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Literature / Narrenturm

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Narrenturm is the first novel in a trilogy of historical fantasy novels by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski (of The Witcher fame). It was first published in 2002 in Polish, by Sapkowski's regular publisher, SuperNowa.

Set during the 1420s in Silesia, Narrenturm focuses on the increasingly convoluted and improbable personal adventures of young surgeon, apothecarist and wannabe-wizard and ladies' man, Reinmar of Bielawa, aka Reynevan. All of this with the bubbling cauldron of the ongoing Hussite Wars in the neighbouring Czech lands as a backdrop.

The two sequels are Warriors Of God and Lux Perpetua.

Tropes appearing in Narrenturm:

  • Action Girl: "Nicoletta" as a younger example, Dzierzka de Wirsing as an older example.
  • Anti-Hero: Arguably all the characters in the main cast, but Szarlej in particular. Reinmar also has some flaws and rather unheroic traits that he's not willing to admit to at first, and the sharp-tongued and witty Szarlej likes to remind him of this with regular friendly-but-biting jabs.
  • Automatic Crossbows: Forget it. Part of a later fight scene between Reinmar and one of von Grellenort's crazed henchmen involves Reinmar trying to run away or duck from the blows of the opponent's weapon, all the while struggling nervously to reload a crossbow with a goat's foot lever.
  • Black Comedy: Given the particular setting and Sapkowski's style of writing, there are oodles of it in virtually every chapter.
  • Brick Joke: Several. The tongue-twister challenge between Reinmar and a river boat owner in chapter five is just one such example.
  • Conversational Troping: Urban Horn engages in a medieval version of this when he comes across Reinmar and a group of travellers who's wagon got stuck in the road next to a bridge.
  • Character Development: This novel marks the beginning of Reinmar's development from an educated and smart, but somewhat naive and hotheaded young man into a more serious, self-conscious and world-weary figure. The bulk of his development occurs in the following two sequels.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Szarlej lives and breathes this trope, especially with his signature and infamous "sudden kick in the shin" trick. Samson sometimes stoops to this, but he needs to be really riled up for that to happen. And tellingly, when Szarlej tries the aforementioned kick in the shin opening move on Samson, the giant deflects it swiftly and easily.
  • Corrupt Church: Bishop Konrad of Wroclaw and his lackeys in particular, but there's plenty of other examples too. Since the novel and its sequels are set at the time of the Hussite Wars, many minor and major characters discuss the topic of church corruption in-universe. Many of them have divided loyalties based on their own opinions on these matters, and this drives much of the worldly conflict in the series, both on a large-scale and personal level.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Many of the major characters have a witty quip or two up their sleeves, but Szarlej and Urban Horn take the cake. Sapkowski's omniscient narrator also has his moments.
  • Dirty Old Man: Bishop Konrad, almost memetically among his retainers and underlings. Plenty of other lewd old men and women, aristocrats and commoners alike, pop up in various parts of the novel.
  • Ditzy Genius: Reinmar of Bielawa. Brilliant young medic, competent secret practitioner of magic, far too naive and hot-blooded for his own good in most other things.
  • The Dung Ages: 15th-century Silesia is actually a developed and fairly rich area of medieval Europe, but it's also a realistically dirty and grubby place, given all the people and economic activities it houses.
  • Expospeak: Parodied. The brief lead-in sections of each chapter play this for laughs, in what becomes something of a trademark of the trilogy. It's also intended as an affectionate parody of such overly wordy intros that were common in some actual works of fiction from older historical periods.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Nope. Though this is a historical fantasy novel, the 1420s setting and the ongoing Hussite Wars negate any attempt one would have at this. Artillery and early handguns (primitive arquebuses) commonly make an appearance next to more established medieval weaponry. Compared to the two following novels, though, this one features firearms a lot less.
  • Foreign Language Title: "Narrenturm" is German for "Tower of Madmen/Fools". Also counts as a bit of foreshadowing.
  • Freudian Slip: The moments when Reinmar is trying to convince himself that he'll find Adela and get back together with her often end up with him inadvertently realising that he seems to fancy the mysterious "Nicoletta" a lot more.
  • Gentle Giant: Samson both plays this straight and subverts it on a few occasions. Not surprising, given his apt name...
  • Historical Domain Character: And how... In addition to plenty of fictional characters, the novel includes appearances by a slew of actual noblemen, church people, scholars, famous traders and townsmen from period Silesia, Poland and the Czech lands. In the prologue of the novel and some of the character dialogues, other famous contemporary figures from elsewhere in Europe are also namedropped.
  • Historical Fantasy: Firmly in place. This novel and its two sequels are more akin to historical adventure novels, with supernatural and fantasy elements regularly interfering from behind the scenes, rather than straight-up fantasy.
  • Historical In-Joke: Sapkowski loves this. You'd think the novel and its two sequels were written just so he could make as many of these in-jokes as possible. It gets even more loaded when you realise some of the in-jokes are deliberately referring to anachronisms, sometimes as direct shout-outs.
  • I Ate WHAT?!: Zawisza Czarny gives Reinmar a subdued, eye-rolling version of this reaction, since he's Genre Savvy enough to put two and two together about the contents of the brew given to him by Reinmar to cure his flatulence.
  • Idiot Hero: Reinmar, in an example that is crossed with Ditzy Genius. He gradually grows more mature by the end of the novel, but it's only in the following two sequels where he makes a transition away from this trope.
  • Knight of Cerebus: Anytime Birkart von Grellenort appears and is in pursuit of someone, expect dark and serious stuff to occur.
  • Knight Templar: Birkart von Grellenort and his cohorts, in a very dark way. (And not a natural one either.)
  • Large Ham: Bishop Konrad and some of the men in Buko von Krossig's raubritter band have their moments...
  • The Late Middle Ages: Set in 1420s Silesia and bits of Poland. Much is made of the underlying strife brought about by military conflicts and religious disputes of the period.
  • Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Poor, poor, dumb Reinmar...
  • Lovable Rogue: Szarlej is the most morally gray and sometimes outright morally ambiguous of the main trio of characters. Nevertheless, he is quite principled, is a Deadpan Snarker with a great sense of humour, and is very loyal to his friends once they grow close.
  • Magic Knight: Implied with the sinister Birkart von Grellenort.
  • Mood Whiplash: Sapkowski has a penchant for following up a romantic-sounding description of nature or the surroundings with some severely (and often hilariously) dissonant character actions or bits of dialogue.
  • Names To Runaway From Really Fast:
    • Belzebub, Urban Horn's loyal but fierce black hunting dog.
    • Birkart von Grellenort is referred to by the narrator as the Wallcreeper. This is something of a subversion, as the title sounds menacing in English, but is slightly less so in Polish ("Pomurnik"). And the name refers to a rather cute species of bird.
  • Nice Guy: Samson can handle himself in a hand-to-hand fight with professional mercenaries and even supernatural monsters with ease, but he's a soft-spoken, ridiculously erudite and thoughtful omniglot as well, and he genuinely cares for not hurting others and being polite.
  • Non-Action Guy: Reinmar starts out as this, but becomes a bit more skilled at fighting and other daring-do by the end of the novel. Though, it needs to be said, he's pretty good with escapes on horseback already at the beginning of the novel's storyline.
  • Old Soldier: Relatively early in the novel, Reinmar meets and travels for a bit with Zawisza Czarny of Garb√≥w, a famous Polish knight of the time. Sapkowski's portrayal of Czarny offers an interesting contrast of Knight in Shining Armor with Knight in Sour Armor, since the man embodies both, along with the waining ideals of Polish and European knighthood. In a conversation between Reinmar and Zawisza, there's even some foreshadowing that he's one of the last true, old school knights in this era of gunpowder and reemerging infantry armies.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname / I Have Many Names:
    • Szarlej, a rogue of many aliases. Lampshaded both by him and several minor characters who happen to know him.
    • Samson's name was given to him by Benedictine monks when they adopted him, due to his outward appearance and great strenghth. The byname "Meady" was given to him as a nickname by Szarlej and Reinmar.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Samson, due to his physical looks and the fact that he's The Quiet One in most of the trio's activities in public. This trope is touched upon several times, especially by unsuspecting characters.
  • Poirot Speak: A curious medieval example, as many characters insert the occasional Latin word or phrase into their speech, especially the more educated characters. Szarlej loves peppering many of his sentences with a rather gratuitous use of (nevertheless gramatically correct) Latin. Might be a hint towards his backstory, as he's implied to have been a monk-turned-thief.
  • Power Trio: Reinmar, Szarlej and Samson.
  • Random Events Plot: The storyline in this first novel of the trilogy certainly feels like that at times. But it's justified by the main character and his eventual two companions being on the run and having near-perpetual bad luck with accidentally angering the authorities or dangerous adversaries.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Hussite armies, anti-Hussite crusader armies, and the occasional bandit group and mercenary bounty hunter. In the last third of the first novel, we get a rather gruesome demonstration of why everyone fears a Hussite army on the march.
  • Running Gag:
    • A rather thought-provoking one concerns various characters coming to a crossroad in the forest "... with a cross, a memorial to tragedies of the past and belated remorse...".
    • Reinmar is reluctant to adopt the name of a famous poet as an alias, noting how everyone will surely recognise the name and realise he's a man on the run. He's encouraged to adopt it anyway, as people are bound to not know a thing about the author. Cue repeated instances of people hearing his name and mistaking him for said famous poet.
  • Sinister Minister: Refreshingly averted with bishop Konrad, who's a pragmatic and publicly charismatic baddie. Played straighter with Birkart von Grellenort, who's a sinister monastic knight.
  • Theme Naming: The nicknames of Reinmar and his older brother Peter have a herbal theme - "Reynevan" ("Tansy") and "Parsley", respectively.
  • Title Drop: At first, the occasional namedrop is a bit of foreshadowing. Then, in the last third of the novel, our trio of heroes gets imprisoned in one such medieval madhouse.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Reinmar, by the end of the novel. But not by that much, as more of this awaits him in his future character development in the following installments.
  • Trickster Mentor: Szarlej's relations with Reynevan have this undertone to it. Reinmar slowly grows more accepting of his advice. It's not until the sequels that he truly starts understanding how a lot of his own decision-making is foolish, and he should heed Szarlej's and Samson's well-intentioned advice a lot more than he usually does.
  • Vagueness Is Coming: Zawisza Czarny lampshades this sarcastically when he and Reinmar are confronted by a mysterious, prophecy-spouting being while seated around a night time camp fire.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: One of Birkart von Grellenort's magical abilities. Why is he called "Wallcreeper"? Because he can transform into one. A wholly black-coloured one.
  • Walking Spoiler: The aristocratic girl going under the moniker of "Nicoletta", due to her true identity. (If you've read the following two installments, you know who she is...)
  • War Is Glorious: Most of the period characters, especially higher-up military commanders or idealistic would-be warriors, treat war like this. And to contrast that, we later get a taste of...
  • War Is Hell: Exemplified by the ambush battle near the end of the novel. All previous scenes involving fighting were small brawls the protagonists had to face, but this is an actual battle scene, even though it's not much more than a bigger ambush. The sequence shows late-medieval warfare in all its fast, gory and chaotic glory, with the description being genuinely unsettling rather than madcap entertaining like in many previous fight scenes.