Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “andrzej sapkowski”

Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkoswki

Fantasy series often have a ‘middle book problem’, where in telling an extremely long form story, you end up by necessity having an entire book which exits to react to events in the previous book and establish events for the next book, with little memorable actually taking place in the book itself. The absolute nadir of this concept was comfortably Crossroads of Twilight, the 10th Wheel of Time book, the most supremely uneventful book I’ve ever read. Baptism of Fire is very much a middle book, in fact it is the literal middle point of The Witcher novels (not counting the short stories). Although it may not forward the plot of the series as much as I would have liked, Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction means that the vignettes which make up this book are entertaining in their own right and it never ends up boring.

Baptism of Fire takes place not long after the end of Times of Contempt and the Thanedd coup, which saw the Chapter of Sorcerers torn apart, Ciri flung into an unknown part of the Nilfgaard empire and living as a bandit and Geralt, terribly wounded, being treated by the dryads in Brokilon. When Geralt hears from Milva, a talented human scout, that Ciri is in Nilfgaard and due to be married to Emperor Emhyr, he sets out to rescue her, along with Milva and erstwhile poet companion Dandelion. Along the way they join forces with a few new faces, such as a dwarven band led by one Zoltan Chivay and a mysterious medicine man named Emil Regis. Meanwhile, a group of sorceresses gather, human, elven, Northern, Nilfgaaardian, to form a new, all female, organisation from the ashes of the Chapter; the Lodge of Sorceresses.

The meat of this story lies in Geralt’s journey south from Brokilon, through the wat torn Northlands towards the Nilfgaardian border. Along the way he, along with his group, get caught up in a few scrapes and conflicts. Where Times of Contempt was largely about magic, Baptism of Fire is more grounded, and arguably the grimmest of the series so far. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the brutality of war in a fantasy setting, so it takes a fair bit to shock me by this point, but Baptism of Fire can be genuinely horrific. True to Sapkowski’s style though, it isn’t all war and suffering and the moments of lightness and humour work well, particularly in Zoltan’s band of dwarves as well as the ever enjoyable fop Dandelion. Still, it’s difficult to shake the sense that Baptism of Fire is an interlude, setting the stage for the next books to come. Sapkowski’s a good enough writer that even his wheel spinning is pretty enjoyable, but obviously I prefer when he is pushing the story onwards.

Geralt is as enjoyable a protagonist as ever, with an interestingly petty and vindictive side coming through, adding further layers to one of the best characters in the genre. I liked the new characters a lot, such as the acerbic but vulnerable Milva. It was also nice to see a couple more characters I was familiar with from the games, such as the generous and kind hearted Zoltan, as well the enigmatic Emil Regis, who I very much enjoyed in the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3. Geralt has a proper old school fantasy travelling band with him now and I enjoyed seeing them bicker and grow together.

Baptism of Fire is probably the weakest entry in the series so far, but it’s certainly not bad. Not enough happens, but this world and these characters are strong enough that just spending time with them is enough to provide a decent time. It’s not a reason to stop reading the series, and if you’ve got this far you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy in Baptism of Fire.

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Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

I enjoyed the first Witcher collection very much and found it’s loose, fairy tale focused approach quite charming. The Sword of Destiny is a much tighter collection and for the first time I really felt that this was the same world I was so familiar with from the games. Sword of Destiny is a wonderful collection of stories which both stand alone but also set up the following novel series.

The first story is The Bounds of Reason, which sees Geralt caught up in a dragon hunt alongside a range of other characters seeking its treasure. Dragons are sentient creatures who largely ignore humans, so Geralt does not view them as monsters in need of slaying. On the journey Geralt comes back into contact with Yennefer, with their tempestuous relationship currently at a low point. The Bounds of Reason takes a while to get going, with the exploration of Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship being the most appealing part of the story for me. The following story, A Shard of Ice is focused entirely on Geralt and Yennefer, with the two reunited and staying in the city of Aedd Gynvael. Yennefer has ongoing business in the city, but Geralt is anxious to leave causing the two to clash and it isn’t long before a rival for Yennefer’s affections complicate matters further. Where previous Yennefer stories focus on the magnetism and chemistry which inexorably draw her and Geralt together, A Shard of Ice concerns itself with the ways in which their lifestyles are incompatible. Yennefer is entirely selfish, but this is something almost inherent to someone as powerful as she, and entirely unwilling to meet Geralt’s needs. Geralt is restless, constantly needing to be on the move and an inability to articulate his emotions leading to simmering resentments. A Shard of Ice is a focused story with a smaller scale, but one which I really liked for what it revealed about a relationship which is increasingly seeming to be one of the core pillars of the series.

Eternal Flame isn’t one of the best stories in the collection, but it’s a generally lighter and funnier tale, with Dandelion playing a central role. It’s setting is one immediately familiar to players of The Witcher 3; Novigrad. I’ve spent a fair bit of time prowling those virtual streets so this setting was immediately appealing to me. It’s not the only element which eventually reappeared in The Witcher 3: Eternal Flame is about dopplers; shape shifting creatures who are hated and feared by most humans but are generally harmless. Dudu, the doppler at the centre of the story, played a role in the story of the game. Eternal Flame is a fun, but not particularly memorable story overall. The following story, A Little Sacrifice, wasn’t a favourite either. This story sees Geralt and Dandelion desperate and hungry, struggling for work. Geralt has wound up as the middle man in a love affair between a local noble and a mermaid, neither of which speak the same language. This whole element is a quite funny pastiche of The Little Mermaid, but the main plot interested me less. It involved a strange, love at first sight relationship between Geralt and a young bard mentee of Dandelion’s, Essi Daven. I found the whole thing a bit disconcerting, particularly in regarding the age gap. I mean, I’m definitely adjusted to seeing Geralt with younger looking women, but at least they’re normally sorceresses who are actually much older. Some people find this story very moving, but it really didn’t land for me. Still, the mermaid stuff was really fun so that made up for it.

The final two stories of the collection were definitely my favourites.  The title story of the collection, Sword of Destiny, sees Geralt heading into Brokilon, a forest home to the mysterious dryads. The local princeling seeks to take Brokilon for its lumber and real estate and this is fiercely resisted by the dryads, with whom Geralt has had previous encounters. It is not long into his journey that he encounters a young girl who claims to be a princess, hiding from her prospective marriage match. This young woman is named Ciri and anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will know how important she is. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is hugely touching in the game and it was wonderful to see the origin of this relationship here. The sword referred to in the title is metaphorical, with ‘destiny’ being the major theme of this story and the one following it. Issues of predestination and free will come to the surface of this story and the risks and virtues of flying in the face of destiny and forging your own path are core to Geralt’s character. The final story, Something More, is a rather strange one. The story opens with Geralt saving a merchant from an attack on his wagon but becoming badly wounded in the process. The merchant takes care of him and brings him towards his home in CIntra whilst Geralt heals, with the story frequently lurching into flashbacks whilst Geralt recovers in a feverish daze. This story follows the fall of Cinta to Nilfgaard and features plenty of returning faces in the flashbacks, such as Yennefer and Dandelion. Something More picks up plot threads from several previous stories, most notably the immediately previous Sword of Destiny but also from stories way back in The Last Wish. It feels like a transition story between the short story structure of these first two books and the novels which follow. It’s probably the most moving bit of writing I’ve read from Sapkowski so far and digs deeper into Geralt’s surprising emotional depth than we have previously.

Sword of Destiny is a fantastic collection, even stronger than The Last Wish. By this point I absolutely get why this franchise became so huge in its native Poland. As much as I love the games, I hope that the stories which started it all aren’t forgotten. These two collections really are great and if they’re anything to do by, the following novels will be too.

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