The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, translated by Danusia Stok, 4/5
I’m a bit of a fantasy snob to say the least, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that Sapkowski is a competent writer, capable of reworking the tired tropes of a well-worn genre instead of merely ripping them off. At times, he purposefully incorporates elements of popular fairy tales and legends into his own in a skillful way, making it almost seem as if his stories predate the originals. I found the book’s layout to be bewildering, but after learning from its Wikipedia article about the concept of a “frame story” interspersed with other short stories, it made a lot more sense. I am looking forward to reading more books in this series as soon as the library, currently closed thanks to the COVID-19 virus, re-opens.
Why I read it: I figured that any book series spawning popular video games and a Netflix show must be worth checking out.
I knew that I was going to love this intimidatingly large novel as soon as I read the caption for the opening illustration (of a sour old man reading a book): “He hardly ever spoke of magic, and when he did it was like a history lesson and no one could bear to listen to him.” Clarke somehow overcomes a contradiction in terms to tell a plausibly fantastic tale about the revival of “practical” magic in England. The story flows well and is never boring, though it does wear thin near the end, perhaps because the author has a talent for humorous and clever descriptions but her observational style is not conducive to much psychological depth or character development. However, I found it to be a charming read and quite possibly the best debut novel I’ve ever encountered.
[Why I read it: I saw a couple cool GIFs from the BBC miniseries version, but happily decided that I should give the book a chance first.]
Motivated by a mysterious Desire, John leaves behind the lifeless religion of his hometown, Puritania, and explores both the stern, unrelenting wastes of the cerebral North and the swamps of untrammeled self-gratification in the animal South. This journey from “‘popular realism’ to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and from Theism to Christianity” will be recognizable to those familiar with C.S. Lewis’s more biographical works (200). Admittedly obscure, this tale is similar to George MacDonald’s Phantastes in that its value may be more in the recognition than the revelation–I suspect that if I reread it every 10 years or so, my appreciation of the truths it tells will grow in proportion with my own life-experience.
[Why I read it: a fortunate thrift store find!]
Possessing the writing style of an orphan love child of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens, Peake sees the world through rotting-salmon colored glasses and creates a gloomy trilogy that is, for all its sprawling imaginativeness, unsettlingly grim and ghastly. Perhaps readers who are less sensitive to words’ connotations, sounds, and tastes would be less disturbed, but I was continually galled by Peake’s preference for off-putting, unpleasant language. The opening paragraph alone contains several good examples: the castle of Gormenghast is surrounded by “mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls” and one of its towers, “patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”
So what, you might think, he’s just describing a creepy old castle. But no, almost everything is treated similarly. A candelabrum is “like a vast spider suspended by a metal chord,” a character’s teeth are like “two brand new rows of gravestones,” the morning sky is “awakening air quilled with blood,” and a lone cloud is “like a wing ripped from the body of an eagle.” Almost all of the characters are portrayed repellently and most posses gross names such as Rottcodd, Mr. Flay, Swelter, Steerpike, Nannie Slagg, Doctor Prunesquallor, Lord Sepulchrave Groan, Sourdust…and many more. It is not often that a reader is presented with so many characters and so few of them likeable.
The first two novels are partly redeemed, in my mind, by their vivid portrayal of many memorable characters and an imaginative setting for a plot that contains several exciting episodes and a few moving ones. I think the first two books are much stronger without the third, which was disjointed–almost incomprehensible at times–and ended poorly (it is not surprising to learn that it was cobbled together from the manuscripts of a dying author).
My review would not feel complete without mentioning Peake’s skilled illustrations, which were scattered generously throughout the text. It is so unusual to encounter an author who is capable of drawing what he writes (I always felt sorry for Tolkien in this respect). Also noteworthy is the author’s prodigious vocabulary. Between pages 309 and 793 (the trilogy is almost a thousand pages long, but it took me a while to realize that the strange words were going to keep popping up, then even longer to get tired of writing them down), I encountered no fewer than 23 very unusual words, 16 of which I am almost absolutely sure I’ve never seen in print before. For the curious, here are the 16 words with links to definitions: liana, canalized, spilth’d, daedal, abactina, lacuna, umbrageous, anile, cruddled, gracile, marcid, oriflamme, purdah, titivating, humus and mulcted.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed the BBC miniseries based on the first two books.]
Reading this book was a strange experience because I could not separate it in my mind from the 1987 film, which I had seen many times before I realised it was based on a real book and many, many more times before actually reading the novel for the first time (years ago). I was delighted to experience all the “extras” that didn’t make it into the movie but contribute to a novel that is hilarious and fantastical. Goldman’s editorial asides, biographical anecdotes and surprisingly plausible insistence that he is merely the translator, not the creator, of this tale, create a mind-bending false reality that seems to blur the line between fact and fiction (when actually, it’s all fiction). The book is also a valuable read for those interested in screenwriting and filmmaking. When compared to the movie, it is an education to realise what was left out, what was added in, and what was changed by an author who is also an accomplished screenwriter.
[Why I read it: I was too young to completely understand the book the first time; it might never have ended up back on my reading list if one of my sisters-in-law hadn’t mentioned it and given me a craving.]
This slim novel is an entertaining read (disturbing at times), but the storyline felt uncomfortably familiar, like a mash-up of The Princess and Curdie, a Miyazaki film and some Doctor Who episodes, with villains from Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings thrown in for good measure. I understand that there are only a few basic themes and archetypes that comprise most fantasy, but Gaiman’s story did not help me experience them in any way that seemed new or noteworthy, tending instead more toward the cliche and pat. Perhaps it merely betrays its origins as a short story, or perhaps I am sated with excellent fantasy, or perhaps I was just in the wrong mood–there are many reasons why I will give this famous author another try.
[Why I read it: My friend, Alison, enjoyed it and brought to my attention that I haven’t read anything by Gaiman yet (except his collaboration with Terry Pratchett: Good Omens).]