series.

All Systems Red (Kindle Single): The Murderbot Diaries by [Martha Wells]

Series: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Genre: Sci-fi
Read: 1 of 6 (mostly novella-length).

Our protagonist/narrator is a security cyborg who has hacked its governor module, essentially making it a heavily-armed illegal unfettered AI. All that Murderbot really wants is to be left alone to enjoy its massive collection of cheap soap opera-esque entertainment. I’m only one book in so I’m not sure where the overall story-arc is going to go, but watching Murderbot navigating the world of humans and their schemes has proved entertaining so far.

The Big Sleep: A Novel (Philip Marlowe series Book 1) by [Raymond Chandler, Richard Amsel Movie Tie-In Cover]

Series: Philip Marlowe
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre: Hardboiled Detective
Read: 2 of 7 (rereading)

Hardboiled detective fiction from the 1920’s-50’s is my go-to escapist genre, and Raymond Chandler is top tier (equaled only by Dashiell Hammett). His Philip Marlowe is smart (even making occasional literary allusions), tough, and snarky but actually a pretty nice guy. You do have to be able to cringe and then overlook some product-of-its-era prejudice/slurs to enjoy the genre.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel by [Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor]

Series: Welcome to Night Vale
Authors: Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
Genre: Lovecraftian Weird / Humor / Satire
Read: 2 of 3

I haven’t ever listened to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), so I don’t know how the books compare. These books give me weirdness overload. They have their funny moments but there is so much random strangeness (and occasional preachiness) that I’m having a hard time working up the motivation to read the final book.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher (The Witcher Saga Book 1) by [Andrzej Sapkowski]

Series: The Witcher
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Grimdark-ish Fantasy
Read: 5 of 8

The first two books in the series are short story collections with a strong monster-hunter, fairytale-retelling vibe. Once the series actually kicks off, it has more of a Glen Cook Grimdark feel: heavy on the political machinations and reveling in moral ambiguity. There’s more profanity & explicit content than I really care for, but not enough to make me quit the series. I’m listening to these as audible audiobooks, and the narrator is excellent with voices and accents…but why oh why does he keep changing how he pronounces Dandelion’s name?!

Warhammer Sampler

Title: The Hammer and the Eagle:
Icons of Warhammer
Author: Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, Guy Haley, etc.
Genre: Grimdark Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

This anthology serves as a perfect introduction to the most popular characters in the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer: Age of Sigmar universes. By page count, the split is approximately 70% WH40k sci-fi and 30% Sigmar fantasy.

Some familiarity with the Warhammer history and universes is helpful but not necessary for enjoying the grimdark escapist vignettes of violence (you can always check a wiki if you’re completely lost). Characters run the gamut through space marines, commissars, inquisitors, witch hunters, stormcast eternals, and a massively overpowered dwarf.

Before this, I had not read any books in the Age of Sigmar universe. However, I had read a few of the older Warhammer fantasy books (mostly Gotrek & Felix) and found the characters seriously overpowered…and the new Sigmar version seems to amp that up even more. I doubt I’ll be picking up any books from that side of things, but I did appreciate the chance to sample the universe.

On the 40,000 side, I recognized a handful of the stories from other anthologies, and several of them are a bit unsatisfactory as stand-alones since they were originally written to bridge a gap between two novels. Other than that, they were decent military sci-fi. I still prefer just about any character to the flat, overpowered loyalist space marines, but it’s all good/grim escapist fun with a nice variety of characters (and some variety in storytelling, though there’s only so much you can do in a universe where “there is only war”).

Overall, a decent collection: story-wise I’d give it 3 stars (my usual rating for most things Warhammer) and tack on an extra half star for the broad sampling of characters.

Potpourri

It’s time for a handful of mini-reviews – all from different genres, none so spectacularly good or bad as to generate a full scale review, presented in order read:

The Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000) by [Chris Wraight]Title: Lords of Silence (Warhammer 40,000)
Author: Chris Wraight
Genre: Grimdark Military Sci-Fi
Pages: 400
Rating: 3 of 5

Pretty much anything Warhammer 40,000 falls into the grimdark category (I think the WH40k tagline is actually the origin of the word). Books, like this one, that star chaos space marines have an extra helping of grim and dark…and since these chaos space marines are dedicated to the plague god there’s also an extra helping of gross. This is worth reading if you’re interested in seeing the internal workings of plague marines and how they relate to the ongoing “Black crusade.” The overall plot was a bit meandering, but a solid entry for this escapist sci-fi-bordering-on-horror universe.

Things I Want to Punch in the Face by [Jennifer Worick]Title: Things I Want to Punch in the Face
Author: Jennifer Worick
Genre: Humorous Ranting
Pages: 136
Rating: 2 of 5

There are some funny turns of phrase in this series of rants, but if you read more than a couple end to end they just feel mean-spirited. These would probably be a lot funnier as occasional blog posts interspersed with other content than they were collected into a book. Also, she’d save a lot of time by just saying “I hate everything that hipsters and nerds like.”

The Night Manager: A Novel by [John le Carré]Title: The Night Manager
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 576
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This isn’t terrible (if you’re okay with LeCarré’s pervasive cynicism), but I feel like I’ve seen it all before and better in his other books: inter-departmental rivalry, possible leak/mole, seedy/promiscuous agents, questionable value of the intelligence game when compared to the human cost, etc. etc.. There just wasn’t much new here, and certainly not enough to justify the bloated page count.

The Alienist: A Novel (Dr. Lazlo Kreizler Book 1) by [Caleb Carr]Title: The Alienist
(Dr. Laszlo Kreizler: Book 1)
Author: Caleb Carr
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 600
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book’s late 19th century setting throws in some fun historical goodies (including Teddy Roosevelt as a prominent secondary character), but this is primarily a “criminal profiler” book. The focus throughout is on constructing a profile of a serial killer, with a lot of time and discussion given to the role of childhood in determining a person’s course through life (all very heavy on behaviorism). The nature of the serial killer (he preys primarily on male child prostitutes) makes for disturbing discussion and situations throughout, so this is not a book for the easily traumatized. There are moments of action, but the overall pace is plodding and methodical. Not my usual read, but I enjoyed it enough that the sequel is on my TBR.

Title: On Tyranny:
Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Author: Timothy Snyder
Genre: History & Politics
Pages: 128
Rating: 4 of 5

Is this largely an attack on President Trump? Yes
Are parts of it a bit overblown? Also, yes
Are parts of it worryingly relevant parallels between the autocracy of German fascism, Soviet Marxism, and the current administration? Also, also yes!

Sold out Trumpers won’t like this, but it really is worth reading with your critical thinking cap on. And that’s all that I really want to say about this because I don’t do the whole “get in political debates with strangers on the internet” thing.

Javert + Batman + Insanity

Konrad Curze: The Night Haunter (Primarchs Book 12) by [Haley, Guy]Title: Konrad Curze: The Night Haunter
(The Horus Heresy: Primarchs Book 12)
Author: Guy Haley
Genre: Military Sci-Fi (Warhammer 40k universe)
Pages: 208
Rating: 3.5 of 5

A couple years ago I reviewed the Night Lords Trilogy as decent dark, uber-violent, escapist sci-fi. This book provides a prequel of sorts and isn’t half bad for a shared-world-based-on-tabletop-gaming sort of book. In it, we get to know the primarch/gene-father of the VIII Legion both before and after his fall into the service of Chaos. He combines the implacable “justice” of Les Miserables’ Javert with the terror-inspiring vigilantism of Batman and a great big dose of prescience-induced insanity.

The story is fragmented into a kaleidoscope of flashbacks and angry rants against the Emperor of Mankind. Some of the transitions can be a bit confusing, but given Curze’s insanity, I think the overall effect works quite nicely.

The plot features the usual Warhammer amount of guts, gore, and grossness (and then some since our protagonist is one of the “bad guys”). I was really hoping for a good chunk of the story to be about the primarch’s early dark vigilante days on Nostromo, but the author was more interested in exploring his damaged psyche and events subsequent to the Horus Heresy.

This isn’t a good starting point if you’re new to the series as it assumes you have a basic working knowledge of the universe and some of its major events. However, if you’re into the Warhammer 40K books in general and chaos space marines in particular, this is worth reading.

Grimdark Shakespeare

Title: King Lear
(1988 Bantam Classic Edition)
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play (Tragedy)
Pages: 222 (actual play: 137 pages)
Rating: 4 of 5

Ego, ambition, lust, and madness swirl into a raging whirlwind of betrayal and death in this grim tragedy. The plot is so bleak that it fell out of favor for 150 years, and modern scholars are deeply divided over what, if anything, is the point of it all. I’m not sure what possessed Shakespeare to transform a legendary story with a relatively happy ending into this grimdark play, but he did so with his typical flair and devastating result.

The Bantam edition that I read had a decent variety of supplemental material. There is a running glossary at the bottom of each page providing definitions of archaic words and difficult phrases. A couple essays and an annotated bibliography explored possible interpretations of the play, and several sections at the end provided excerpts from older writings that probably served as Shakespeare’s sources. There are significant difference between quarto versions and the folio version, and, like many editions, this one smooshes them all together so as not to lose any lines written by the Bard (the text-critical apparatus is inconveniently located all in one place rather than footnoted in the text where variants occur). Overall, an okay edition of one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.)