Book Review: ‘The Last Wish’ by Andrzej Sapkowski

‘Evil is evil…Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same.’

Last Wish book

My first exposure to the world that Andrezej Sapkowski created took the form of the critically acclaimed Witcher games by CD Projekt Red following the adventures of an amnesiac monster hunter named Geralt of Rivia.

The loss of Geralt’s memory ensures the player does not have to have a prior knowledge of the books the game was based on before picking up and playing, as the games are set after the events in the books, and Geralt cannot remember what happened.

That changes by the final game, The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, as Geralt has regained his memory, and his past from the books drives forward the story in the games.

One of the missions in that game is named the Last Wish, which calls back to the very first book in the Witcher series, a poetic curtailing of the world that Andrezej established.

But before we look at the end of the story we have to turn back to the begining if that story and that is what The Last Wish gives us.

The Last Wish has a non-standard narrative structure, taking the form of a series of short stories that establish who Geralt of Rivia is, tied together by the overarching narrative of Geralt reflecting on his during a time of recovery following an injury during a particular monster hunt.

This particular structure does leave you feeling like you are watching the clip show episode of your favourite TV series, but the fact that these stories are new prevents the creeping boredom that can be evoked by the often overused TV trope. Instead we are shown who Geralt of Rivia is by being given a selection of stories, such as might be told by a travelling bard, for us to understand who he is, even if we do not fully understand where he has come from by the end of the book.

The writing style is simple but paints an effective picture of a well-realised world where folklore and fantasy blend together with a realistic medieval setting. I understand the world well very early on in the book, but still have questions about the mechanics of its ontology, which is how a fantasy world should be introduced. The characters in the world don’t fully know and explore the mysteries of the world at the same time as we do.

The book is translated into English from its original Polish and so I will put some of the simplicity down to being lost in translation, as the rest of the world building is effective enough that simplicity is not distracting or unwanted.

A good sense of humour pervades the book with a smile being brought to my lips on several occasions, whether that be by characters own wit or happenstance to unexpected retellings of classic folklore tales.

If you enjoyed watching The Witcher on Netflix, this book is a nice read to see the source material, however all bar-one story in the Last Wish made it into the Netflix series, meaning you will not be reading much that you are not familiar with, and the Netflix Series is fairly close to the source material save for a few minor variations such as would be expected from any adaptation. As such if you read the Last Wish you will know a large portion of what to expect from the Netflix series and vice versa.

I fully enjoyed reading this book, it was a short but fun, slightly pulpy experience, which felt more than the sum of it’s parts by the end.

Having read this book I am now itching to read the rest that Andrezej Sapkowski has to offer. It is not the finest fantasy story ever written, but it is undeniably interesting and fun read, that does not overstay its welcome, and has left me wanting more.

One to Watch: The Witcher

‘Toss a coin to your Witcher…’

The Witcher Poster.jpg

So you watched Game of Thrones and were hooked. The deep character arcs, the bleak setting, the political intrigue and of course, the sex and violence. It was all looking so good…until Season 8 when it all turned to ashes. You never thought fantasy could work for you, and now you’re not sure what could compare to Game of Thrones at its peak. What could bring that excitement back?

From amongst those ashes, The Witcher steps up to the wicket with a grim-faced Henry Cavill leading the team, and boy does he hit it for six.

The Witcher follows Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher, a monster-hunter for hire, as he tries to live his life avoiding and navigating the schemes of mages and kings as destiny thrusts him into the limelight.

The Netflix series is 8 episodes long and is based on the book series by Polish author Andrezej Sapkowski. This is the same book series that was adapted into the award-winning ‘The Witcher’ video game trilogy, which has set the standard for immersive and narratively compelling sandbox games. But the Netflix series should not be reduced to comparisons to video game adapted movies; it is so much more.

The first point to note is that the video game series is set after the conclusion of Andrezej Sapkowski’s books, whereas the Netflix series based on the books themselves, which forms an interesting prelude for those who want to go on to play The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.

The acting and action are gripping and bloody and the political plots that are set up are intriguing; all the hallmarks of an exciting fantasy story. The story is not entirely linear, which can be confusing, however when I realised what was going on I found it enormously satisfying to piece together. Some of my friends enjoyed this less, and whilst it is not an issue I had with the series, it is definitely a matter of personal taste as to whether or not this element of the series would be enjoyed. One complaint I do have about the non-linearity of the storytelling is that several character relationships advance off-screen, which can make it hard to understand who has known who for how long at certain points. I think this could be remedied by having a few more episodes to the season to expand on these connections, but I believe that the directors have provided an excellent series given its relatively short number of episodes.

My only other complaint about the Witcher is the CGI in places is janky, and clearly on a TV budget, not a film one. This is not fatal to the series and understandable given this is an untested TV IP. Hopefully, future series will be given a higher budget to correct this.

Witcher BAnner

I thoroughly enjoyed this series and cannot recommend it enough to people who enjoyed Game of Thrones or who have played The Witcher video games. I am already itching for a season 2, and have started reading the book series to get my Witcher fix.

My final recommendation is not to watch this series on a commute. There is a significant amount of nudity, particularly in the early episodes, which might make for an uncomfortable public viewing experience.

The Shining: Watch It Or Read It First?

This article contains minor spoilers for both the book and film adaptation of The Shining.

If you are reading this there is a good chance that you know the drama that comes whenever a film or TV series based on a book comes out. Do you watch it straight away or try to read the source material beforehand?

I am a habitual read the book firstperson, and the worst kind of person to watch a book based film with. Throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Lord of the Rings films I have had to constantly consciously hold my tongue to stop me whispering my insider knowledge to my irritated family I am seeing the film with. Often with the announcement at the end of the film that the book was better’.

But with time I have learned to appreciate and respect the differences between the two story telling mediums. Following these points of personal growth, I did what once I thought was unthinkable, and saw a film before reading the book.

The film in question?

Stanley Kubricks iconic film The Shining.

The Movie Poster (Shining)

The film is so interspersed in our pop culture that many scenes in the film will be familiar to watchers by virtue of parody in other shows such as The Simpsons, which is why I thought it was a prime candidate for this experiment. And with the experiment now complete, I am ready to share the results with you, to help you make the decision on whether or not you want to break with tradition and watch this film before reading the book.

What are you wanting to experience?

Whilst both mediums tell a similar story each has a different focus that fundamentally changes the experience for the reader/viewer. Both book and film tell the story of the haunting experiences of the Torrancefamily whilst they are snowed in at the isolated Overlook Hotel over the course of several months. But how that story is told varies distinctly, and naturally when you have experienced one medium, some of the tension is pulled out of the other by the reader/viewers foreknowledge of the events that are going to unfold. In fact I believe that this foreknowledge is what was likely to be responsible for my issues with the pacing of the book, which I highlighted in my review last week.

The book has a distinct focus on the more supernatural elements of the story, looking into the dark history of the Overlook Hotel, and the obsession that starts to grow within the Torrance family, in relation to this storied history. In this regards it is much clearer what is happening in the book when compared to the film. There is some distinctly odd imagery in the film that seem unexplained and weird for weirdness sake, however it becomes more clear what this imagery is in reference to upon reading the book. Further the titular shiningis explored with much greater detail in the book and is a relevant plot point, whereas it seems to be a vestigial story element in the film, and could be entirely cut without removing anything significant from the story.

The film by contrast focuses on the mental trauma of isolation and the growing madness it causes. Haunting events still occur, but the question in the viewer’s mind is Is this happening or is it all in their heads?As a note of personal preference I find this horror to be more effective, as it feels more grounded in reality. The film continually utilises long cuts to build tension which works perfectly with the more psychological horror theme of the film. In a more artistic note the film uses single-point perspective extensively, clear inspiration for Wes Anderson’s later work. The combination of long cuts and single point perspectives build a sense of the enormity of the Overlook Hotel and the isolation the Torrance family are experiencing.

Both mediums explore themes of toxic masculinity and the damaging effect of patriarchal norms on men and those they love, however the book treats Jack Torrance in a distinctly more sympathetic manner than the film. Jack Nicholsons portrayal of the head of the Torrance house has a continual undertone of an unhinged individual, complicit in his own madness, whereas the book paints the picture of a sincere man struggling to fight his own demons despite his best efforts. Neither can be said to be objectively better than the other as each portrayal is directly linked to the greater thematic focus of each medium.

Does one story completely ruin the other?

The short answer is no. The long answer is that in addition to the different narrative and thematic focus of the book and the film, there are important set-piece differences between the two mediums, which I was surprised to discover. Without spoiling both the film and book completely there are distinct differences between the film and the books climaxes, which are each suited to their own medium and story, and would be less suited to the other should the scenes be switched.

Because of this you will not ruin the film by reading the book first and neither will you ruin the book by watching the film first. It comes down to a point of personal preference which you watch or read first, which hopefully I have helped to advise you on. In either case I would fully recommend experiencing both, as it is rare to find such an effective example of how to tell the same story in two different mediums and how one can effectively adapt a book to a film without sacrificing the artistic integrity of both mediums.

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

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The Shining Book Cover

When it comes to the horror genre there are few authors as established as Stephen King, with ‘The Shining’ being almost as well known as the author himself.

This is in part, due to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of the novel, which launched Jack Nicholson’s career. But this is not the article to discuss the film. Here we are discussing the book.

‘The Shining’ follows the Torrance family as they take over residence of the Overlook Hotel, which closes down business for the icy winter months. Jack, the patriarchal head of the family is hired to be the caretaker of the hotel whilst it is closed, performing necessary maintenance and ensuring the central heating pipes don’t burst from the cold.

But the Overlook has a dark and sordid history, and as the snowdrifts close in, that history starts to come to life.

An Introduction to Horror

I do not have a large exposure to the horror genre when it comes to novels, so this book was something of a toe in the water for me. And I have been left intrigued in the genre, but would not consider myself sold yet.

The book switches from the perspectives of several characters, including each member of the Torrance family. This gifts the reader with interesting insights into the mental states of each character, which is particularly gripping when we are shown things through the eyes of Jack and Danny. But between moments of gripping tension are lulls that seem to go in for a bit too long. Wendy is not written sympathetically, and her self-doubt drags the tension built by the other characters’ perspectives.

There are also moments of awkward, hammy foreshadowing that feel too on the nose to compliment the subtle sensation of growing evil that King is trying to kindle in the reader.

But these hiccups do not undo what King does right. Dark toxic relationships and self-delusion are explored wonderfully, adding a grounding dose of reality to the growing madness that takes place at the Overlook. Whilst the book is undeniably a supernatural horror, the human, non-supernatural elements ratchet the tension, making the supernatural occurrences all the more terrifying.

The crescendo of the story has the feel of a false start, losing tension too quickly but when it does pick up the pace again the climax is tense and disturbing.

Overall I enjoyed reading this book. The Shining is not a masterpiece of writing; scattered with a few too many obscure metaphors, and the pacing issues I have spoken about above, but what it does well it does very well. It is a satisfying read and I am looking forward to exploring more of King’s writings to see if they offer more of the tasty morsels that I found in this book.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in From Software Games

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a staple of advice given to everyone who tries to tell a story. The purpose behind this advice is to avoid excessive exposition; the temptation of every storyteller who wants to let the reader know everything about the characters they have designed and the world they have built.

In every medium the storyteller must work on the balance between showing and telling. Tell too much and there is nothing to engage with, just facts on a page or read out to a listener, like a historical timeline or scientific analysis of an experiment. But if you don’t tell enough then there is no story, just events happening, without the insight that telling provides.

From Software games take this concept to heart and strip down the story telling experience to some of the barest bones that one will experience in a non-indie game, whist still providing an enormous amount of story to explore.

Many people who play their games feel that the storytelling technique employed by From Software falls into the category of events just happening with no story, and there is no real insight into what events take place between the beginning of the game and the end.

This is a view I strongly disagree with, and in this article I will attempt to illustrate the ways that From Software pushes the boundaries in ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling through two key avenues; Item Descriptions and Item Placement.

This article follows on from my previous article on Dark Souls’ story telling, and contains spoilers for the Dark Souls Trilogy, Demon Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is what it says on the tin. The reader understands what has happened, not because the narrator has told then what has happened, but rather because the environment makes it clear what has happened. This is commonly used in video games when you encounter a pile of dead bodies before a major environmental hazard or enemy. The player understands that these bodies are here because something has killed them.

An example taken from Dark Souls would be as you enter Anor Londo. You can summon Black Iron Tarkus to help fight the Iron Golem. He is heavily armoured and incredibly strong. He can almost beat the boss single-handed. And once the Iron Golem is defeated you travel to Anor Londo, which requires you to traverse across the narrow beams of the roof of a cathedral, whilst being attacked by quick and dextrous enemies. On the floor of this cathedral you can find the body of a warrior in giant black armour. It seems that Tarkus may have been able to handle the great Iron Golem, but lacked the manoeuvrability and dexterity in his armour to traverse the cathedral roof, falling to his death.

Tarkus
So close, and yet so far…

From Software uses the placement of items throughout their games to add to the strength of environmental storytelling. This is subtle, and can easily be missed if you are not paying attention.

For an example of item placement being used in environmental storytelling we can take a look at Bloodborne. In Bloodborne you can encounter a young girl who hides inside a house. She can be convinced by your character to try to make it to the cathedral, but you never encounter her there. It is not clear what happens until you kill the giant pig in the sewers. The pig drops a red ribbon, and only drops this item if the little girl sets out from her home.

A player might talk to the girl and kill this pig without ever really thinking about the items they have picked up. This missable story adds to the depth and darkness that is found in Bloodborne; the little girl never made it to the safe place, due to being caught and eaten by the pig, and she only left her safe place because of you.

Pig
It’s twisted grin just makes it all the worse…

Another example can be found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The Guardian Ape drops the item ‘slender finger’ and can be found with a sword embedded in its neck. By sharing drinks with the Sculptor you learn that he used to train in the Sunken Valley with a friend who used a finger whistle. When you bring the finger to the Sculptor he appears to recognise it saying; “What’s that you have there…Where did you get that finger?…I see… To think it was in the belly of an Ape… Let me see it. I’ll fix it to your prosthetic arm.” 

Finger Whistle
A sad story for so simple a description…

The Sculptor never explicitly states it, but if you take in the information presented with you across these different locations and item descriptions you realise the finger is the same finger that belonged to his friend, and you have confirmed the death of his friend by presenting him with the finger, which was not something he was aware of. It is possible that the sword belonged to the Sculptor’s friend, Kingfisher, and the ape killed her when it regenerated from the deathblow she inflicted upon it. It is never confirmed, but there is an interesting story that is told using the environment, without ever explicitly forcing it upon the player.

This second story adds another element of story telling which ties well with environmental story telling, but is distinct. Micro-exposition.

Micro-exposition

Almost every item in all From Software games provide world lore information that the player would not have access to, but not in the form of a large info dump.

You get little nuggets of information and the responsibility of the players to piece these nuggets together.

For example, in Bloodborne the ‘Great One’s Wisdom‘ item has the following description:

“Fragments of the lost wisdom of the Great Ones, beings that might be described as gods.
Use to gain Insight.

At Byrgenwerth Master Willem had an epiphany: “We are thinking on the basest of planes. What we need, are more eyes.”

great ones wisdom
Madness follows…

This micro-exposition might not make a huge amount of sense in isolation, but for a player who pays attention to the Environmental Storytelling and the details of these micro-expositions, a story begins to take shape. Around Yharnham and the College of Byrgenwerth are lots of unspeakable horrors covered in eyes. From these kinds of micro-expositions one can learn that the Scholars at Byrgenwerth undertook experiments to attempt to gain more eyes to achieve the wisdom of the Great Ones, Lovecraftian higher beings.

Although not directly explained, suddenly the monsters you encounter begin to make sense.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice an item named the Ceremonial Tanto has the following item description:

‘Dagger with a stark white blade and hilt. Converts Vitality into Spirit Emblems.

Resting replenishes its charges.

Originally, this tanto was used in a ritual offering to the dragon, in which an emblem would be cut from one’s own life force and set adrift on the Fountainhead waters.

The blade is inscribed with its true name: “Devoted Soul”.’

tanto
Carve emblems from your body…

This item gives players an insight into the world that they are living in. We do not know why this ritual was performed or what it sought to achieve, but it gives the player a taste of information that encourages interest in the player and adds to the depth of the game more effectively than if the player had been given a larger exposition dump on how the dragon was worshiped.

You get an aperitif of story, that builds the experience without overloading it with large volumes of text that often go unread (*cough, cough, Dragon Age: Inquisition, cough*).

Tying Storytelling Together

The storytelling philosophy of From Software undeniably attempts to embody the concept of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ with varying levels of success. The fact that many gamers struggle to follow the story of earlier titles they have produced shows that this is not something that they have always done as effectively as they can, although the work of fans like VaatiVidya shows that the deep and complex stories are there to be found.

With From Software’s latest release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, From Software seems to have found a good balance of showing and telling. The story is easy to follow, and we still have a glut of world building that happens only in environmental storytelling and micro-exposition, adding to the depth and enjoyment of the experience.

Seeing how these techniques work for telling stories in video games is something that should be studied by both video game creators and writers of traditional fiction.

The translation to paper of these techniques may be tricky to master but should lead to effective and creative storytelling and world building.

Book Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

‘The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.’

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I am a big fan of epic fantasy. I love the Lord of the Rings, despite how over-written it can feel, I enjoyed Eragon, before I found out that it follows the same story as Star Wars Episode IV, and I love George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. So I was surprised when I discovered that I had missed out on a large fantasy epic series that was fairly well known named The Wheel of Time.

Much like The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time series is author Robert Jordan’s magnum opus. There are 13 books in the series, and Robert Jordan passed away before finishing the last two, which were finished using his notes, in the same manner as Christopher Tolkien has constructed and published the books his father had written or intended to write when he died.

I have only read the first book so far; The Eye of the World, and whilst it certainly has the narrative cliffhangers that pull the story into the rest of the series, it does not prevent the book from being a fully self-contained story. This makes it perfect for someone to pick up if they are uncertain about committing to a 13 part series; you can read the book and if you don’t want to spend longer in the world, you will at least have the satisfaction of a complete story, loose threads being more of an intrigue as to what the future may hold than an story arc that feels unsatisfactorily left open.

The Eye of the World follows the story of a group of village youths, Rand, Mat, and Perrin, being taken from their town by a mysterious Aes Sedai; a sorcerous woman whose power is feared by everyone in the village and surrounding towns. An evil force pursues the youths, and they spend the book coming to understand why this evil wants them so desperately and what they can do to protect themselves.

This summary makes the book sound like a fairly standard heroes journey, and it does have some very familiar story beats to The Fellowship of the Ring, but where I think Robert Jordan’s book really sets itself apart is its cosmology.

This cosmology takes heavy influences from East and South Asian mysticism, with time being an unending wheel where key world events happen unerringly in cycles, a cycle of death and rebirth, all of which is fuelled by the One Power, a fundamental force of Robert Jordan’s universe. This Power is the source of all magic, and is divided into male and female halves, two parts of a whole, that can only be touched by those of the corresponding sex. But there is not balance; one half of the One Power has been tainted by evil and cannot be safely channelled. These light and dark halves of a whole evoke the concept of ying and yang to continue the East Asian faith theme.

This underlying cosmological groundwork is placed under a more traditional good versus evil framework, with similar language used as is found in Abrahamic faith; there is a good but distant creator, mysterious and unknowable, and a devil character, named Shaitain, who takes an active part in corrupting the world, as well as creating evil creatures to serve him in a manner similar to Morgoth and Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.

There is a lot going on with these concepts and the question of what happened to the One Power and whether it can be restored to purity appears to be a thread that will be picked up on in later novels, however the cosmology does not bog down the storytelling. We slowly learn more and more about it as a flavour and explanation for the character development we see as we progress. It facilitates the story rather than constraining it, and this is what helps make the story so gripping. The fantastical rules of this world are very different from the rules we see in Tolkien or Martin’s work, and it is interesting to see how these different rules shape the archetypal characters that we are introduced to.

This book is an accessible and enjoyable read. It is familiar fantasy with a distinct and unique flavour that keeps the reader hooked throughout.

If you like fantasy stories and have not found The Wheel of Time series, I would recommend reading this book, as it provides a new and interesting world to enjoy. It is more accessible than Tolkien, and less convoluted than Martin with similarities to both whilst still feeling fresh.

If however fantasy is not your cup of tea, The Eye of the World is not so different that it is likely to change your mind. It is a book firmly grounded in the fantasy genre and takes it in an interesting direction, but not so far away that you no longer have people with swords fighting bad guys that are embodiments of evil, and evil is evil for evil’s sake.

If you like this article check out more book reviews here.

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

‘Before the beginning there was nothing – no earth, no heavens, no stars, no sky; only the mist world, formless and shapeless, and the fire world, always burning.’

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In Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman invites us to pull up a seat by the fire with our friends and family and listen as we learn about the gods and how they shaped the world.

The book is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of 15 tales from the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, and it effectively transports the reader into the place of early Scandinavians, looking for meaning in the world; an explanation for why things are the way they are, and what qualities one should have if they wish to please the gods.

Each chapter is a separate tale, and can be read individually, or as a series of highlights in the massive timeline that is existence itself. The stories are clear to read and easy to understand for the modern reader, with a narrative style more similar to the Hobbit than the Lord of the Rings. Every detail given adds to the readers understanding of the world, the gods and their relationships, and gives clues as to the stories that we are not told, all without bogging down the narrative or leading to confusion.

Reading this book reacquainted me with stories that I read as a child. I half remember reading the stories of when Thor and Loki travelled to Jotenheim and were tested by the giants, and that Loki was somehow the mother of Odin’s horse Sleipnir, but I could never remember the details. Now, thanks to Neil Gaiman’s masterful retelling these stories are firmly fixed in my mind.

The stories this book tells have not only informed my understanding of the old Norse culture, but continue to inform my experience of more modern media, such as the God of War remake, and Marvel’s Thor movies. Having an understanding of source material allows you to better appreciate the creativity of the authors of these newer stories and interpretations, which I have found improves my enjoyment of these other media, although my friends and family might not appreciate the little ‘did you knows’ I now have at my fingertips when we watch Thor: Ragnarok…

There were parts of this book where I thought the writing was a touch over simplistic, explaining a bit too much, but in the same breath, these are stories you could read to children almost verbatim, and it would be enjoyed. There is always a balance to be struck with accessible storytelling, and I believe that Neil Gaiman has achieved that balance with this book.

If you have even a passing interest in Norse mythology, or the modern stories that have been influenced by it, I would recommend reading this book. It is a short, easy read that, that does not require you to be a linguist to enjoy.

If you like this article check out more book reviews here.