Books

LOG: You Know You Want This reveals more than it intends

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Much like the rest of the world, I was fascinated by Roupenian’s Cat Person when it appeared in the New Yorker. Although I was immensely frustrated by the story and the actions of the main character, I felt Roupenian had tapped into a cultural moment better than anyone else who had tried. It seemed she had something to say and it would be worth it to hear her message. This short story collection shows the promise Roupenian has to craft a compelling message about the darkness of our own desires, but largely I found these stories to be a mix of adolescent drama and egomania mental illness.

How was it?

Let’s start with the good. The last batch of stories in this collection show Roupenian at her most promising. Unsurprisingly, these stories are also the ones that are highlighted by reviews and the jacket cover. These stories give life to the mental disturbances in our own mind by manifesting them as real life terrors, more frequently of the body-horror variety.

  • Scarred is a short tale about a woman summoning a naked man who acts as a cadaver as she cuts him for blood and other ingredients as she betters herself with more black magic.
  • The Matchbox Sign follows a couple where the woman develops strange “insect bites” that spread across her body, while doctors suggest they’re self-inflicted.
  • Death Wish is a first-person recount of a strange sexual fetish.
  • Biter tells the story of Ellie and her desire to bite people for gratification.
Death Wish

There are obvious themes across these four stories. Our desires — specifically sexual fetishes — can corrupt the world around us. They can be a source of self-fulfillment and gratification, while degrading our so-called loved ones. Each of these stories has a different take on how we may respond to being targeted as the supplier of our sick fantasies. Some of us can’t handle it and stay forever disturbed (Death Wish) while others may accept our demented side (Matchbox Sign). Roupenian has tapped into the vulnerability our culture feels when discussing our sexuality and how it exists in the #MeToo era. Although these are the most promising stores in the collection, they often end short of their potential. Quickly wrapping up anticlimactically when it feels like it was just getting good. These later stories show Roupenian is close to synthesizing her ideas into something really quite novel.

However, the rest of the book could convincingly make the case that Roupenian needs to address her own demented desires before further plunging herself into fiction writing. I am a strong believer of separating art from the artist, but virtually every character — their motivations and worldview — appear to be see-through stand-ins for Roupenian herself. Specifically, the thoughts and desires of someone who suffers from intense narcissism. This is evident by the fact that all of her stories maintain this revolting obsession with reputation sabotage, sadism and egomania. Let’s look at some of these stories:

Bad Boy — where a couple discovers their fetish for teasing their friend and using him for sex.

“It became the kernel of a fantasy we shared, picturing him out there with his ear pressed to the wall, all churned up by jealousy and arousal and shame.” (pg. 4)

“As soon as he was gone, though, we got so bored we could barely stand it. We white-knuckled it through two days, but without him around to watch us, we felt so dull and pointless it was almost as though we didn’t exist.” (pg. 8)

Look at Your Game, Girl — a young girl recalls the time when a strange beach-bum’s attention to her could’ve turned her into a nationally recognized name.

“After she went away to college, Jessica came to believe that this early impulse to link her own experience to Polly’s had arisen from a childish self-absorption, the impulse to see herself as the center point around which the rest of the universe revolved.” (pg. 25)

Scarred

The Night Runner — an earnest Peace Corps teacher is pushed to desperation due to a class of girls terrorizing him.

“She was propositioning him, and the joke of her offer to take him back behind the classroom and suck him off in return for a higher mark left him red-faced and stunned, she while strolled back to her desk amidst cheers.” (pg. 46)

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone — a princess seeking suitors decides a mirror that reflects her image, a bucket that echoes her voice, and a thigh bone that replicates her touch, is the “mate” she chooses to spend her life with.

“You love what you love, the king said. If that means you are selfish, or arrogant, or spoiled, then so be it. I love you, and your children love you, and the people of the kingdom love you, and we don’t want to see you suffer any longer.” (pg. 71)

Cat Person — a young woman has a complicated relationship with a man, but ultimately finds herself most attracted to him when he makes her life herself.

“…from the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.” (pg. 83)

“She was starting to think that she understood him — how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded — and that made her feel closer to him.” (pg. 85)

“She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if she were something too bright and painful to look at, and that was sexy, too, being made feel like a kind of irresistible temptation.” (pg. 86)

“As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.” (pg. 89)

Once again, I believe in separating art from the artist. A writer’s ability to create a viciously immoral character does not imply they themselves are viciously immoral, but these disturbing views are not exclusive to one character, or one story, they exist across all of the stories. Roupenian herself has said that reading her stories is a window into her worldview:

Here’s the catch: when you read a story I’ve written, you’re not thinking about me—you’re thinking as me. I’ve wormed my way inside your head (hi!) and briefly taken over your mind. You’re forced to reckon with my full complexity—or, at least, whatever fraction of that complexity I’ve managed to get down on the page.

Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker

With this in mind, it’s obvious Roupenian has a sustained interest in the concept of extreme idolization, to the point where a person is willing to self-harm to please the target of their affection. This theme is present in virtually every character across the many stories within the collection. On its own, this fascination with a dismal personality flaw might be interesting enough to dedicate a dozen short stories to, but what makes You Know You Want This so loathsome to read is how it celebrates the narcissism of its protagonists.

Bad Boy’s protagonists are the tormentors. Look At Your Game, Girl reads like a missed-connections tragedy. The Night Runner routinely emasculates and degrades a person who’s shown to be earnest. The queen/princess of Mirror/Bucket/Thigh Bone is relished for her selfishness. Cat Person’s Margot is hailed as a survivor of toxic masculinity despite being the author of the story’s emotional terrorism.

The Good Guy

These characterizations of immoral, awful people prevailing in their own terribleness is infuriating to read. As if they were the modern-era equivalent of a teenage boy writing about a muscular anti-hero manipulating women into sex. The majority of You Know You Want This reads like a childish power fantasy. One where Roupenian and her subjects acknowledge their immorality and get rewarded for it.

My only hope is that Roupenian is playing a different role than the one she’s been assigned. Viewed as a voice for women in #MeToo, Roupenian seems more interested in examining the extent of awfulness humans are allowed. In what situations do we forgive our tormentors? What becomes our breaking point when we’ve already submitted ourselves to abuse? These are fascinating questions that seem to be on Roupenian’s mind. Most notable in in Biter, where the protagonist’s desire to bite a man is portrayed as deranged, but circumstances arise so that she’s seen as a hero. It’s an interesting conclusion that made me reconsider the rest of the book’s themes.

Final thoughts

I have no idea how this short story collection came about. These very well could be stories Roupenian wrote over a decade ago, before she crafted her style, or understood the target of her obsessions. Maybe she even realized her earlier stories were devoid of morals and has learned to tune them to a wider audience. Maybe that is why the last batch of stories are significant improvements from the ones that precede them. This is all I can hope for.

I won’t diminish Roupenian’s potential. There clearly is some talent behind her writing. However, as a standalone work, You Know You Want This reads like the immature journal doodlings of an egomaniacal prom queen.

1/5

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Books

LOG: Sapkowski finds the Witcherverse’s potential with Sword of Destiny

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

As mentioned in a previous log, I’m in the middle of rereading the entirety of The Witcher books after I lost track of the plot in the third novel — Baptism of Fire.

Sword of Destiny is the second short-story compilation before the true story of The Witcher series begins. While technically these short stories are “separate” from the larger storyline that begins with Blood of Elves, the information from these short stories are utilized in the novels in meaningful ways. For example, Geralt is introduced to Ciri — a future main character — in one of the latter stories of Sword of Destiny. This introduction may not be vital to understanding their relationship but it certainly helps. Considering I dropped off the novels because I felt lost by the revolving-door of characters and conflicts, I wanted to reread these short stories more diligently. Refreshing my memory of what has happened could better prepare me for what events were coming up.

How was it?

I remember really enjoying Sword of Destiny, far more than I anticipated, and even more so than The Last Wish. The author — Andrzej Sapkowski — has clearly set-up what journey he wants his characters to take and as a result the stories in Sword of Destiny feel cohesive with one another. Whereas The Last Wish was a string of subverting fantasy tropes, Sword of Destiny feels like it’s about something. Specifically, Geralt’s philosophy on where he lies in the world’s conflicts, his relationship with Yennefer, and his views on fate.

The Bounds of Reason

The Bounds of Reason is the first story in this collection and may very well be one of the tightest introductions in a short-story compilation. A side character named Threejacks is introduced and frames the reader’s interpretation of the Witcherverse by asking Geralt if he sides more with the forever-conflicting concepts of chaos and order. Threejacks suggests Geralt is one the side of order, because monsters are on the side of chaos, and Geralt kills monsters professionally. However, Geralt counters that a dragon is most certainly on the side of chaos, but witchers don’t kill dragons. This conversation becomes far more complex as the events of the Bounds of Reason unfold and we learn more about Threejacks, as well as what Geralt is thinking at this point in time.  

Bounds of Reason introduces a slew of side characters in the form of various mercenaries, all vying for reward money for a particular contract. These characters allow Sapkowski to reintroduce various parts of the world — the ruthlessly violent professionals, the impractical idealists, the snooty bourgeois, the chaotic monsters, and the common man who’s crushed by each of those groups. The interplay between these groups dumps the reader into the Witcherverse’s shades of gray, while anchoring it all to Geralt’s story and his various friends. In this case, Dandelion and Yennefer. Every one of these characters serves a plot purpose and there is a string of payoffs in the final chapter that provide an immensely satisfying conclusion. It’s practically a perfect story.

A Shard of Ice

Bounds of Reason is followed-up by A Shard of Ice, a story that focuses on Geralt’s relationship with Yennefer and establishes Sword of Destiny’s willingness to tell tales outside of traditional fantasy quests. A Shard of Ice reveals Geralt and Yennefer have been engaged in an on-again-off-again complicated relationship and in that time Yennefer has reconnected with a former lover — a sorcerer named Istredd. Geralt and Istredd become aware of one another and Yennefer’s desire to reduce her number of lovers, pitting them against each other.

A Shard of Ice proves to be a surprisingly modern story, considering it was written in the mid 90s. The dynamic between the three characters is easily relatable to anyone entrenched in the hellscape of modern dating where there is a silent agreement every romantic engagement is deemed “casual,” unless commitment is explicitly stated. A familiar dynamic emerges where all parties believe they were fine with the noncommittal nature of a relationship, but the presence of competition makes them realize they care about it more than they realized, forcing them to rush for a resolution while stomaching emotional pain. This is a good pitch for a story, but a lot of Sapkowski’s writing devolves into this infuriating vagueness in pursuit of being “deep” that can get very frustrating. Specifically, Yennefer tells of a story of an “ice queen” as a metaphor for herself. It starts off coherent enough, but as Geralt throws in his own metaphor and the two intermingle, it becomes less clear what each character is trying to say — or what Sapkowski is trying to convey.

Still, this story is one of the only insights we get into Geralt and Yennefer’s feelings for one another. It’s also one of the few stories that lacks any physical combat or battle of some sort. It’s entirely focused on the characters and their conflict. It shows that their personalities are strong enough to hold the reader’s interest, and the diversity of Sapkowski’s writing ability. It shows where the Witcher stories could go, and sets up the theme of the rest of the book.

Eternal Flame

Eternal Flame is likely the most unique story in the collection simply because it barely follows Geralt at all. Centered around a dwarf named Dainty Biberveldt who’s had his identity stolen by a doppler, this story builds the world of the Witcherverse’s greater economy and various institutions. We get introduced to the city of Novigard — the only worthwhile metropolis mentioned in the entire series — as well as the religious cult of the Eternal Flame, the legal system of local cities, the dwarves’ guild, bankers’ guild and how a market economy is affected by the constant waring of feudal states.

This is one of those stories where fans can reread endlessly to infer additional lore details about the Witcherverse. We get exposed to many elements and sects of life that otherwise exist as background to the tales of Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer. It’s a story that feels remarkably different from the other stories in the collection and solidifies Sword of Destiny’s point of proving the versatility of stories told in the Witcherverse.

A Little Sacrifice

A Little Sacrifice is a low-key, low-stakes, story for Geralt, but it may be my favorite story in the entire series. Geralt takes on a contract to assist a local lord woo a mermaid into marriage, and while doing so he spends time with Dandelion and his longtime friend/fellow musician, Essi “Little Eye” Daven. Geralt and Essi get engaged in the equivalent of a “summer fling,” which forces Geralt to confront his feelings for Yennefer. There’s an obvious theme between Geralt’s fling, and his mission to force an unnatural relationship into success, but they’re surprisingly understated.

A Little Sacrifice feels like a novelty episode of your favorite TV show. There’s no real conflict in the story; it’s pitched as a string of summer days with friends spending time with one another. It’s maybe the only story where you feel a sense of peace and joy in its events. This tone, combined with the subject material of love and regret, creates an immensely melancholy atmosphere. You can feel the impermanence of happiness existing in the story’s pages. Even though this is one of the longer stories in the Witcherverse, I personally felt like I didn’t want it to end. Essi is an incredibly likable character and we see Geralt at his most vulnerable. The final paragraphs of A Little Sacrifice are heart-crushing, and easily one of Sapkowski’s finest moments.

Sword of Destiny

Sword of Destiny’s title-story is significant for its introduction of Cirilla “Ciri” Fiona to the series, but otherwise is the most insignificant story. Geralt ventures through the forest and comes across Elven territory where he finds a mousy young Ciri. He attempts to aid her through the forest, but we’re introduced to the “dryads” of the forest. Psuedo-elves who were human children, straying too far into the forest, and are subsequently captured and indoctrinated into dryad life. Ciri is one such child. Though Geralt tries to intervene with her fate, it becomes clear that he must leave her behind. There are many macro-plot lines introduced in this chapter, such as Nilfgaard’s war, elder blood, elven prophecies, magic and the relationship between various realms like Cintra and neighboring nations, but the drama of this story is lackluster. Sapkowski relies heavily on vague metaphors about a “sword of destiny” that “cuts two ways,” but it’s not clear what this comparison is meant to convey. It also doesn’t help that Sword of Destiny ends anticlimactically, leading directly into the next story.

Geralt shooting fire

Something More

Something More, is the final short story for the collection and launches Geralt onto the journey that will be told for the remaining six novels. After assisting a tradesman on the side of the road, Geralt suffers a near-fatal injury, causing him to drift in and out of consciousness as he recalls previous memories. Primarily, his promise made in The Last Wish’s Matter of Price, where he said he would return in six years to collect on his law of surprise — a barter where witchers offer help, in exchange for “something at home that you don’t suspect,” often a child. In this instance, Geralt goes to the country of Cintra to collect on this law of surprise, but after philosophizing with Queen Calanthe for a bit he decides it isn’t worth the trouble. Leaving Cintra empty-handed, Geralt decides to help the tradesman referenced in the beginning of the story.

Along with the memory of his time in Cintra, Geralt recalls one of his prior meetings with Yennefer, and partly hallucinates an interaction with his biological mother. These both provide a tied knot for two dangling threads left by the series so far: What’s Geralt’s backstory? And where is his relationship with Yennefer going? The former is explicitly concluded and the latter is framed as a never-ending conflict in Geralt’s life. While it’s nice for Sapkowski to clearly reiterate his intentions for the main character, these interactions feel a little stale. I’ve never desired an answer to Geralt’s lineage, so the mother scene feels out-of-place. Additionally, Yennefer has been a constant presence within the book so far, so to emphasize her importance once again seems repetitive.

Finally, the crux of this story is centered around the vaguely fatalist “law of surprise” and the complicated lineage politics of Cintra — a lesser-nation in the context of the world’s greater geopolitics. It’s easy to get lost in the needlessly confusing threads spewed across this story. The multiple flashbacks and reintroduction of old characters makes it difficult to know where the story is going, what it’s trying to accomplish, or what we should be paying attention to. All of these thoughts swirl together until it abruptly reveals Geralt’s reward for the law of surprise: Ciri, effectively binding each other by fate, or as the book states — something more.

Final Thoughts

Taken as a whole Sword of Destiny leaves a powerful impact. The first four stories are so phenomenally told and wonderfully unique, it creates a lot of excitement for the prospect of a full-fledged novel in the Witchverse. However, the final two chapters show how Sapkowski can sometimes get lost in the various themes and characters interacting with one another to disappointing results. Sword of Destiny simultaneously shows how the characters are strong enough to support a story on their own, while also reminding readers of Sapkowski’s flawed desire to keep adding more ingredients to a formula that’s fine on its own.

Although it may end on an indication of things to come, Sword of Destiny is still one of the best books I’ve read. It’s surprisingly modern and dense with interpretations. It’s the book I remember whenever the novels slow in pace, because I know the slog will be worth it if Sapkowski can recapture what he accomplished in this series of stories.

5/5

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Books, Politics

Log: The Coddling of the American Mind

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

In 2015, I read Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty. At the time, it seemed like our country was at the height of on-campus hysteria and reading that book gave me an enormous peace of mind. For starters, it looked like the bulk of these problems were originating from the left — the portion of the spectrum I had identified with my entire life. If I disagreed with what was happening on the left, did that mean I belonged somewhere else? This thought led me to researching conservative ideologies which I quickly deduced were not representative of my views at all. I felt out of place. There was nowhere in this new dynamic where I was represented, but then I read Lukianoff’s book.

Lukianoff is a self-described lifelong Democrat who cherishes free-speech and other liberal ideals. These were views I aligned with. I consider myself a free speech absolutist, but at the time it was difficult to find anyone who agreed with view that wasn’t a right-wing lunatic. Lukianoff’s take was refreshing and gave me the insight I needed to make sense of the crazy world we were descending into. From Lukianoff, I was introduced to many other public intellectuals. Jonathan Haidt, co-author of Coddling and a researcher who did studies on political tribalism; Sam Harris, who I had cursory knowledge of but didn’t look into many of his views; Steven Pinker — and eventually more uniquely political-defined characters such as Mark Lilla, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Jordan Peterson and Brett / Eric Weinstein. Reading Lukianoff’s book set me on a path to finding the voices I now consider the most valuable in our current moment.

Of course, 2015 was not the peak year of campus hysteria or whatever we want to call this strange time we’re living in. It’s not clear we’ve reached the peak. You could argue 2018 was the worst year yet, but 2019 has already started with a viral scandal about the media’s portrayal of MAGA hat-wearing teenagers and if they didn’t anything wrong or not. We’re clearly still in a time we don’t quite understand. The Coddling of the American Mind is a book that attempts to resolve some of the mysteries of how we got here.

Greg Lukianoff

How was it?

It’s interesting to read a book by two authors because you can pretty much tell when one section is written by one or the other. Lukianoff is an effective writer and makes every sentence meaningful. I tend to highlight key sentences or phrases that impact me and I had to stop myself from highlighting entire pages of this book. Of course, other sections are far more sparse of quality one-liners and take a bit to get to the point (my analysis is these sections were written by Haidt). In terms of pure readability, this is an engaging book on a topic that could’ve come across as dull. Although I have to say the introduction chapter has one of the dumbest framing gimmicks I’ve read in nonfiction.

In terms of information, I was a bit surprised the book’s thesis relied so heavily on other authors. Specifically, Nassim Taleb’s theory on anti-fragility is front and center for most of the book. Other authors and written works are pulled from Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids and Jean Twenge’s iGen. I suppose it’s worth saving the time by not rehashing what other experts have already concluded, but at times it felt in the dark on the full-scope of an explanation because I wasn’t well-read on the other sources of information the authors repeatedly pulled from.

Jonathan Haidt

Of course the book has a fair amount of its own analysis, especially in the “How Did We Get Here?” portion of the book. It makes a compelling case for how the issues born on campus actually came from a variety of sources that intermingled for this very specific catastrophe of free society. This isn’t a book that gives a simple answer for a complicated problem, there are many layers to the issue and each one is extracted and examined. The book doesn’t suggest the finger can be pointed at any one event or individual, this is an issue that came to life due to many influences and all of them must be addressed.

The end of the book concludes with ways to potentially address the problems and I thought this was one of the stronger sections of the book. For one, it helps to end a grim book on a point of optimism. It also helps that the solutions range from small-scope to large-scale and are all backed by data. Something as small as restricting kids’ time on smartphones is an easy life change to make, but others like incentivizing students to take a gap year after high school by altering college admissions to favor that behavior, show how institutional change could affect these outcomes as well. You finish the book feeling like there is a way out of this hole we’ve dug into.

Final Thoughts

I’ve followed the issue of campus hysteria pretty closely for five years, so a lot of this book was a rehash. It felt slow at times; mainly when I was in a section about an experience I still have fresh in my memory. Even with the repetitiveness, this book has macro-level analysis that isn’t always possible in the news cycle of individual events. The third and fourth parts of this book offer the reader an opportunity to step back and see the extent of the situation we find ourselves in as a country. These parts of the book are what made the reading experience worth it.

I can only imagine how much more rewarding this book would be in the hands of someone who had no knowledge of this issue, or maybe only heard about it on their periphery. This book acts as a great introduction for the unfamiliar and adds important insight to a problem others may be well aware of.

4/5

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Books

Log: Entering the Witcherverse with The Last Wish

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Earlier this year I finished Baptism of Fire, the third novel in the Witcher franchise, but the fifth book in the series (the first two books are a collection of short stories). The story of Baptism of Fire is largely self-contained. The main hero — Geralt — goes on a very linear adventure looking for his pseudo-adoptive daughter — Ciri. Geralt goes to one place, then another, then another, and another. He meets many people and these characters and their relationships get a good deal of progression, but at the end of the book the narrative pulls back reminds the reader of the macro-scale politics that are going on in the world while Geralt was galavanting in the forest. It was in these final few pages of the book that I realized I had no idea what the hell was going on.

If I’m being honest, the feeling of confusion has been the most defining attribute of the Witcher book series for me. It seems as if it was written for an audience that would read, and re-read, every entry to pick away at the world — something I have no interest in doing. I’ve consumed most of my understanding of the Witcherverse through the games which I hoped would catch me up to speed enough to understand the books. But when it comes to these grand feuding political entities and their individual motivations, I get totally lost. It also doesn’t help that there are plenty of characters who have hidden motivations or mistaken motivations and many of those characters don’t appear in the games at all. One example that comes to mind is Vilgefortz, who’s referenced in Witcher 2 as a type of guy you can envision being a main antagonist. Vilgefortz appears in the second novel — Time of Contempt — and his introduction is such that it becomes very obvious he’s a significant character worth remembering. In Baptism of Fire, Vilgefortz does not appear at all, and if it wasn’t for Witcher 2’s mention of him I would’ve forgotten about him entirely — the same way I forgot many other characters.

Witcher5

One of the strengths of the Witcher games is it knows to anchor your interest in the world with characters Geralt has a direct relationship with.

If any other book series had done this to me, I would’ve given up on it. I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to individual books (I almost never give up on a book, I force myself to finish it even if it takes years of chipping away at it), but for a book series I’ll easily abandon it if one book loses my interest. I did this with The Magicians series where the second book handled a heroine character so catastrophically I swore off the whole thing. At this point, The Witcher has committed a similar grave error. I read books to enjoy them and if I have to take notes just to know what’s going on that’s not conducive to an enjoyable experience. It makes reading feel like work. Suddenly reading this series becomes a literal chore and I don’t want to have that experience.

But I also feel an obligation to The Witcher. I loved Witcher 3 so much. I like the characters Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer. I like Sapkowski’s interest in politics and the allegories he creates for the modern day. I also truly enjoyed the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. I even remember really liking Time of Contempt. So where did it all go wrong? Maybe I took too long to read the individual books, or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. There’s enough doubt in my own ability to compel a re-reading before I swear off another series that I really have every reason to like. So, I started re-reading The Witcher franchise, starting with the first short story collection. This time with a more critical eye: What is it about the series that turned me off? Where does it all go wrong?

How was it?

Unsurprisingly, The Last Wish remains one of my favorite fantasy books. This was my impression when I first read it a few years ago and its quality holds up today. In a way, re-reading this book was the first true reading I’d done of it. When I first began the Witcher books I got confused on which book came first so I actually started with Sword of Destiny. I didn’t notice the error until I started The Last Wish, where it becomes very obvious that I had consumed the story out of sequence (Yennefer is introduced in Last Wish whereas she’s a prominent character throughout Sword of Destiny). This time around, I got to read The Last Wish as a true introduction to the Witcherverse. Every story told was an indication of what Sapkowski thought was vital about the world he was creating. It was a revealing re-read and I want to share some thoughts from each individual story:

Witcher4

The Witcher games pitch Geralt’s profession as supernatural detective work, but the book is far more politically focused.

The Voice of Reason

I should mention up front that The Last Wish is framed with the backdrop of an overarching story called “The Voice of Reason.” The Last Wish has six self-contained short stories, but each one is broken up by a few pages dedicated to The Voice of Reason which typically sets up the next story.

There’s probably a good reason Voice of Reason exists but it’s easily the worst part of the book. It’s disjointed delivery and shallow scope offers nothing but confusion to the reader. Maybe Sapkowski wanted to give The Last Wish a sense of “conclusion” that it didn’t have otherwise if it ended on a random short story, but Voice of Reason is a poor substitute. Its problems get worse as the book goes on. By the final installment, Geralt has a “climactic” fight with a character who was introduced several chapters ago. Which means you have to read two self-contained stories plus a chapter of Voice of Reason without this character, so I can’t fault anyone for forgetting the identity of this character or why they’re upset with Geralt

Voice of Reason is a shape of things to come from Sapkowski’s storytelling. My experience with the Witcher novels is reading about characters as if I should know who they are, but it’s been several hundred pages — or sometimes multiple books — since I last ran into them.

The Witcher

The introduction to Geralt and the Witcherverse is basically perfect. You get everything you need to know about this world in a single story — specifically how it subverts genre tropes. I’ve always heard that the Witcher series is known for subverting tropes, but it’s been a funny experience for me. I am a Polish American, and although I won’t say I totally understand Polish culture, I have some understanding of Polish people (specifically older Polish men) and their tendencies. I’ve always considered Polish people to have a streak of contrarianism. There’s probably a good historical reason for this. I imagine the concept of “general wisdom” has always been a term dominated by Western societies that have no interest or understanding of Polish culture and customs. So to Polish people, the “general wisdom” is simply the thoughts of westerners that don’t know anything about their life or values. But since Polish culture is a minority, it comes across as being combative and contrarian. This is a half-baked theory that probably deserves more research before I make such bold claims, but that’s the unedited version of my thesis at this point in time.

The reason I mention this streak of contrarianism is because The Witcher seems conceived from a place of contradicting the current fantasy norms. Mages are not intelligent scholars but self-interested rejects who can’t be trusted; Elves are not mystical environmentalists but ruthless rebels with no interest in diplomacy; Geralt is not a knight in shining armor but a mercenary who kills monsters for money, and etc. Even the details of the plot have slight deviations that give The Witcher a grittier feel. Geralt is tasked with saving a King’s daughter, but not from a monster, she is the monster — a striga. And why is she a monster? Well because the King had an incestuous affair with his sister. Some might say the Witcherverse exists in shades of gray but it’s closer to shades of black. Pretty much everyone in the universe is an asshole, which is not unlike our collective experience in life.

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Nothing is ever simple for Geralt. Every bit of information affects various parties and their attitudes toward him.

But then there’s Geralt. Who’s portrayed as a politically neutral actor focused on his job and that’s it. It’s interesting to hear that Geralt — and by extension Sapkowski — has become a right-wing hero to some readers because of the values he puts forth. For example, in the introduction story, Geralt is focused on his work and nothing else. He believes he has a trade and his purpose in life is to excel at the responsibilities and duties of that trade. There’s definitely a conservative value in that approach that some readers may see as admirable. However, I feel this is a shallow reading of Geralt’s motivations.

As interesting as the genre-defying window dressing may be, this story — and the Witcherverse itself — really comes into its own when Geralt is given a counter-offer to the King’s predicament. Rather than cure his daughter, a loyalist asks Geralt to kill the monster. The loyalist offers more money, but Geralt doesn’t believe the sum will be paid and even if it were, he can cure her, so why kill her? If that wasn’t an interesting dynamic enough, another political actor asks Geralt to leave the town. Don’t cure the daughter, don’t kill the striga, leave things as is. Geralt intuitively sees this political actor wants to oust the King, and it’d be easier to do so if the striga ran rampant.

This added plot point is what dumps the reader into the world of the Witcher. Even a neutrality-focused mercenary finds himself entrenched in politics. Sure, witchers have a “code,” but even Geralt admits it’s used as a convenient reason to decline contracts that seem more trouble than they’re worth. This is where the modern-day allegories become obvious. It seems we’ve been thrown into a world where every action is political and no one can remain totally neutral. This is a concept that’s developed more fully throughout the novels. It’s the idea that made Sapkowski’s books so successful and what makes the series unique. It’s evident in the very first story and it’s what makes this particular introduction so rewarding to read.

In the end, Geralt satisfies the wishes of the King and it seems as if all the bad guys have been defeated and the good prevails, but we’re left with this world that’s buried in unfairness. Geralt is mistreated throughout the entire story. His morality has no benefit. In fact, he probably lost money by adhering to it. So what is the fate of this character in this world? The Witcher is a great self-contained story but its greatest accomplishment is piquing interest in where things could go next.

A Grain of Truth

The Witcher eventually becomes a fascinating political world, but A Grain of Truth is the first deviation to traditional fantasy elements that have never been Sapkowski’s strength. This story is meant to be a redux on Beauty and the Beast where the beast is kind of an awkward jerk and the beauty is a monster he’s fallen in love with. From a lore perspective, this story sets up the monster side of the world. Not only are there various factions and political entities in the Witcherverse, there are also monsters who can co-exist with some humans or resolve their own problems with one another. Not every monster needs to be killed. In fact, a horrifically cursed man can fall in love with a nice creature of the woods.

While that sounds nice, reading this story is a bit of a chore. Sapkowski seems to enjoy describing scenes with a thesaurus on hand. One passage on page 50 uses the words mottled, festooned and plinth, which you wouldn’t think are enough to completely devalue an entire section but no matter how many times I read it my eyes glaze over and no image is imparted onto my imagination.

There are other lore concepts that are introduced in this chapter but it’s all very forgettable. None of these off-handed references add depth to the world, other than mentioning there’s various types of monsters and magic. Sapkowski has never seemed interested in explaining the fantastical elements of his stories so when a narrative focuses on those aspects, it’s not very engaging.

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Lesser Evil shows the Witchverse for what it is: grim and full of death.

The Lesser Evil

Lesser Evil is one of the more iconic stories from The Witcher, and potentially the best short story of both books. The central conflict in this story is an excellent synthesis of the world of The Witcher, but even before we get to that this story introduces some other realities in the universe.

The color of Lesser Evil fills in the grim thanklessness of Geralt’s work. At the beginning of this story he kills a monster but finds out there’s no contract listed in town — resulting in no pay. When Geralt meets with a sorcerer later, he makes a quip about witchers killing off the last of endangered species. These two encounters show how Geralt’s profession ensures he gains no fans from experts in monsterology, and it’s also rare for the common folk to show him any gratitude. He finds himself between the two worlds, serving a role that neither really cherishes, even if they do benefit from safer country roads due to witchers pruning monsters from the path. This isn’t a world of honor and prestige, it’s about individualism and people only acting in their best interests in the worst of ways. For example, there’s this passage from Geralt that shows what the world is like outside the stories told:

“One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off. Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters. In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at a banquet every minute, blue from poisoning. I’m used to it.”

More so than the prior stories, Lesser Evil shows the Witcherverse isn’t a fun fantasy world. It’s a dark place. This isn’t one of those worlds where you wish you could visit and stay for a while. These details do a nice job for filling in the world but also prepare the reader for the content of Lesser Evil’s plot.

Geralt runs into a sorcerer named Stregobor, who says he’s being hunted by a woman named Renfri. She’s coming to town to kill him. Stregobor hires Geralt to protect him, but to be extra safe, he stays locked up in his tower. Geralt seems confident he can resolve whatever murderous dispute exists between the two, but Stregobor says it’s not so simple.

He explains that Renfri bares the Curse of the Black Sun — being born during an eclipse. The curse is known to cause tendencies of insanity and pushes people to cruelty. The curse is well-known and as such, Renfri has been treated as a potential serial killer her whole life. Her step-mother attempted to have her killed. Stregobor was assigned the task of putting the girl out of this world but his plan went wrong and she escaped.

Given that background, it’s easy to sympathize with Renfri. She’s been mistreated her entire life. Even her own family wants her dead. It seems obvious that anyone who is treated as evil their entire life will develop a chip on their shoulder and may feel the desire to exact revenge on their terrorizers, but that’s not the result of a curse — it’s an understandable response from someone who’s been abused their whole life.

At the same time, Renfri doesn’t do a very good job at convincing Geralt — or anyone else — that she’s not a demented lunatic. The plot finds its own conclusion, but it’s difficult to see the resolution as anything but a tragedy.

Renfri’s story, and Geralt’s predicament, can act as allegories for other political issues. In any issue, there are abusers and the abused. It’s easy to imagine sympathizing with the abused, but there are instances where the abusers have their hands tied or are the results of other actions they may have mishandled (If you find it difficult to consider the thought that some people “deserve” the abuse they receive, consider this op-ed from a Silicon Valley billionaire who argued rich people are more mistreated than German Jews in the 1930s). While it may be true one side’s anger is more deserved, or maybe both sides are equally delusional, the reality of politics remains the same. Sympathizing with either side necessarily earns you an enemy of the other. There is no resolution in these types of conflicts, there is only tragedy. Especially when one side tries to radicalize their actions, hoping it will bring the result they desire.

It’s an excellent point, deliver perfectly by Sapkowski’s writing that doesn’t play favorites with either side’s depiction. Reading the story feels like being between a rock and a hard place, a location that Geralt will occupy many times over across all the Witcher stories.

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A Question of Price

So begins the unending tale of Cintra and its royal class. This story is the first mention of Calanthe, the grandmother of Ciri, and the country Cintra. Cintra has quite a significant place in the geopolitics of The Witcher and much of it stems from the royal bloodline and alliances made or broken in an attempt to preserve that bloodline. While this plotline’s first mention in A Question of Price isn’t so egregious, I have a hard time enjoying this short story since it represents everything I’ve come to loathe about The Witcher series.

For one thing, it introduces an immense amount of characters and expects you to remember them. Anyone who’s played the games knows about the culture of Skellige Islanders, and if you’re a devoted fan you may know that Mousesack is the same character as Ermion (he was renamed for obvious reasons), but if you didn’t have those reference points then this story is a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of banter between warrior buddies as they drink around a huge table trying to court Calanthe’s approval to marry her daughter.

Thematically, this story introduces the concept of destiny, and explains the law of surprise — a tradition in the Witchverse where someone chooses their reward to be “what you find at home but don’t expect,” often a child. This is a key development for Geralt’s relationship with Ciri, which is explained in Sword of Destiny.

It’s neat that this short story carries its significance across the Witcher novels, but it’s not a particularly interesting story. It’s a bunch of lords arguing with a stranger about his rights as a peasant with some random magic thrown in as well. Some of the dialogue is engaging, but this story is mostly all the types of politics people hate with none of the morality predicaments that makes things interesting. Even worse is this short story is likely the most essential for understanding the background of many of the events that take place throughout the novels, which makes its slow pace all the more agonizing.

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Edge of the World

This story is likely The Witcher at its most “fun.” You’ve got Dandelion, a talking monster, some pretty ridiculous superstitions and a run-in with the vicious elves. I’ve already mentioned how The Witcher or Lesser Evil set up the tone of the Witcherverse — grim, pessimistic and politically infused — but Edge of the World is a sample of how those elements get interwoven into a world that isn’t always so serious. There are a lot of silly elements in Edge of the World. It’s easy to see how Geralt’s job can go from dangerous to ridiculous, to dangerous again — which is pretty much the arc of this short story.

From a lore standpoint, this is the first introduction to the elves and forest mysticism which is relatively unknown outside of elder races that live outside of society. You also get a sense of where the world “ends.” There isn’t a flat earth with dragons off the side, but if you get far enough from the main civilizations, you’re in elf territory and bound to get your throat slit.

I remember not liking this story so much on my first read-through. Looking at my notes, it seems my younger self got very confused by two characters: Torque and Torviel, being introduced in the same passage (technically Torque is established way before, but his name isn’t mentioned until he’s in the presence of Torviel). Maybe I’m the dumb one here, or maybe it’s a good reminder for conventional storytelling wisdom: don’t have two characters whose names begin with the same letter — especially don’t have two characters begin with the same three letters.

Other than that minor misstep, this is a low-stakes story that shows what Geralt’s day-to-day is like, and it’s a refreshing change from the intense drama seen in the other stories.

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#TeamTriss

The Last Wish

Sapkowski ends The Last Wish by introducing one of his most iconic characters: Yennefer of Vengeberg. I’ve read that Sapkowski created the character specifically to write a female heroine that defied genre tropes. While it’s true that Yennefer’s aggressive attitude, more-than-competent magical ability, and dark fashion sense differed from what was in-vogue for fantasy during the 1990s — Yennefer still falls into some tropes that authors are frequently criticized for. Sure, Yennefer punishes Geralt for sexualizing her, and uses her sex appeal against many men to make them literal zombies to do her bidding, but at the end of the story she’s still a damsel-in-distress saved by our hero, Geralt. And of course, his reward is sex.

This is one of those instances where Witcher 3 has truly left its mark. Whereas the book Yennefer seems inconsistent, the video game adaptation seemed more fully-formed. In the game, Geralt is practically bossed around by Yennefer and the only reason he can hold his ground is because she does truly care about him and his feelings (although he denies having at all). It’s an interesting dynamic, almost the complete flip of conventional love interests in fantasy writing, but in the books that dynamic isn’t as clear. It doesn’t help that the magical bond that ties Yennefer and Geralt romantically seems a bit more vital in their book relationship, whereas in the game its understated. Of course, the follow-up short story collection would expand on their relationship in many ways.

All of this is to say, while Yennefer has become a well-known beloved character in the franchise, her introduction story is merely ok.

Final thoughts

This “short log” is nearing 4,000 words, so I’m completely betraying the goal I had with this log.

I’m glad I re-read The Witcher’s introductory short story collection. Even with a more critical eye, it’s still about as good as I remember. If anything, this process has only revealed to me what I already knew on a subconscious level. There are kernals of greatness in the storytelling that propels me to keep reading just in case there’s another nugget worth reading, but among those good moments are an abundance of dreary politics, ineffective descriptive text, and way too many characters to keep track of. Knowing this could enhance my reading experience moving forward, since I’ll know when I’m entering one of those slog sections that it’s a known weakpoint of the series. I hope this awareness will make the good moments that much more significant.

 

4/5

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Books

Log (Book): One Day — What’s left when you’re alone

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

It may be due to my age but it seems like there’s an enormous number of stories about your teenage “coming of age” years, followed by a huge drop-off until you’re old enough to be the gray-haired mentor in another coming of age story. I’m 26 and suddenly becoming more aware of how rare it is to read a story about where I am in life right now. Anytime I come across a story with a 30-year-old — and I mean a real 30-year-old, not some character who’s written like a wise-cracking 21-year-old but they got Robert Downey Jr. to play the role so now the character is older — I realize how novel it is to gain any perspective on this period of life. Usually it’s mentioned on the side, in service to the story of someone else. Think of Ethan Hawke’s or Patricia Arquette’s characters in Boyhood, their story has just as many developments as the main character but they’re treated as secondary. It seems like a quiet concession from the storytelling world that if you don’t find purpose when you’re growing up, you’re relegated to the status of a minor role in the great tale of life.

It doesn’t seem like it at first, but One Day is about those years stumbling around without much guidance or sense of what to do. Most people know One Day for its gimmicky premise, but I was surprised the book became more than a romantic fantasy about the one who got away. It’s not a story that ends happily ever after, but it’s also not one that throws in a twist ending just to shock the reader. It doesn’t deal in the conventions of popular romance fiction. It feels like the life of two people, bonded by simple attraction and a series of events that reveals their fondness for one another. It’s not a story that’s spoiled by knowing the two of them eventually get together, because it’s not actually about the relationship that’s so prominently displayed on the cover. It’s about the aimlessness of life, the mistakes we make and how they form who we become, and the unavoidable loneliness that defines the decade following the “best years of your life.”

Why did I read it?

I was seeing a girl in college who forced One Day’s film adaptation onto me. I went into it bitter and cynical. It seemed like a stupid premise teenage girls fall in love with because it gives them an excuse not to act on their feelings when they’re younger. Clearly, if “it’s meant to be,” fate will force us to collide again and again until things work out when we’re ready. The childishness of such a fantasy isn’t exclusive to girls. On the other side of things, the story seemed to perpetuate this unrealistic male fantasy that any of the women in their life could easily become their future soulmate if they took interest in them and committed. Neither of these fantasies seem like they deserve consideration.

Despite my grouchiness, I really enjoyed the movie. I liked the characters and there was a mood to the film that matched my experience. I was also a huge fan of the set design (or potentially the directory of photography) because of their use of color in each scene. I may have liked the film but it was reviewed quite negatively for a lot of dumb reasons and a few good ones. I remember reading the main complaint was Anne Hathaway’s accent wasn’t very good. To an idiotic American like myself, that doesn’t really mean much to me. The more worthwhile criticisms complained the movie didn’t convey the spirit of the book and much of it felt too on-the-nose.

It took me five years, but I finally decided to read the book based on my interest in the movie many years ago. In addition to this inherent interest, I wanted to do some research into how to write character points of view and how an omnipresent narrator doles out information to a reader. There are many books that do this, but I also wanted to read some junk novel I could chew through to add to my 12 books a year challenge (which I have never completed successfully).

How was it?

I really loved this book. I would attribute its quality to two decisions.

The book’s framing shows a single day in the lives of Emma and Dexter, every year, for twenty years. It begins with the first day they met and continues until the story finds a conclusion even if the characters’ lives go on. This framing is the book’s essential genius. It allows for the reader to spend a lot of time with the characters and see how they develop over the years. Not every year has a climactic event. Many chapters depict mundane realities of each character’s life that emblemize where they are at that moment. For example, an early chapter shows Dexter vacationing in India, bankrolled by his parents’ money and refusing to commit to any type of career; while Emma slaves away at a minimum wage restaurant job concerned she’s going nowhere in life. This method of storytelling makes the book read like a series of vignettes. It never feels like things are slowing down to address necessary plot developments that occurred off screen. The pace moves quickly and your attachment to the characters goes along in tow.

As important as the framing is, I’d say the second and more important decision was the choice to extend the themes of the book to every person surrounding Dexter and Emma’s lives. Whether they’re plot-pertinent characters or a sideshow that only appears for a few paragraphs, the book treats each character as evidence to its thesis that your late-20s and early-30s are defined by aimlessness and unexpected circumstances. For example, early on in Emma’s storyline she gets offered a promotion at the restaurant job she’s working at. The promotion is something Emma fears more than she desires and that point is made by the description of the current manager. He’s described as a 39-years-old and his life “was never meant to be this way.” Many of the characters embody this feeling of frustration with where they are but unsure what they should be doing. While I related to Emma’s anxious desire to achieve and Dexter’s diminishing returns on “living in the moment,” I found myself relating even more to the various minor characters.

That isn’t to say the Dexter and Emma relationship takes a backseat. One Day accomplishes the rare feat of focusing on a romance and its actually explained why the two lovebirds like each other. Emma sees Dexter exert the confidence she wish she could pull off. She admires his willingness to say what he thinks, as well as his genuine interest in people’s passions and what things inspire that passion. She sees that he’s trying to achieve something meaningful with the skillset he possesses and knows he’s disappointed when his career path forces him to become inauthentic. For Dexter, he admires Emma’s thoughtfulness and intelligence, frequently noting she’s smarter than him, and feels like if he lives a life that satisfies her he knows he’s living a good life. He’s inherited a sense that he needs to perform for a matriarch-figure from his mother and likes that Emma finds him funny and entertaining, even if he can’t keep up with her book-smarts. He’s satisfied that he’s attracted the fondness of someone like Emma, it feels like an accomplishment on its own. Their relationship as friends, and later as romantic interests, feels genuine. It shows the practical reasons why they like each other but also the unexplainable love they feel toward each other that propels them to interact in the first place.

The characters come to life thanks to David Nicholls effective writing style. There are a lot of different standards for what makes “good writing,” and despite reading and writing for most of my life I’m not very tuned into what those metrics might be. I liked Nicholls writing style because it doesn’t waste your time. Every sentence has a purpose and each line serves the greater point of every paragraph and by extension the various chapters that comprise the book itself. In other popular fiction, I sometimes find myself skipping large sections of descriptive text that serves no purpose other than to attempt to force-feed a visual image by riddling the reader with every word the author could find in a thesaurus. Nicholls doesn’t do that. It’s one of the few books where I felt every  sentence was one I wanted to read. I was invested in the characters and the story but it was the writing that kept me going. It seemed like every few pages there was a line that resonated very well.

Final Thoughts

One Day might be a great book or it might have expertly revealed my sentimentality toward the passage of time and empathy toward characters who feel just as lost as I am. It’s entirely possible this book’s sentimentality is eye-roll-inducing and feels corny instead of authentic, but I can’t deny my fondness for it. I’ll admit there are passages from novelty POVs that seem overtly manipulative or cliché, but they’re rare and don’t detract from what makes the book great. I’m not sure if I would’ve liked this book as much if I had read it when I was still in college, or even earlier than that. I’m not even sure if I’d continue to enjoy the book when I pass this stage of my life. What I can say is if you feel lost and disappointed with where your life is in your late-20s, this is an essential book to bring you peace of mind and some sense of hope that things will work out — even if it’s not how you expect.

5/5

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