In writing the Witcher saga of novels, Andrzej Sapkowski took on the task of transitioning the world and characters of the short stories to something more longform. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the short stories set up the novels, but that was not always the case, despite there only being two years between the publication of Sword of Destiny and Blood of Elves. Where Blood of Elves served as a reintroduction to the characters, world, and tone of the series, The Time of Contempt moves the plot forward at a rapid pace, setting the stage for a story spanning three more novels and three video games. Do not think that The Time of Contempt is devoid of character growth, however. The story of the Witcher is, and has always been, the story of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri.
Once upon a time, there was a genre of fiction that took the world by storm. Following daring captains upon the high seas, engaging battles between warships, and fantastical hunts for white whales, nautical fiction was once the talk of every reader. From Moby Dick in 1851, to the Aubrey-Maturin series in the 20th century, nautical fiction brings the world’s oceans to the forefront of adventure. For most of human history, sailing was fraught with danger and the sea was little understood. Sailors knew enough to be cautious, and nautical fiction was an opportunity to take a look at their stories and show the kinds of adventures that could be found on the waves. While nautical fiction has declined in popularity, it has never disappeared. Occasionally, an author such as RJ Barker decides to take this fiction staple and inject it with something else. In this way, we get The Bone Ships, nautical fiction for a fantasy world.
While Andrzej Sapkowski published his first Witcher short story in 1986, the series certainly did not end there. After a couple years and two collections of short stories later, Sapkowski introduced the world to what would come to be his magnum opus; the saga. Beginning with the first fill novel set in the Witcher universe, Blood of Elves, the saga would occur across a series of five lengthy novels, all following the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer of Vengerberg, and Ciri as they navigated a dangerous world. While introduced in the short stories, we spend much more time with these characters in the novels and see new sides of them. Hinted in the final two short stories, Sword of Destiny and Something More, the saga confirms that the tale belonged to Ciri all along, and she shares equal page time as Geralt.
Science-fiction and fantasy may appear to be very different genres at first glance. Once is full of advanced technologies, with a focus on scientific progress and how that works within the setting. Fantasy focuses on magic and oftentimes breaking the rules of the physical world in the pursuit of power. However, the two are full of more similarities than differences. Both can take place on Earth, or on another world. The world can have creatures other than humans, be they aliens or elves. Fantasy can sometimes show technology powered by magic, while highly advanced technology can sometimes appear indistinguishable from magic depending on who witnesses it. Popular franchises such as Warhammer, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and even Star Wars, all find compelling ways to blend genres. Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir, blends science-fiction and fantasy in a wonderfully gruesome way.
Fantasy is a malleable genre, with one of the more popular variations in the last several decades being the urban fantasy. Combining the realism of our magic free world with the trappings of high fantasy has proven to be a fascinating juxtaposition. Imagine a seedy mob-run nightclub in a bustling city, serving a clientele of elves and ogres. Goblins operate as drug runners and wizards assist the police with investigative magic. With urban fantasy, the two worlds may be completely combined, or kept separate through shadowy cabals or government organizations. The fantasy elements may also be as high or as low as the author wishes. While The Dresden Files may be one of the more famous examples of low urban fantasy, other authors are rising up to take its place. The Nightjar, by Deborah Hewitt, is one such novel.
Scandinavia can at times seem like a harsh and unforgiving land, but people have called it home for thousands upon thousands of years. Now broken up between Sweden, Norway, and Finland on the mainland, the Nordic people also settled into Iceland Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. This is a setting which as gripped popular culture for years, with many authors choosing to pull from its rich history. The origin of the Vikings, some of the fiercest raiders the world has ever known, they revered a uniquely flawed pantheon of gods and goddesses. Unlike pantheons around the world, the gods of the Norse could be killed. Their names have long since transcended folklore, appearing in everything from science-fiction anime to fantasy novels set in new worlds. Even existing franchises once known for other settings, such as the God of War series of video games, has moved into the north. And influence of the Norse is not diminishing.
Science-fiction is one of the most versatile genres of fiction around, capable of combining settings with any other tale. Science-fiction as a genre is also a bit of a misnomer. The average science-fiction story is not just science-fiction. Tales can be action films, adventure stories, romance, horror, and more. From Blade Runner to Black Mirror, from Polaris Rising to Foundation. Science-fiction can be defined by both fun and thoughtfulness, and there is always a place for a fun adventure that does not require readers to analyze every paragraph. Books like The Forbidden Stars, Tim Pratt’s third novel in the Axiom trilogy, show the importance of such escapism while also taking the opportunity to define a possible future. While entertaining, the novels also take some time to normalize behaviors and lifestyles, sexual orientations and body modifications. Science-fiction lets us see all futures and revel in them.
There is a certain amount of joy gained in reading some fiction. Fiction meant to entertain, to transport the readers to fantastical worlds and witness the deeds of heroic peoples. Where literary fiction tends to prioritize specific word choice and meaning over plot and character, many authors realize that there can be greater value in drawing in and entertaining your audience. Sometimes the best books are the ones that make you forget that you are reading words on a page, instead conjuring images in your imagination. These are the kinds of books that are hard to put down, and you wonder how you managed to read through them so quickly. These types of books thrive in science-fiction, where most things, if not all things, are possible. The only barrier is the author’s imagination.
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Folklore is ingrained in cultures around the world and is one of the most common inspirations for fantasy fiction around. For as long humans have been curious and looking for explanations, folklore has been there to fill in the gaps. Human minds created thousands of fantastical creatures and unique worlds, separate from our own in an effort to explain the workings of the world. A family with an unruly child might be nurturing a changeling, while the striking of lightning might signal the fury of a grand spirit. When items went missing in a house, there were stolen by gremlins or other creatures. These beliefs used to be common knowledge, known to be true around the world. But there comes a certain point in every culture when people stop believing, when the explanations for phenomena are found to be mundane. The belief may be gone, but the influence of these stories lingers.
A certain amount of pressure is placed on an author’s second novel, especially when the first novel gains the level of attention and acclaim of R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War. A second novel, whether it be the second ever or the second in a series, is expected to be better written than its predecessor. A second novel is expected to have a better understanding of plot, of its characters, and of its readers’ expectations. A second novel is expected to improve upon the first in every conceivable way. This is easier said than done for most authors, and is easier to accomplish in the beginning of a career, where there is still learning to be done. The longer an author writes, the more series, they craft, the greater the risk of sequelitis setting in. Sometimes, the second story is worse than the first. The Dragon Republic, R. F. Kuang’s second novel, is a sequel done absolutely right.