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.
In honor of the recent release of Netflix’s new fantasy series, The Witcher, I have decided to revisit one of my favorite fantasy series and its amazing stories. The Witcher franchise began in 1986 when Andrzej Sapkowski released a short story titled Wiedźmin, or, The Witcher. This story introduced audiences to Geralt of Rivia, the world of the Continent, the monster hunters called witchers, and the monsters they face. After publishing several more short stories expanding the world and characters, Sapkowski released the tales in three collections. This led into a five-novel saga, a standalone novel, a trilogy of video games set after the books, multiple comic books, one movie, two television adaptations, a card game, a tabletop roleplaying game, a board game, and more. What was once a local Polish series has now become a worldwide phenomenon.
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.
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.
Fantasy is a versatile genre. There is classic fantasy, high fantasy, grimdark fantasy, science fantasy, urban fantasy, industrial fantasy, and more. Any other genre can be combined with fantasy in ways that improve both genres. The Lord of the Rings is thought of the epitome of classic fantasy, but even that combined a gritty war drama, politics, environmentalism, and linguistics into its story. The Dresden Files is the quintessential urban fantasy, taking elements of modern-day noir and crime drama alongside its elements of high fantasy. Then there is industrial fantasy, the combination that often seems the most contradictory. When we think of elves and gnomes, it is not the natural inclination to imagine their industrial age. Yet imagining an industrialized fairy tale is exactly what Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Mother accomplishes.
A good fantasy series can potentially go on forever. Series like the The Wheel of Time or The Dresden Files easily tell a dozen books worth of story. However, a great fantasy series knows it’s ending, even if takes a while to get there. Jim Butcher has stated he knows the ending for The Dresden Files and how many books the series will contain. The reader can see that the story is leading somewhere definite. Even if the ending suggested in book one is now the ending for the entire series, it still suggests a finality. Jennifer Estep’s Crown of Shards series is only two books in, but we already have a sense of where the ultimate plot is going. Machinations have already begun and there is a clear-long term villain. Ultimately, it is always possible for a series to arrive at its first ending, and realize there is more story to tell. With great fantasy, there is a sea of endless possibility that allows characters to develop and keep the plot always interesting.
Pulp fiction is a relatively new genre of fiction, originating in the late eighteen-hundreds, at the height of Western colonization. The sun never set on the British empire, and they (along with the Americans) ransacked the world in an endless hunt for artifacts and remnants and ancient civilizations. None of them held a greater allure than Egypt. While the genre was popularized by Indiana Jones, it predates the archaeologist by many years. The tales of Allan Quartermain and She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard really brought pulp fiction into prominence. Ancient tombs and treasures were being discovered every day, and the world was much larger than it is today. At the turn of the century, the Western world became obsessed.