Blood of Elves (1994): Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 4

Blood of Elves gathers together strands from the short stories in Sword of Destiny and sets us off on the first instalment in an epic tale of fate, love and loyalty. As far as I can see, nothing in Season 1 of the Netflix Witcher relates to Blood of Elves, so I imagine that its storylines will come into play in Season 2 (hopefully in a slightly more linear fashion). Here we rejoin Geralt, Witcher and monster-slayer by trade, and his new ward Ciri, deposed princess of Cintra. They have withdrawn to the Witcher stronghold at Kaer Morhen, where (excitingly!) we meet other Witchers and watch Ciri being trained in the skills she will need to survive in the outside world. But this is merely a moment, a brief catching of the breath, before that world begins to impose on Kaer Morhen once again. As Ciri’s needs outstrip the Witchers’ abilities, they must find somewhere else for her, while Geralt has unfinished business out on the politically ravaged Continent.

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The Last Wish (1993): Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★½

The Witcher: Book 1

Everything has suddenly become much clearer. Boys and girls, don’t follow my example and start with the earliest date of publication in the Witcher series. The Last Wish is definitely the place to start and I now have answers to several of the questions that were troubling me at the end of Sword of Destiny. That’s not to say that everything will be laid out nice and neatly: The Last Wish, like Sword of Destiny, is a collection of six short stories and these dart around chronologically within the story of our hero Geralt. They are all bound together, however, by parts of a seventh story, taking place in the ‘present day’ – although the ‘present day’ sits somewhere between the timelines of the stories ‘Sword of Destiny’ and ‘Something More’ from the collection Sword of Destiny. It’s all a little bit confusing, but worth the effort: to my relief, one of the stories in The Last Wish even links in with the first episode of the Netflix TV series. And, while these stories aren’t as light-hearted as those in Sword of Destiny, Sapkowski still has a lot of irreverent fun undermining some of the most cherished fairy tales in the European canon.

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Sword of Destiny (1992): Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 3*

We’d finished Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and needed a new series to get our teeth into, so I suggested The Witcher on Netflix. I’d bought the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski back in the autumn, when the Kindle versions were on sale and, though I hadn’t yet read any of them, I was intrigued to see what the series was like. The result was an hour of complete bafflement, with both of us trying to get a handle on this new world while also remembering the names of a dizzying number of characters. We haven’t yet moved on to the next episode, but I decided that I needed to do some preparation first. Although Sword of Destiny isn’t the first book in terms of the series’s inner chronology, it was the first to be published, and I hoped this collection of six short stories would give me a better understanding of the context. As it happens, there’s only the very slightest crossover, but the stories turned out to be an unexpected joy. Far funnier than the TV show, they were the perfect way to whet my appetite before plunging deeper into this engaging world of old-school sword-and-sorcery.

*Opinion seems to differ on the reading order, but this seems the most common.

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006): John Boyne

★★★★

Oh good heavens. As you know, I’ve wanted to read more John Boyne and, when looking for something short to read between longer books, I spotted this. ‘Yes,’ I said to myself, ‘I know what it’s about. It won’t be fun, I know that. But everyone says how important it is. And besides. It’s a children’s book. It can’t be that bad.’ A day later, I was staring in disbelief at the final page, wondering how on earth I could ever explain this book to my non-existent children and feeling as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

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Dancing Bears (2018): Witold Szabłowski

★★★

True stories About Longing for the Old Days

There’s a fascinating premise behind this book by the Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski. Its first half is devoted to the tale of how Bulgaria’s entry into the EU obliged it to forbid the keeping of dancing bears, thereby destroying one of its cherished traditions. Following the ‘rescued’ bears in their new home, Szabłowski looks at how the animals are coping with their new ‘freedom’ and also follows the fate of their former keepers. In the second half of the book, the bears’ clumsy encounter with their new freedom forms the framework for a series of vignettes assembled in various Eastern and Central European countries, whose peoples are still struggling to define their identities and purpose in the aftermath of Communism. Unfortunately the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first part, but the book as a whole offers a glimpse of an unfamiliar world struggling in that gap between death-throes and birth-throes.

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In the Name Of… (2013)

In the Name Of...

★★★½

(directed by Małgorzata Szumowska, 2013)

As you may have noticed, I’ve been making a real effort to watch more world cinema recently, and Amazon obligingly recommended this award-winning Polish film, which tackles the dark no-man’s-land between faith and desire. Brooding and often bleak, it focuses on Adam (Andrzej Chyra), an energetic priest who has been posted to an out-of-the-way parish in the middle of the countryside. Blessed with a talent for dealing with troubled teenagers, he has set up a residential centre for young offenders, in whom he attempts to instil respect for faith, discipline and obedience. In parts it’s oddly disjointed, but the film lingers for its stark and unsentimental view of life in the countryside, as well as its steadily thickening brew of unspoken longing and confusion.

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