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The book starts out with an extensive report and history on the politics and rulers of the Bohemia/Silesia/Chechz/Polish territories to bring us op-to-date to 1425.
Reynevan or Reinmar of Bielawa may be a brilliant young physician who secretly dabbles a bit in the forbidden arts; he is also a very foolish young man. When he gets caught making out with the married Adele of Strecza by her brothers-in-law he has no choice but fleeing the city. When the youngest brother is killed in a freak accident, the family swears revenge and they organise a real manhunt with some infamous professional trackers.
Along his way, Reimar meets an awful lot of strange characters, some friendly and others not. I’m certain that we will encounter some of these people again, later in the book and series. ). During those travels, he also meets some benevolent supernatural beings that greet him with ‘there’s so few of us left’ and ‘Toledo’(one who studies alchemy as opposed to those with magic in their blood) what includes him in their ranks. He also meets 2 peculiar companions: Scharley a penitent with a dark past and some awesome fighting skills and Samson Honey-eater, a wise being from another realm/dimension that got accidentally trapped in the body of a gentile simple giant. Against every advice he’s given, Reimar insists that Adele has an undying love for him and he is bound to rescue her from her captors. This is after she accused him of sorcery to attract her to him. So, how stupid can you be?
Then there is the Catholic Church intent on raising another general crusade against the Hussite heretics in Bohemia. Political power was in the hands of the church with their knightly orders, monasteries, and bishops just as much as in the kings, dukes, and knights. But even when they want to achieve the same thing, their motives, and reasons still differ. And despite their hate of witchcraft and magic, some secret conspiracy relies on Wallcreepers (a shapeshifter that takes the form of a bird.

This is a textbook plot for fantasy books of course but there’s far more to this story. The series is written against the backdrop of the Hussite wars in Silesia and Bohemia. The Hussite was a Christian movement that followed the teachings of reformer Jan Hus, who preached against the wealth of the church and monasteries. They were one of the most important forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. This predominantly religious movement was also propelled by social issues.
It would have been a good idea to offer a map and a name register, especially as this English translation is aimed at people who are not familiar with the region, the geography, the history, or even the names. I had that problem until I decided to read it as any other fantasy book with its unusual geography and names as imaginary.
On the other hand, the historical context is really fascinating. I can’t stand the temptation to regularly google the names, places, or events that are mentioned and I’ve learned more about the period than I thought. It certainly wasn’t an easy time to live when you could be tried for heresy or witchcraft for just about any excuse. The power of the church was really everywhere, even kings ruled by their grace and needed a papal blessing. It reminds me a bit of the power that IS holds over its subjects and communist indoctrination during the cold war. It paints not a pretty picture of Christianity and I saw little to no love or forgiveness that is preached today. A lot of hypocrisy, I saw.
The fighting and wars at that time were very brutal and violent. Rape, pillage, and plunder were normal practices and even the main incitements to wage a war or crusade. No side is spared in this conflict, both sides are as cruel and disgusting (for modern opinions) as the other.
I must say that the author has really done a lot of research for this series. The devil is in details and there are just so many aspects and details in this long book that are all so well described that you can close your eyes and imagine the streets, woods, and buildings with the smell and sounds included.
As this book is translated from Polish, I must also congratulate the translator for his accuracy in his language that often gives you an idea and feeling for the time described. There is also a poem/song in ancient German (although most of the drinking songs are in Medieval Latin) and I was surprised how much of that I can still understand and some of it was even closer to Flemish than modern German. I’m no expert but that was my impression. There are a lot of Latin expressions and sentences in this novel as that was the international language spoken by the educated people all over Europe.
Years ago, I started to read ‘The Witcher’ by the same author but I couldn’t relate much to the story and didn’t finish it. This book, I loved and I even wonder if I should make another effort to read his other series.
This really is an exciting and interesting story and I can’t wait to read the next translation. With a chase through the city, the first chapters aren’t slow at all as so often happens when the characters are being introduced. We do meet such a large number of people that you can’t tell who will appear later on again or who might be important. So you have to keep your attention well fixed on the story. And then, I got drawn into the narrative and couldn’t read quick enough to find out more. The only drawback is that you don’t pick it up for a 5-minute read.
The author is very subtle in his criticism of mankind. In retrospect, it’s easy to make predictions but some are funny and Samson is great in this. He predicts transport that doesn’t need oxen without polluting the environment at the same time. He also talks about churches that will bear a half-moon crescent.
He draws heavily from Slavic folklore, but not exclusively as amongst others Greek myths and Arthurian lore also feature. We’re being treated on a witch’s Sabbath, magical furry creatures, an old wizard needing aphrodisiacs to satisfy his protective lady and much more. It’s almost magic how Sapkowski melts the actual history with fantastical elements and creates a universe of his own.

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