The fourth book (and second novel) in Andrzej Sapkowski’s THE WITCHER series, TIME OF CONTEMPT feels much as its predecessor BLOOD OF ELVES did, in that it feels like a fifth of a larger story being told, but where that book felt exploratory and focused on setting developments up, this is much more a case of actually following through with developments. Sapkowski’s writing style also seems more unique here, perhaps partially a consequence of this being translated by the better of the two translators for the series, with the non-linear structure seeming more purposeful and foregrounded here than in previous books.
Chapters have more shape to them, where they used to feel like entirely arbitrary divisions in BLOOD OF ELVES. The first chapter here keeps circling back to a messenger who feels a knot in his back, and the way the various character’s point-of-view sequences end up feeding into that character’s little story make the chapter almost feel like one of the short stories from the first two books in terms of singular structure. Other chapter sequences focus on setpieces, like a gathering of sorcerers on the isle of Thanedd, or an arduous trek across a desert. A fascinating touch is how Sapkowski frequently zips forward in time. When Geralt is about to fight a particular sorcerer, with no line break or anything a paragraph suddenly has Geralt reflecting on the fight weeks later, before zipping back to the “present” sequence of the fight itself. Epigraphs at the start of chapters sometimes contextualise events from the scope of a future, such as future misunderstanding of what exactly witchers were, or notations characterising emperors many decades down the line, and how the events of the “present” reflected upon them. This would be very easy to mishandle or make confusing, but Sapkowski handles it well, in fact it’s a highlight of how he writes, and there must be credit given to the translator David French for making it all feel seamless.
Such non-linearity naturally plays into the sort of ambiguity Sapkowski seems to find interesting. In some cases there’s dramatic irony, and we feel frustration born of misunderstandings born of ambiguity when there is a clear answer we know (when is a basilisk a wyvern?). In others, events are murky for all involved, even the reader. I hesitate to think the idea is to try and puzzle out the “real” sequence of events exactly, given how careless and hazy Sapkowski is towards chronology in the books, but rather more think it’s to emulate the characters and their mindsets, their confusion and inability to act with all the facts. It also plays into the frequent theme of what gives rise to fairytales, the role of mythologisation and such. When clarity finally comes, such as in this book contextualising many of the events and Queen Calanthe’s motivations in the A QUESTION OF PRICE short story in THE LAST WISH, it feels all the sweeter for this. Other connections to the early short stories are also pleasing, like the animal activist mage Dorregaray from THE BOUNDS OF REASON popping up, or Filavandrel from THE EDGE OF THE WORLD as elven politics come to the fore.
The question of when one becomes outdated looms over the novel from the very first chapter, where a messenger finds himself in the opposite situation after monarchs begin to spurn the instantaneous messaging of sorcerers in favour of old-fashioned messengers-on-horseback, on account of distrust with the magically inclined. The seeming inevitability of the empire of Nilfgaard and its crushing waves of invasion form the major focus of the novel (the five-book novel sequence in general, really), with various characters and kingdoms struggling where to define themselves in relation to that supposed inevitability. Sapkowski’s frequent interest in the economics of his fantasy world also strikes up here, with the minutiae of investing in gems or operating off of cash or bank notes and such coming up quite a few times in the novel.
Misplaced trust in parent figures comes up often in the book, as Ciri struggles between Geralt and Yennefer and all their flaws and foibles. Her deftly manipulating them (which, naturally, does not go unnoticed by fellow social operator Dandelion) feels like an organic part of her growth as she reaches…well, age and chronology is murky as ever in these books, but the age of fourteen or fifteen feels about appropriate for Ciri at this stage. The loss-of-mentor trope comes to the fore here, as ever in fantasy, shifting the story into its second act and seeing Ciri have to develop in her own way. Yennefer herself also misplaces trust into a parental figure with how she stumbles in following her sorceress mentor Tissaia de Vries in what becomes the novel’s biggest setpiece. Geralt, at least, shows some development, working through his emotions and humility enough to be able to make a declaration of love as he couldn’t before.
The closing chapters of the book are discomforting, with the amount of pain and strain Ciri goes through. Contemplating drinking one’s own blood out of a crazed thirst is certainly striking. Worse still are thornier matters of consent and violation in the final chapter. Many of the implications in these chapters aren’t really processed until the next book, but the ambiguity and discomfort towards matters of sexuality here don’t come across as leery as they too often did in the first two books. The terror of Ciri’s dreams also begins to be characterised, as the surprisingly young knight Cahir, but that too is more a matter for the next book. More contained to this book are the detectives Codringher and Fenn, something of a delightful “anachronism” (not something that can truly exist in a manufactured fantasy world, but the closest word for a tonal variation on the genre’s typical setting tropes, perhaps), who tie into how Ciri is increasingly characterised as a figure of prophecy, one who will eventually give birth to some sort of male descendant that will be a world avenger, a destroyer. Chosen one tropes are more broken down over the next books, but morality does seem to be sketched through darker plays here, as the clarity of character’s evil (some outright admitting they’re rapists, for example) comes through. The unsustainability of neutrality becomes ever more obvious. Three and a half unicorns, and a surprising staff.