The Witcher: Blood of Elves (1994) by Andrzej Sapkowski

Where the first two novels in THE WITCHER series were short story collections, the bulk of the series is the five-novel saga that follows them, starting here with BLOOD OF ELVES. Structurally, it makes for quite a change. Gone are the charms of author Andrzej Sapkowski’s riffs on fairytales, gone is the tightness of structure where each short story would have its own discrete novelty and curiosity. What replaces it here is essentially a fifth of one much larger story, the story of an empire attempting to conquer a motley collection of kingdoms and the like, and the story of the split would-be family of witcher Geralt, witch Yennefer, and secret princess Ciri.

What’s fascinating is that really, not much at all happens in the novel. Years pass, but it’s mostly dedicated to developing characters, and setting up the state of its wider world. The book starts and ends with a main character undergoing training. It’s not aimless or thoughtlessly-structured; characters go through small arcs (Ciri and her nightmares, Ciri’s thoughts on neutrality, Ciri coming to terms with her effective parents – it’s clear Ciri is the main character of the five-novel sequence, not Geralt), there’s symmetry to the beginning and ending, but it’s very much just a chapter in a larger story where the bulk of the action will come towards the end, rather than having each book sequenced with much a beginning-middle-end of its own.

Like in SWORD OF DESTINY, the most impactful events in the fictional world happen completely offscreen. We learn about developments in the war, the invasion, in the political makeup of the world through things like various groups of characters arguing over the veracity of a ballad on recent proceedings, sharing what information (or disinformation) they have, or through children arguing over what morsels they’ve heard from various adults, or through scholars trying to map historical parallels onto what they’ve heard is going on. It’s very clear Sapkowski isn’t actually interested in telling a typical fantasy story, least of all the typical way – the battles and moments of pomp are constantly sidelined, the book doesn’t even come with a map, Sapkowski (literally, in interviews) laughs at how indulgent excessive worldbuilding would be.

Sapkowski is very interested in his characters, and his themes, but not much at all in the general fantasy runaround, which leads to a book like this where effectively very little happens and yet it feels satisfying and nothing like padding. Padding would be if it was delaying the “actual content” to come, but it’s clear this is the actual content, that arguments over neutrality, ill-fated romances, ruminations on the nature of conflict, these are the actual story, not the clashing of swords or shifting of lines on a map.

The Northern kingdoms, really anywhere north of the massive Nilfgaardian empire to the south, lick their wounds after achieving a stalemate (really just a respite in fighting) when they managed to push back Nilfgaard conquering more than they already hard. Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri are increasingly mythologised as the sort of fairytale they frequently find themselves in subversions of, thanks to the essential novelty of their stories, and the bard Dandelion’s keen sense of romance. Prophecies of destruction and of Ciri being some sort of special or deigned figure swirl around. Some new characters are introduced – the nurse Shani, the witch Triss – but most of the focus is on developing Ciri, and to a lesser extent Geralt, Dandelion, and Yennefer as well. Of particular note is Geralt’s home-of-sorts Kaer Morhen, dilapidated fortress home to the witchers of the wolf school, where his father (in spirit) Vesemir and fellow witchers Coen, Eskel, and Lambert often spend their winters. Seeing these pivotal figures and sort of alternate versions of Geralt would’ve felt gimmicky in the first two books, but the character is established enough here for it to work, and most of the focus is on their relating to Triss and Ciri instead of Geralt anyway.

Anti-witcher propaganda that led to a devastating attack on Kaer Morhen, wiping out most of its witchers and of the knowledge of how to perform the mutations necessary to developing new witchers properly, shade these sections of the book with a sort of wistful melancholy, a nostalgia to come, that Tolkienesque spirit of a people waning. Elsewhere, propaganda of different stripes focuses on the newly-formed Scoia’tael, also known as the Squirrels, elven/dwarven/non-human-in-general guerrilla fighters. How they’re dealt with in the book is interesting. They antagonistically attack some of the main characters at the book at one point, and some non-human characters give their reasons for disagreeing with them. We also learn how the invading Nilfgaard is stoking them on and even funding them, inciting division to weaken the kingdoms they want to attack in future. We also hear how the needless, “inhuman” cruelty to them and oppression of them in such kingdoms is what enabled such a resistance to form in the first place, and thus have them characterised as both a natural consequence and just dessert in that sense (this view comes from essentially a neutral human as well). The murky morality of such forces looms over the developing state of the world in teh book, as does the question of how to deal with an entropic, advancing empire. The question of submission and the difficulties in disparately fighting.

A less appealing type of fighting comes in discussions of how to make sure Ciri’s hormonal development as an adolescent isn’t halted by witcher mutations. The sense to this is self-evident, but the optics of how it’s discussed feel somewhat dehumanising in the focus they place upon Ciri’s body…charitably read, it’s a case of characters forestalling decisions for Ciri to make herself when she has the agency of an adult, but it is conveyed oddly. The treatment of women and sexuality in general is markedly better than in the first two books however, with decidedly less leering and less offhanded sexual violence. Triss’ clinginess and insecurity very much come across as traits specific to her; few characters in the series really come across as representative for much beyond themselves, or when they do it’s clearly misguided.

Triss gets one of the highlights of the book, an impassioned speech decrying the neutrality of the witchers, the centrism, the displacement of responsibility, breaking down the artifice of it and how such a position is inherently frivolous, indulgent, etc. She also decried the so-called witcher lack of emotion as basically a sham, an arbitrary and cowardly psychological ducking of their very real humanity. Misconceptions are pivotal to the book, and not just in those cases, or that of the distorted flow of information across the lands. “You mistook the stars reflected in the surface of a lake at night for the heavens” is translated in a very Danusia Stok style (David French’s less stilted, plainer translation does wonders for the other books in the series) but reflects both Plato’s cave and dangerous underestimations of characters. In light of such things, Yennefer’s utter honesty, openness, and reciprocity feels all the more unique and worthy of appreciation.

There’s some whiplash going from the very focused, singular short stories to a novel that’s very clearly just one fifth of a larger piece, but at the same time the actual content is certainly enjoyable, and it can’t be said the pacing exactly drags as there clearly isn’t much in the way of actual events to pace towards so much as more of the sort of character exploration and rifling through theme that Sapkowski does. Less enjoyable than the short stories admittedly, but interesting in its own right, and surely setting up more interesting things to come. Three reflected stars, and a windmill.

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