More Than a Fairy Tale: A Review of Season of Storms, by Andrzej Sapkowski

Once upon a time, the stories we told were different.  Meant to frighten children and teach important life lessons, these stories took on the shape of fairy tales.  Stories warning us away from the monsters in the woods or training us to be wary of strangers riding into town with ill intent.  These stories flourished in the darker reaches of Europe, where civilization was small and the lands were relatively lawless.  But then, something happened.  Time progressed, civilization grew.  Suddenly, the forests were not quite so dark.  The wolves were tamed and caged.  The strangers could be identified with a picture or a fingerprint.  Fairy tales faded and became sanitized, even if their essence remains relevant to this day.

Andrzej Sapkowski wrote the first Witcher short story in 1986 as part of a literary contest.  He won third place.  Today, this series spans two collections of short stories, six novels, one Polish television series, three universally acclaimed video games, and one soon-to-be Netflix series.  It is no exaggeration to say that this series has become one of the national prides of Poland.  Donald Tusk, the former Prime Minister of Poland, once gifted a copy of the game The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to Barack Obama during a presidential visit in 2014.  Sadly, the former president never played the game.  Season of Storms is the last book written in the series and the last book translated into English, a stand-alone novel telling its own story, but still following the character the world has learned to admire.

The world of the Witcher series is one heavily based off of Sapkowski’s native Eastern Europe, Poland especially.  Many of the monsters mentioned or featured are taken directly from real world fairy tales and folklore.  The terminology, landscape, forests, and outlook on politics and kingdoms are all clearly recognizable as originating from that part of the world.  On the continent, as the characters in the stories call it, various kingdoms and political entities vie for power.  Where other fantasy series might feature noble countries and evil ones, the nations of the Witcher are more realistic.  Rulers give speeches about morals and the decency of man, then murder and rape in the name of their crown.  Everyone with power wants more, and those without power just hope they do not get trampled underfoot.  Powerful sorcerers manipulate world leaders from the shadows and are in turn manipulated by a lodge of sorceresses.  The parallels to real world politics are obvious when a scandal is covered up by the rich and powerful, and the lives of the powerless treated as less.

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher; a mutated human trained to be an expert monster hunter.  Witcher is both his profession and his identity.  The world he lives in is wild, and just on the verge of being tamed.  Humanity has become proud in their hubris, disbelieving in the very real threats lurking in the still dark forests.  Witchers are the force keeping the darkness at bay.  Operating as mercenaries of sorts, Geralt and other witchers travel and take on contracts to hunt dangerous beasts, monsters, and demons.  However, the stories are rarely about these hunts, although they are occasionally featured.  Sapkowski is more concerned with exploring how people see a man like this.  Someone with unnatural eyes, who can move with enough speed to run down a monster, and who is strong enough to contend with it.  We see the world through Geralt’s eyes, and it is not a pretty world.

The plot of Season of Storms is deceptively simple.  One day, while visiting the kingdom of Kerack, hoping to find another contract, Geralt is framed for fraud and embezzlement and jailed.  While jailed, his swords are stolen.  For a witcher, their swords are their livelihood, and Geralt’s attachment to these blades and his hunt to recover them drives the rest of the book.  From there, the plot gets complicated.  The framing turns out to be a tactic employed by the sorcerers of Castle Rissberg in order to force him to take on a job and hunt down a supposed demon summoner.  Geralt is approached by the prince of Kerack and hired to protect his father during a royal wedding, the payment being safe recovery of his swords.  Geralt comes between an aguara, a fox capable of changing into a woman and powered with illusions, and the humans who kidnapped her child while on his way to recover his swords from an auction to which they were illegally sold.  All the other characters assume Geralt is playing a long game, that he has some power play to be revealed.  They wrap him in their machinations and plots, not realizing that he does not care for any of it.  Geralt has his goal, and plays the game long enough to accomplish that goal.  The folly of people with power is assuming that everyone wants to take that power away.

There are other characters besides Geralt of Rivia, of course, characters who follow him in every book and game.  There is the bard Dandelion, world famous for his ballads about Geralt’s life, who features quite extensively in Season of Storms.  This is one of the few characters who never gets a first meeting in all of The Witcher.  As far as anyone is concerned, he and Geralt have always been friends.  There is the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg, Geralt’s tempestuous love and a power in her own right.  While she is central to his story, Season of Storms gives readers enough information to understand their relationship without having you run to another story.  Lastly, and most importantly, there is Ciri, who does not appear in this novel at all.  Ciri is a princess, a witcher in training, a source of magic, the true focus of The Witcher series, and Geralt and Yennefer’s adopted daughter.  She is only teased in these pages.  No knowledge of these characters is necessary to enjoy Season of Storms, and a lack of knowledge will not detract from your experience.  But there is so much more story for you to enjoy once you have finished reading this book.

The Witcher series takes the fairy tales we know and shows us the dark truth behind the stories.  Monsters are real, they do not obey the laws of man, and any man or woman who claims to know a spell to banish demons is a liar and a fraud.  The heroes we see as larger than life are no more than human.  Even Geralt, with his abilities as a witcher, is vulnerable.  Heroes craft their legend so that we may rest easy at night.  Because the truth is that the darkness will never be vanquished, not completely.  There will always be monsters in the dark forests of the world and the fairy tales do not truly have endings.  Heroes do not get to ride off into the sunset with their rescued princess.  Their work is never done.  As long as there is darkness in the world, there will be men and women willing to rise against it.  There will always be heroes, as the story never ends.

Season of Storms may be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 7 days

Next on the List: Ironclads, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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