The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski: Narrated by Peter Kenny

Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Tower of Fools won’t necessarily appeal to fans of his far more popular The Witcher series. While elements of his distinctive writing style carry over to this first book of the Hussite Trilogy, the story itself is a major departure from what readers might expect.
The Tower of Fools is more akin to Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver (the first book of The Baroque Cycle) or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in that it’s a dense fantasy tale firmly embedded within true European historical context. Whereas The Baroque Cycle transpired in a fictionalized version of the late 1600s to early 1700s, and Clarke’s novel took place in the 1800s, Sapkowski’s trilogy inserts itself into Eastern Europe of the 1400s.
We are introduced to Reinmar of Bielawa, an unlikely and peculiar hero, as unwanted adventure is thrust upon him by virtue of Reinmar caught in the process of a different sort of thrusting–with the wife of a member of a wealthy and powerful family. On the run from vengeful aristocrats (and those working on their behalf), the inquisition (for being a magician and heretic), and sinister forces with unknown motives, Reinmar finds himself on a meandering scramble across the Eastern Europe of the late Middle Ages.
Populated by an almost intimidating cast of additional characters, while not as bad as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow–a book I’ve never been able to finish–it becomes challenging at times to keep track of precisely who is who. Strange acquaintances along the way become friends, friends become enemies, and enemies become victims of the peculiar sort of charmed life Reinmar seems to live. With the familiar wit and subtle comedic writing Sapkowski brings to the narrative, we witness an extreme example of fortune favoring the fool. As Reinmar stumbles from one bit of trouble to another, dragging unfortunate allies with him as he careens from frying pan to fire and back again.
Densely packed with historical events and figures of the Hussite Revolutionary period, The Tower of Fools is as much a history lesson as a tale of fantasy. Though Sapkowski’s novel incorporates elements of magic, witches/sorcerers, and supernatural beings aplenty, the narrative is so deeply fixed in a foundation of historical veracity that it all feels more textured and real than it might otherwise. Of course, those familiar with The Witcher are well aware that the author is capable of fleshing out a fictional world without the benefit of drawing the fine details from real-world history. It’s a nice touch, though, being able to explore a historical period many of us aren’t familiar with.
The titular Tower of Fools–though referenced at numerous points throughout the story–makes an appearance in Chapter 26, at almost the end of the book. It could be argued that the wider world we witness in the book is the real Narrenturm, and the whole of Eastern Europe and the Holy Roman Empire makes up the real Tower of Fools.
Though the story is not one that I can praise in more than peculiarly specific ways, the narration provided by Petter Kenny is spectacular. This narrator is impressive, to put it mildly. He successfully tackles various accents, dozens of characters, as well as songs and chants performed in Latin and other languages, all with a clarity and quality that almost astounded me.

A Baptism for the Dead by Charles R. Bernard

Charles R. Bernard has crafted an immersive piece of historical fiction with A Baptism for the Dead. Spanning the decades between the 1840s and the 1870s, we experience snapshots of the expansive fields of unsettled Nebraska on the approach to the South Pass through the Continental Divide in what would become Wyoming, raging blizzards in Northern Michigan, and the early years of Salt Lake City…and those snapshots feel three dimensional.
Throughout the story, we occasionally follow Left Hand, an indigenous woman who has the unfortunate path in life of hunting monsters. The introduction to her character is a fascinating glimpse of a forest haunted by ghosts and a cavern of sickness and monstrous residents.
The bulk of the story begins as we witness Leonidas Pyburn and his two sons–following the fateful path previously taken by the Donner-Reed Party–headed West to embrace the call of Manifest Destiny in the form of the emerging gold rush in California. Encountering a frantic, haunted sexton along the way, their own journey takes a turn not altogether better than that experienced by the previously mentioned Donner Party.
The survivors of that grisly, horrific encounter go drastically separate directions, both in life and in a cartographic sense. While Leonidas continues West to seek fortune and power, his son determines that his fate awaits him to the North, with the Mormons who passed through the region previously.
As secrets and magic bring the father and son together again, two decades later, we learn that there are more than carrion-eating ghouls to be afraid of in this vision of the American West.
Bernard succeeds in blending occultism, conventional spirituality, social commentary, history, and family drama into a captivating novel that contains more than enough gore and Western aesthetic to appeal to fans of the Splatter Westerns being published by Death’s Head Press.