Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the tag “the witcher”

The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski

I wasn’t in love with the previous book in the Witcher series, Baptism of Fire, feeling that it felt too interstitial and didn’t do enough to further the plot. The Tower of the Swallow is not dissimilar, with the plot once again focusing on Geralt’s journey to find Ciri, but is improved for a number of reasons; an interesting playing around with time and narration and the increased role of the wonderful Ciri herself.

Geralt and company are continuing their journey to find Ciri, after their run in with the Lyrian forces at the end of Baptism by Fire. Along with Dandelion, Milva, Regis and Cahir, Geralt must head towards the Nilfgaardian Duchy of Toussaint. Yennefer has arrived in Skellige, as she seeks Ciri’s location, becoming drawn into the machinations of the sinister Vilgefortz. The heart of the story lies with Ciri, who we find terribly injured in the home of a hermit. Still being hunted by Nilfgaard, Ciri relates to him her time with The Rats, how they came to separate and her run in with the terrifying bounty hunter Leo Bonhart.

In terms of Geralt, The Tower of the Swallow does not move the plot forward much further than Baptism of Fire did. Ciri is absolutely the protagonist of this one though, with her story mostly related through flashback as we see the trials and tribulations she has been through. We regularly dip into several layers of narration, as present day Ciri in the hermit’s house flashes back to middle of the story Ciri who flashes back to earlier Ciri. This happens with other characters too, such as a mercenary who relates her role in events through court testimony. It can be confusing to put together the chronology of everything; this playing around with structure of the Ciri storyline feeling a bit clever for its own sake, but it is interesting and I’m always up for genre authors pushing out of their comfort zones and doing something a bit different with the form.

The Tower of the Swallow is very much ­Baptism of Fire Part 2, but it does leave things in a good place for an exciting finale. I’m going to be sad to finish this series, although hopefully it won’t be too long until The Witcher Netflix series manifests itself.

Image result for the tower of swallows
Advertisements

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.

Image result for baptism of fire

Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time ploughing through The Witcher saga, with Time of Contempt building on the successes of Blood of Elves and addressing some of its faults.

Time of Contempt picks up not too long after Blood of Elves. Ciri is now under the tutelage of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer is taking Ciri to the Island of Thanedd, a safe haven for mages and sorceresses where she plans to enrol Ciri in a school to hone her magical training. It is not long before Geralt is reunited with his surrogate family of Yennefer and Ciri, and the three arrive at Thanedd, for a gathering of the magical users of the Northern Kingdoms, known as the Chapter of Sorcerers. The politics of the North have become more unstable, with the Northern rulers desperate for a pretext to go back to war with Nilfgaard and regain Cintra.

Where Blood of Elves was a bit more unfocused, feeling like a series of connected novellas more than anything else, Time of Contempt is a bit more self-contained, dealing primarily with the internal affairs of the Chapter of Sorcerers and the role of the magical community. The sharper focus benefits the book massively and it moves the story forward in a range of interesting ways. A lengthy epilogue shifts focus for a while, but it leaves a lot of important character sin very interesting places for the next book.

The action scenes are good, but Time of Contempt may be the funniest book in the series so far. A wonderful scene where a proud Yennefer parades Geralt in front of a series of lustful sorceresses, each more ridiculously provocative than the last, is a lot of fun. I had thought that the games had over sexualised characters like Keira Metz and Phillipa Eilhart but…nope, they’re like that in the book too. Geralt struggling to keep composure is a joy to behold. When things get a bit darker it all works well too, particularly during a harrowing scene in a desert which ratchets up tension to almost unbearable levels.

A lot of my favourite characters from the games play large roles here, such as the brilliant Redanian spymaster Sigismund Djikstra and a range of sorceresses. Sapkowski does a brilliant job of making these characters feel distinct; we’re introduced to about 8 new sorceresses all at once, but they all feel distinct and memorable. Ciri seems to be taking over from Geralt in main protagonist duties, but this isn’t a problem because I love Ciri.

I always struggle to write about middle books in a series. It doesn’t shake things up, but Time of Contempt keeps the story ticking on at a nice pace and leaves me excited to get into the next one. What more could you ask?

220px-Time_of_Contempt_UK

 

Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Blood of Elves is the first full novel in The Witcher series, with the previous two being linked short story collections. Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction is apparent in this book, since if taken as a novel, Blood of Elves doesn’t quite work. However, each lengthy chapter feels fairly stand alone, so if taken as a series of short stories closely linked by a core narrative, Blood of Elves works much better.

Blood of Elves picks up not long after the concluding story of The Sword of Destiny. Nilfgaard’s invasion has been repelled, but not before the brutal sacking of Cintra and the death of its formidable Queen Calanthe. Calanthe’s granddaughter, Ciri, is thought dead, but has in reality been rescued by Geralt and taken to the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. Geralt and Ciri are linked by destiny and Geralt makes it his sworn vow to protect Ciri above all else. Rumours of her survival spread, and malevolent forces gather to find her and use her for their own nefarious purposes. Meanwhile, tension between humans and non-humans reach a boiling point and the Scoia’tel, an anti-human guerrilla army, is formed.

This book is oddly structured and not a whole lot happens; it lacks a satisfying conclusion in its own right and is focused towards building towards the sequels. If taken as a series of separate short stories it works much better. There are some delightful chapters, such as the arrival of Triss Merrigold at Kaer Morhen, where she promptly takes the gathered witchers to task for their bungled handling of Ciri’s ongoing puberty. Another involves Ciri training with Yennefer and the bond that builds between them. In fact, any scene involving Ciri is pretty much delightful. Geralt himself takes a bit of a backseat in this one, with Triss, Ciri and Dandelion covering well over half of the novel between them. Sapkoswki relies a bit too much on exposition, with one lengthy scene following the meeting towards the gathered rulers of the North feeling particularly egregious. The thing is, his actual writing is light and buoyant enough than it never feels boring. These pacing issues are ones which I found myself more observing objectively rather than being actively bothered by. There’s a whimsy, tempered by darkness, which is more than little reminiscent of Neil Gaiman. Blood of Elves is just very bloody readable and a testament both to Sapkoswki and the translators from the original Polish.

As mentioned above, characterisation is arguably Sapkowski’s greatest skill. Geralt, Ciri, Triss, Yennefer, Dandelion, all are a joy to spend time with. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is very moving; the well of feeling and love behind the grizzled exterior of Geralt is the reason he’s one of my favourite protagonists in fiction. There’s a lot of humour in Blood of Elves and I’m still amazed by how well CD Projekt captured the tone of the books in the games.

Blood of Elves is an undeniably flawed book, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot anyway. The characterisation and dialogue are so strong that I could forgive almost anything. It feels like it’s saving the big stuff for later; a table setter it may be, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably set table than this.

uk_blood_of_elves_new

The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Blood and Wine may very well be the best piece of DLC I’ve ever played. I’m not as dogmatically anti-DLC as some; there has been some wonderful stuff out there from companies like Bioware and Bethesda but Blood and Wine blows them away, offering an experience which I would have been happy to pay double for and an almost perfect conclusion to the Witcher. If this is the last time I get to play with Geralt then at least I’ll know he got a great send off.

Blood and Wine takes place in Toussaint, a small French inspired duchy in Nilfgaard. A series of murders by a mysterious beast have set off panic in the usually courtly and peaceful land and Duchess Anna Henrietta summons Geralt, an old friend, to find the beast and put it down. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem and the seemingly idyllic land of Toussaint is revealed to harbour dark secrets and a history steeped in blood and betrayal.

Toussaint is rather different to anything seen in the Witcher series so far. Some are populated war zones such as Velen and others are relatively untamed and wild like Skellige. Toussaint is a courtly land out of a fairy tale, where tournaments are fought for honour and monsters are only slain to gain the hand of a fair maiden. The arrival of the grizzled and sardonic Geralt into this gives Blood and Wine and entertaining fish out of water feeling. A great side quest sees Geralt having to deal with the bureaucracy in a bank; the sight of the hulking, scarred, twin sword wielding Geralt queuing impatiently is hilarious whilst remaining true to the character. Blood and Wine tells a brilliantly compelling story with a strong streak of moral ambivalence running through it. There are two figures who could convincingly be described as villains, but neither are true monsters and have been hurt greatly and most people would likely do the same as them in their shoes. The main weakness lies in the fact that the core antagonist simply isn’t given enough screen time. We hear a lot about what he has been through, but there’s a bit too much telling and not showing. This is a quibble though; the writing for Blood and Wine is as top notch as it always has been in this series.

Ultimately though, Blood and Wine mostly just reminded me of how much I bloody love Geralt. Most modern Western RPGs have you create your own character, which naturally results in a slight blandness in their characterisation. They can be fun and likeable; I particularly liked my Inquisitor in Dragon Age and my protagonist in Fallout 4, but the very nature of the design means they can never achieve any sort of complexity. Geralt is a deceptively brilliant character; someone hated and distrusted wherever he goes who has moved past anger into an amused sardonic looseness. There’s a feeling that he is gently mocking almost everyone he encounters. The phrase about the deepest waters being the stillest applies to Geralt; he may not show it, but we are given enough to see that Geralt is a man with deep wells of feeling and emotion, which rarely surges to the surface. More so than in many other games, I’m really going to miss Geralt. I suppose the time is right to read the original novels and get my fix.

Blood and Wine plays much the same as the main game, with the slight addition of a new levelling system tied to the Witcher mutations, which gives you something new to plough your points into. The bread and butter is the same, but there are some really cool, fun, interesting missions. I loved how almost every mission in The Witcher 3, no matter how trivial it seemed, had some kind of twist to make it feel special and Blood and Wine continues this. Some of the quests are scary, some are deeply tragic and epic and some are just plain silly. An example would be a Gwent tournament which is being protested by a group furious at the addition of a new deck (which I can only assume is a dig at irate internet commenters.) They didn’t need to do this; I would have been perfectly happy with a straightforward Gwent tournament (I bloody love Gwent) but CDProjekt always do that little more work than they have to. This is a massive expansion which would put many full priced games to shame with Toussaint being roughly the size of Velen from the main game, if more densely populated.

Toussaint is sickeningly picturesque and a true delight to explore and marvel at. It may not compare to the PC on top settings, but I was still bloody happy on my trusty PS4. The new monster designs are brilliant and the characters look appropriately silly; there are definitely a few visual nods to Monty Python’s Holy Grail. The voice acting is outstanding, naturally, with richly realised and complex characters. The Witcher 3 is confident in the willingness of its audience to simply watch its characters talk, which suggests that CDProjekt knew how good the writing is. There’s a bit on jankyness at times, in line with the main game, but nothing which ever drew me out of the experience.

Blood and Wine is a perfect end for an almost perfect game and the send of that Geralt of Rivia deserves. I’m truly going to miss this series. Sooner rather than later I’ll read the books; I’ve grown to love this world and need to spend more time in it. They may not have created it, but CDProjekt did an incredible job bringing it to life.

images

Post Navigation