The Witcher: Sword of Destiny (1992) by Andrzej Sapkowski

What is the second book in THE WITCHER series in terms of fictional chronology, SWORD OF DESTINY, was actually the first of the seven (or so) boosk that make up the series to be published. This was because most of the short stories that make up the first two books were published in a Polish fantasy magazine first, and an initial anthology just called THE WITCHER, containing most of the stories that ended up in the de-facto first book in the series, was rendered obsolete by that book, THE LAST WISH. So, while SWORD OF DESTINY focuses heavily on the character of Yennefer introduced in THE LAST WISH, in actual fact the first stories written about her are the ones in this book, with the story that introduces her in THE LAST WISH (the titular story there, inf act) effectively a prequel (as well as the stories THE EDGE OF THE WORLD and THE VOICE OF REASON). You wouldn’t think it, given how smoothly the series feels going from THE LAST WISH to SWORD OF DESTINY, but it is an interesting note, and explains how the first book of a series came to be published a year after the second.

Further complicating matters is that, as far as the English translations go, the publishers completely skipped publishing this book. They went right from the first book to the third, BLOOD OF ELVES, a critical misjudgement given hwo absolutely pivotal the stories here, the development of characters, the events taking place, are to the rest of the series, and to the set-up of the third book. The nature of the first two books as short story collections seems to obfuscate the fact they are very much as part of the series as the five novels succeeding them, and so the English translation of SWORD OF DESTINY wasn’t published until after the fifth book of the series was! My experience of reading the series involved reading THE LAST WISH in 2007, when it was first published in English as a ramp-up to the video game being published later that year, then reading BLOOD OF ELVES when it was translated (and facing the confusion at the clearly missing story material), then finding my way to the ongoing fan translations online (where bilingual fans painstakingly translated the books not yet available in English themselves), reading those as they came, and reading the official English translations as they came as well (much later than the fan ones).

Publication details aside, the book itself is stronger in THE LAST WISH in structure, with the lack of an arbitrary framing story opening it up to progress more naturally, which actually makes the character development and tonal variations feel more organic. Development of witcher Geralt and sorceress Yennefer’s relationship is frontloaded, with the first two stories of THE BOUNDS OF REASON and A SHARD OF ICE focusing primarily on it. THE BOUNDS OF REASON is a jaunty quest narrative as a band of characters at cross-purposes set off to deal with a dragon. The story takes place four years after Geralt and Yennefer split up after Geralt randomly left Yennefer in the middle of a night one day, after having lived together for half a year. Both of their inability to communicate well, or process their emotions, sees them sabotage both their own and each other’s happiness time and time again, but the specificity of their neuroses and flaws do much to make the characters come alive as three-dimensional. Their frustration over their inability to have children (Yennefer a barren sorceress, Geralt a sterile witcher) weighs heavily over them, especially as children are characterised as the ultimate “goal at the end of the road” both for relationships and life in general in this story.

The story also examines what exactly constitutes a supposed natural order of the world, with the idea of a natural equilibrium heavily rejected by Geralt, who hates prescriptivity. Yennefer prescribes dragons as a threat uniquely malignant and dangerous to civilisation because of their airborne capabilities to damage cities and towns where people are settled enough to reproduce consistently, but ultimately barks louder than bites when it comes to the morality of killing a sentient being on abstracted principle. The dwarf Yarpen Zigrin is resigned to putting up with the injustices of humanity so as to not engender further hatred of his race, in contrast with the elves in THE LAST WISH who felt more existentially wreaked by the material supremacy and subjugations of human-dominant civilisation. Geralt himself cares little for such things, and merely puts himself into proximity with people that treat him like a person, human or no.

“Do you know what your problem is, Geralt? You think you’re different. You flaunt your otherness, what you consider abnormal. You aggressively impose that abnormality on others, not understanding that for people who think clear-headedly you’re the most normal man under the sun, and they all wish that everybody was so normal. What of it that you have quicker reflexes than most and vertical pupils in sunlight? That you can see in the dark like a cat? That you know a few spells? Big deal.”

A SHARD OF ICE, named after the mythical Wild Hunt (who come to the fore in later stories), drills down on the foibles of Yennefer and Geralt. Such things characterise them in detail and emphasise the veracity and non-superficiality of their love, but their stunted emotional expression sees that such things amount to little. Geralt cannot say “I love you”, and wallows in self-loathing instead. Multiple characters aim for misbegotten suicidal glory in vain. The telling point is raised of artificial scarcity that wizards and witches maintain; they lie that virgin’s blood is needed where any human blood, or even pig’s blood, would do, on account of needing to maintain scarcity and mystique to assert their own positions in society, and ward off the uninitiated from attempting to do so on their own (for reasons both economical and safety-concerned).

ETERNAL FLAME is the most fun story of the two short story collections, a joyous rollick through a story of doppelgangers, religious extremism, and the neutralising factor of recognising another’s essential goodness. A LITTLE SACRIFICE is a headier affair, with the double standards of a monarch and mermaid lovers (of sorts) the backdrop to a story of Geralt trying to process the vacuum left in him due to his inability to work through his emotions and actions regarding Yennefer. An inversion of positions enables Geralt to gain a deeper understand of reciprocated and unreciprocated love, and Geralt’s best friend Dandelion is seen a rare non-lecherous light in another sort of structural inversion, but the most affecting part of the story is the ending, which zooms past the timeline of the narrative and lapses into an omniscient perspective to bring a greater scope to the story, to address casual senselessness of death and of the beauty in mythologising (as Dandelion does) for all the stark contrast it has with reality.

Less appealing are the ages of some characters in that story, with Essi’s age of 17 and 18 rankling. The vagueness of witcher’s and sorceress’ extended ages are indeed a story point, but there’s a world of difference between a relatively self-equipped person in their mid-twenties or later, to literal teenagers. This is especially notable given the focus on the child of Ciri in the last two stories in the book, where the quick familial sort of bond she develops with Geralt illuminates his character in a new light, as well as further contextualising a story in THE LAST WISH. The “little sacrifice” of giving part of one’s self away informs much of the romance material in the book, and it’s notable how more superficial relationships are maintained when more distance is held – see the monarch and merman explicitly state they got on better before they had an interpreter -, but the greater pain seems to come from the characters too reluctant or cowardly to divest themselves at all. Every time Geralt leaves someone close to him this is clear, and it’s accentuated when Geralt meets his very mother in SOMETHING MORE, who did a very selfsame thing to him. The undramatic way this is handled works particularly well in both character’s favour, especially given the dreamy quality of that story, as it drifts in and out of Geralt’s recollections, wounded travels, and intake of news as an invasion from the Nilfgaardian empire down south below the countries covered in the books finally comes to the fore.

Dramatic offscreen events like that empire conquering a country, or a magical last stand against the invaders, lend colour and verisimilitude to what is essentially just the story of our witcher Geralt in this book. Destiny and its attendant laws are characterised as a myth by Geralt in this story, a fiction sustained for material purposes in much the same way the lie about the special properties of virgin’s blood is, but when treated more as the quality and potential of maintained relationships between people, what’s called “destiny” takes on a different colour indeed. This is most clear in the final moments of the book, a reunion that somehow feels very impactful even when it’s arguably only paying off the very preceding story, THE SWORD OF DESTINY. A good collection of fantasy stories that set up a more expansive saga while very much feeling like strong stories in their own right. Three and a half dopplers, and a golden dragon.

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