Take a moment and consider the last time you studied medieval European history, specifically the advent of Hussite “heresy” in the wake of John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into the common tongue. Focus specifically on the years between 1400 and 1440, during which the first through third anti-Hussite crusades took place. If these inquiries bring specific, vivid events to mind, then The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski will be a fitting read for an enterprising European history enthusiast such as yourself.
Set in the powder keg of 15th-century Europe, The Tower of Fools brings readers into a richly referential world of Christian history as it casually dissects the events leading to the Protestant Reformation. Often Sapkowski's references come audaciously close breaking the fourth wall (a character quite literally references nailing theses to a wall while coincidentally owning a cat named Luther). These references are spearheaded by our protagonist, Reinmar of Bielawa, who is an infamous seducer of married women and also a doctor, a student and a mage.
While the book is strongly grounded in the real events and politics of Catholic history in Europe, Sapkowski delights in depicting a range of magical abilities and creatures in his version of medieval Europe. His characters encounter the supernatural in a fairly believable way: with heavy skepticism, then fear, then denial and then, finally, acceptance. Magic, witchcraft and magical creatures enter and exit the story with such abruptness that neither readers nor characters have time to digest the last before the second appears before them. The supernatural elements, however, are not the primary crux of the story. The Tower of Fools deploys irony with the grace of a stampeding elephant, and, as such, our story centers on the king of fools, Reinmar. Reinmar embarks on a journey in which every wise character, force of nature, twist of fate and clear sign from God attempts to dissuade him from pursuing who Reinmar believes is his one true love, Adele. Adele is, naturally, a married woman, and Reinmar meets a motley crew of miscreants during his harrowing quest for her love.
The Tower of Fools clearly sets up for a series but provides ample entertainment as a standalone story. Sapkowski’s primary draw is his ability to weave rich historical context with a complex atmosphere of magic and superstition. The central characters are merely points of view that provide the reader a detailed perspective of the world; Reinmar and company are simple characters who grow little by the end of the story. However, this simplicity services the story Sapkowski tells, providing an easy starting point for readers to navigate the complex politics and superstition of the time period. While this is certainly not a slow read, Sapkowski does dole out plot points at a methodical pace. The first 300 pages or so pass before our central triad of characters meet up, and even longer passes before the larger subplots begin to come together.
Even with a fairly extensive understanding of Catholic history, I needed to keep Google handy while reading, and at one point I looked up a map of Silesia at the narration’s not-so-subtle prompting. Sapkowski often incorporates three other languages, and occasionally up to five, in addition to English: Polish, Latin and Italian primarily, with occasional French and German. He incorporates theology from early church figures like Augustine alongside the “modern” church leaders of the early- to mid-1400s, such as Wycliffe and Jan Hus and the Roman Curia. I would strongly suggest readers take the time to look up the words and references they do not understand. If all of these languages and references scare you—good. They should. The Tower of Fools is not an easy read, but it's quite rewarding for readers ready to take the plunge.