Besides the below-mentioned novels, the Witcher universe also includes a highly successful series of video games, as well as a popular graphic novel series and a Polish-language film and television series (I haven’t seen the film or TV series, but from what I’ve gathered, neither were well-received by fans or the author). The novels included in this particular review are:
The Last Wish (Orig: 1993; Eng: 2008)
Sword of Destiny (Orig: 1992; Eng: 2015)
Blood of Elves (Orig: 1994; Eng: 2008)
Time of Contempt (Orig: 1995; Eng: 2013)
Baptism of Fire (Orig: 1996; Eng: 2014)
As of the date of this review, there are also three additional novels which have already been published in various countries but which have not yet been translated into English versions. They are:
The Swallow’s Tower (Orig: 1997; Eng: 2016)
Lady of the Lake (Orig: 1999; Eng: 2017)
Season of Storms (Orig: 2013; Eng: TBD)
This series can be quite confusing if one is attempting to read the novels in story-order and consolidate them with the other popular universe media, namely the CD Projekt RED video games. I have listed the above novels in the order in which they are meant to be read, with the exception of Season of Storms, which has not yet been given a publication date and which a bit of digging has told me involves a plot which will technically fall between Sword of Destiny and Blood of Elves.
Both The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny are collections of short stories, the former of which was actually published in installments and only collected into a single volume after the success of those tales which make up the latter (hence the odd order of their publication dates). The books Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt, Baptism of Fire, The Swallow’s Tower, and Lady of the Lake are all considered the formal novels of the Witcher Saga, while Season of Storms has been listed as a spin-off prequel to the events which occur between the end of the short stories and beginning of the actual saga.
And then we have the video games. The events of The Witcher (2007) begin five years after the last novel of the Saga, Lady of the Lake, with the plots of Assassin of Kings (2011) and Wild Hunt (2015) following the first game in quick succession. The characters and world fall in line with Sapkowski’s novels; however, the author has stated in interviews that he does not play video games of any sort and, therefore, he personally does not consider the three CD Projekt RED installments to be canon. To date, they all seem to jive quite well with one another, and the games really are quite good, so I’d recommend supplementing the novels with them if you’re game-inclined. (And if you’re not, well… for shame, and a pox of albino brain chiggers upon you!)
And now that we have all that out of the way, let’s bring on the White Wolf!
The Witcher Saga
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Published: 2007 – 2014 (English); 1992 – 1999 (Original)
Version(s): Amazon Kindle
“The Witcher is a fantasy series of short stories and novels about the witcher Geralt of Rivia. ‘Witchers’ are monster hunters who, through special training and body modification, develop supernatural abilities at a young age in order to battle deadly monsters.”
Review: The Last Wish
I actually read this novel a few years ago, but I’m including it here since I just read the remainder of the series all in one go, and it seems a shame to leave this one out of the mix. As indicated above, this novel is actually comprised of various short stories which give us an introduction to the world, themes, the concept of witchers, important recurring characters such as Dandelion and Yennefer, and, of course, Geralt himself. The stories are relatively brief when taken individually, and each one pertains to a different adventure, moral dilemma, and “monster” with which Geralt is forced to confront.
I really enjoyed this novel, as it gives you quite a good foundation for the remainder of the series and provides background information for significant relationships which are threaded throughout the novels and video games. Because of the way it was released and marketed, I didn’t actually have an opportunity to read this novel until after I’d played the first video game, so it was really interesting to finally learn just how it was that the fates of two so very different men as Geralt and Dandelion first became entangled, not to mention how he became involved with Yennefer and just how deeply – and why – they are chained to one another so completely.
Woven between each of Geralt’s individual adventures are segments entitled The Voice of Reason, each of which serves to explain a bit about the results of Geralt’s actions in the preceding chapter while simultaneously setting up the events of the chapter that follows. While the regular “Witcher” chapters are full of clever dialogue, intriguing scenery, fights, and interesting creatures and characters, I enjoyed The Voice of Reason sections just as much, as they allow readers to really see the man behind the Witcher.
My favorite of all the tales told here was The Edge of the World, which excellently demonstrates the world Sapkowski has created: there is no pure evil, nor is there any ultimate good – it’s all a matter of perception, of seeing the bigger picture and knowing the full story before rushing to snap judgments. In The Edge of the World, Geralt and Dandelion are sent – for a price, of course – to face off with a devil which has been pestering a village. As the story progresses, we find that the “devil” is actually not the “bad guy” of this tale at all, and our perception shifts to slap the label of “villain” on a gang of thieves who commit seemingly unprovoked violence against our heroes. And then we find out that our gang of thieves actually represent the pitiable remnants of a dying civilization, driven from their homes and straight into the arms of desperation. It’s the realness, the humanity of the characters and creatures, that really makes all of these stories so interesting to me. Is it wrong to attack someone on the road? Sure it is, we know that. “But,” we’re asked to consider, “what if that ‘someone’ is a stranger, and he is all that stands between the survival of you, your family, and your people for another season? Can you bring yourself to kill that one person for the sake of yourself, your children, and all you know and love? Or do you release him, knowing that by so doing you are possibly – probably – condemning yourself, your children, and all you know and love to death?” And who is more heroic in the end, really? The man who stands back up and agrees to walk away? The devil who gives up the safety of the fields to grant peace to a few villagers? Or the displaced who choose to die on their own terms? The answer is both none and all.
All in all, an excellent read and one which I heartily recommend to all fans of fantasy who are looking for a bit of realism in the genre (realism without the constant misery and inevitable tragedies found in A Song of Ice and Fire).
Review: Sword of Destiny
This collection of short stories was also quite good, thought I didn’t care for it quite as much as The Last Wish. It contained really engaging stories, such as The Bounds of Reason and A Little Sacrifice, but the emphasis on Geralt’s relationship with Yennefer seemed a little too heavy for me with this group of tales.
Yennefer holds a huge amount of influence over Geralt throughout the series, both with her presence and even moreso in her absence, but her hold was especially powerful in this book. Geralt’s feelings and thoughts towards the enchantress are so obsessive that they turn him into someone almost unfamiliar to me – his every thought drifts back to her, and when he himself is not obsessing over her whereabouts and the nature of their relationship, some other character is bound to eventually bring it up, such as Dandelion’s repeated inquiries into the progress of their not-quite-a-relationship relationship. Besides having her hovering in the margins of every tale in one form or another, there is an entire chapter dedicated solely to Geralt’s addiction: A Shard of Ice. While I do enjoy knowing that Geralt has this weakness, and as refreshing as it is to know that he will eventually have to come to terms with the fact that he can, despite his best efforts, still feel things deeply, that particular tale really did him a terrible disservice in my eyes. In the end, the White Wolf was brought low… so low that he was essentially involved in a schoolyard pissing contest over a fairly nasty and completely selfish woman.
On the up-side, however, when the other stories are good, they’re really good. In the two I found most entertaining – the dragon’s tale, The Bounds of Reason, and the dryad tale which loans its title to this entire collection – we see a different side of the Witcher than in the previous installment of short stories. He’s a little more reasonable when it comes to the “monsters,” for one… and a little less reasonable when it comes to the human characters. Geralt seemed relatively indifferent about the non-human characters in The Last Wish, giving them the benefit of the doubt when it was warranted but showing very little preference one way or the other as to their guilt when their cases were initially brought to his attention. In Sword of Destiny, Geralt seems almost hesitant to act against most of the “monsters,” finding their natures and escapades to be more quaint, amusing, pitiable, or, in the case of The Bounds of Reason, outright awesome than actually “monstrous.” Instead, it is the actions of the human characters which he seems to find the most appalling: their displays of intolerance and violent hate crimes, such as the demands to “net” the aquatic beings and his inner turmoil when he sees the bodies of the non-humans hanging from trees.
I would recommend this book to fans of the previous collection, as well as to those who enjoyed the video games (incidentally, the short story which pertains to the dryads does have some connection to the latest game installment, The Wild Hunt, as well as roots back to a tale or two in The Last Wish).
Review: Blood of Elves
I really, really loved this novel. It’s the first full-length Witcher novel, and while it does give a few nods to the short stories which came before, reading them is not a prerequisite and shouldn’t keep you from diving straight into this tale if that’s your preference. I will say, however, that I feel that reading the collections beforehand helped me to more fully and easily comprehend what was going on, who people were, and why certain characters acted or responded in the ways they did. (And for those of you who have read the short-story collections, there’s quite a bit more of Yarpen Zigrin and his Dwarven company to be found in this novel!!!)
Fans of the games will certainly see more than one familiar face within these pages: Triss, Yennefer, Dandelion, and Ciri are all present and accounted for, with special emphasis placed on Geralt’s relationships with Triss and Ciri. If you played The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, you’ll also be relieved to know that many of the unanswered questions and assumptions about the origins of the Scoia’tel are addressed in Blood of Elves, and the events which unfold during this novel are ones which were briefly mentioned in that game as having had some influence over the hostilities taking place at that time.
A lot happens during Blood of Elves: after years of managing a strained and delicate half-peace between the humans, dwarves, elves, sorcerers, halflings, and other creatures of magic and fantasy, the cracks are beginning to truly show, and every step taken and word spoken, every clash of metal and flash of magic leaves readers with the impression of a storm building on the horizon. The sins of the past, of which a brief glimpse was given in the two preceding short-story collections, have begun to come to the fore, demanding attention and redress – not just in the political sense, but also on a very personal note for the White Wolf, whose previous decisions to help some and hinder others begin to make their future impact known.
Geralt himself is much more fleshed-out within these pages, as readers are given a glimpse behind the hardened Witcher to see a snippet of the training, trials, and teachers who helped to mold him into the man he is. Not only that, but during our journey we meet an assortment of characters – including the other Witchers of Kaer Morhen – with whom Geralt is already well-acquainted, each one’s insight providing another facet of the White Wolf as a whole.
The real treat for me, however, was the dialogue which takes place throughout the novel. Sapkowski does such an excellent job of dropping you into his world with the assumption that it is the world, the only one that matters, the only one that’s real – he never pauses the momentum of the tale to provide paragraphs of explanations, and instead allows things to simply unfold, gracefully and naturally. The conversations between the characters provide most of the information needed for readers, as the tourists in this strange and desperate world, to fully understand events and scenarios; I love this tactic, for it turns what might have been footnotes into part of the fantasy: readers remain firmly entrenched in the world and grounded in the moment while gradually being fed pertinent info in an entertaining way – info that might have otherwise been considered dry.
So many stories are begun in Blood of Elves, begun and woven seamlessly together, that it’s really quite surprising to realize that the hardcover contains less than 400 pages.
Review: Time of Contempt
It’s with this novel that we really get a good representation of Sapkowski’s style for beginning and ending his novels, and you’ll either love it or hate it: each novel in the series ends abruptly, without a true “ending” – there are no tidy parcels here, no Epilogues of explanation or Happily-Ever-Afters; instead, with the turn of the last page of Blood of Elves, we simply close our windows and bar our doors, leaving the world of the Witcher to carry on as it will for a bit while we return to our own chore of living. When Time of Contempt begins, it’s with all of the ease of reopening those very same doors and windows – nobody was waiting around for you to grace them with your presence, and you’re aware very early on that the world carried on without you, the sun rose and set every day, and it was up to you to choose to return again.
I, for one, love that about Sapkowski. It makes the Witcher’s world more real to me; there’s not a realm in this series that isn’t harsh, demanding, and on the brink of war – how on earth could one expect a nice little ending packaged with bows and ribbons from a world such as that?
When we return to the Geralt in Time of Contempt, we find the main cast reunited, and the drums of war that have been a distant and relatively vague thunder are now beginning to be clearly discerned throughout the land. And while the world has changed significantly, with the preparations of impending warfare evident everywhere, nothing seems to be as changed as the Witcher himself.
Geralt has softened significantly towards his young charge, not to mention his lady love, making him a much more well-rounded man than he was previously… but at great cost. He now has weaknesses, chinks in his well-cultivated armor that can now be exploited and used as leverage. His love – as love is prone to do – makes him reckless and protective, and, in the end, rather desperate. His carefully-maintained neutrality, which he toted proudly throughout the series thus far, slowly becomes apparent as yet another weakness; his impartiality is beginning to work against him, leaving him standing on shaky and uncertain ground – rather than remaining above the fray as he had wished, he has simply permitted himself to become a pawn in the game rather than a participant, a pawn which is unwillingly and unwittingly shunted around the board by other more dedicated and infinitely more devious players.
I quite like this “awakened” Witcher, with his fierce but surprisingly tender heart. And I quite like the chapters dedicated to the brilliant and vivid depiction of the mages’ conclave, which is presented as a surreal mix of beauty, raw power, and impeccable manners all taking place in the midst of a swarm of sharks.
The only thing I didn’t much care for with Time of Contempt – the only reason I gave it three yarn balls rather than four – is the jittery pace of the novel as a whole. This is a much more political novel than its predecessors, and there are a significant number of chapters dedicated to political infighting, backstabbing, military maneuvering, and bureaucratic sleight-of-hand. The underlying story itself is chopped into various scenes of back-and-forth, with chapters passing from faction to faction and character to character. This may have been an intentional pacing decision by Sapkowski in order to give readers a heightened sense of the uncertainty of the world or the frantic energy of its leaders, or it may have been something that occurred during the novel’s translation. Regardless, it was the only issue I really had with this novel.
Other than that, another absolutely excellent addition to the Witcher Saga, which then brings us to…
Review: Baptism of Fire
And again we are picking up right where we left off, with only a minimal amount of time having passed between the events at Thanedd and the beginning of this installment. Geralt is in the process of healing from the injuries sustained during the coup and desperate to learn the fates of Ciri and Yennefer, notably in that order. And from that point on, all hell breaks loose.
The main story arc stretches quite a bit with this novel, expanding to include new and fascinating characters; to name a few, we have: a small band of Lady Eithne’s Dryads who, despite their reputation as a race of fearsome human-killers, prove that their love of music overcomes even their anger and resentment; the complex and passionate Milva, whose archery skill is practically unrivaled and whose compassion for warriors of both sides sets her apart from many of those with whom she travels; Cahir, the Nilfgaardian who denies being a Nilfgaardian; Regis, a healer with a rather interesting secret; and the elusive Iron Wolf, Isengrim Faoiltiarna, a Scoia’tael commando whose description will be extremely familiar to fans of the games (the character of Iorveth in The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is a combination of Sapkowski’s Iron Wolf and a minor literary character also called Iorveth – I can only assume the game developers combined the characters in order to use the complex and interesting Iron Wolf without confusing people too terribly with the pronunciation of his actual name).
The tale itself becomes more complex, as is only right with so vast a world as has been created here. Ciri is obviously no longer under the protection of her two powerful teachers, the Witcher and Yennefer, and while the search for her is the underlying current which keeps this story moving, her appearances are brief, bloody, and alarmingly cruel. Left to survive on her own without Geralt’s guidance and Yennefer’s instruction, Ciri is slowly becoming something unrecognizable even to herself; as she falls further down the rabbit hole, she becomes more like Falka, the persona she has assumed in order to blend in with the thieves known collectively as The Rats. She is surrounded by mayhem and hurling herself headfirst into danger – the fact that she continues to survive is a testament to her own skills, intelligence, cleverness, and the occasional streak of sheer dumb luck. Even the “good” and “bad” guys become rather murky, as the Nilfgaardians, who are painted as the oppressors and intruders, are shown to be not so very different from the native heroes, who, when not battling said Nilfgaardians, spend quite a bit of their time herding the non-human minorities into slums or massacring them outright.
Our core group – now made up of Geralt the Witcher, Dandelion the bard, and Milva the huntress – journey across a country made almost unrecognizable since the series began, as war has now reset the boundaries of the realms, the imperial Nilfgaardian presence is evident everywhere, and tragedy and violence are now perpetrated openly and without fear of reprisal. The three run into another band of travelers – a predominantly Dwarven company with a single Gnome added to the mix – and journey with them for a while, combining their efforts to safely lead a group of refugees, all women and children, to safety. The Dwarves, as with previous installments, tend to lend a bit of comedic relief to an otherwise heavy story, and their presence helps dissipate some of the tension and strain that our heroes have begun to unleash upon one another.
It is with Baptism of Fire that we fully notice and appreciate the central theme of this series: atonement. Geralt has, from the beginning, put himself through the greatest hardships, loved the most difficult people, carried the weightiest burdens – all because he feels this is his due. He makes it clear from the beginning that he and he alone can do what must be done, and we gradually see throughout the books that he believes this to be his sole purpose, his meaning for living: he is the Witcher, and it is up to him to purge the world of its dark horrors, its abominations, come hell or high water. He commits himself to a romantic relationship that is, from the beginning, borderline abusive and quite probably doomed. He makes himself Ciri’s guardian, taking on the role of a surrogate father, but he is clearly only truly comfortable when apportioning blame to himself for her failings, rather than giving himself any sort of credit for the strengths and skills he provided which permitted her to survive as far as she has.
But with Baptism, the atonement spreads to distribute its weight across the land. It is no longer just about Geralt, and he is forced to accept that the burden of the future belongs to others – that he must include others if they want any sort of future at all. As much as the world is a part of what he is and who he does, he is now forced to accept that he is also part of it. In Baptism of Fire, the world is being reforged… and so is Geralt. He has been depicted since the beginning as a lone wolf, pausing only for a few brief rolls in the ze hay and allowing only a select few to share the road with him for a brief while. But now, from beginning to end, necessity forces him to work as part of a unified team, to remain in the constant company of others – and it’s clear that their motivations and desire to work with him baffles the hell out of him. As always, his attempts to dissuade Dandelion from joining him on his quest fall on deaf ears, Milva makes it clear from the beginning that she will not be bullied or coerced into leaving him, and neither Cahir nor Regis is frightened away by the Witcher’s threats.
What I really like here is that the politics are not the central theme of the story – the people are. Every single thing, every single person, isn’t a player in the grand scheme – rather, kings and empires, enchantresses and sorcerers scheme and plot, dedicating themselves to decisions that will shake the foundation of the world, while a majority of the population is simply forced to adapt, to learn how to survive amidst the chaotic aftermath. On the surface, it may be about two opposing factions, two very different governments… but in the end, as in real life, the struggle of the powerful to make or retain more power takes place amongst the general populous, it is the lives of the merchants and innkeepers, farmers and shepherds that are destroyed, it is their villages that are left smoldering – in the end, it is the people who sacrifice, the people who pay.
Personally, I love The Witcher Saga, and the main reason I love it is that there are no easy answers – good people do bad things, bad people do good things, and the protagonist toggles back-and-forth between right & wrong and selfish & selfless.
Prior to reading The Last Wish, I had read quite a few reviews of that short-story collection, many of which referred to Geralt’s “ambivalence.” I have to disagree entirely with the use of that word to describe Geralt, his actions, or Sapkowski’s world, and instead say they are all “ambiguous.” “Ambivalence” refers to an uncertainty caused by contradiction and which typically resorts in a “take it or leave it” attitude; when one states that Geralt is “morally ambivalent,” I take that to mean that he can’t or won’t make the conscious decision to either be good or evil, resulting in him being neither. “Ambiguity,” however, refers to an uncertainty caused by a lack of commitment one way or the other, which leaves the results of any actions taken open to interpretation; in this sense, Geralt simply acts according to each situation as it is presented, and whether that makes him good or evil is left in the hands of the reader to decide.
The heroes and heroines of fantasy novels tend to be quite good – so much so that it’s nearly impossible to emulate them… and that’s okay. That’s what makes the genre “fantasy” and not “reality,” right? They can be everything we wish we could be all the time: selfless, honorable, loyal, honest, and unwavering in their convictions – even in the face of certain death. But every once in a while, it’s so very nice to read about a fantasy-genre protagonist who lies and cheats and steals, whose pride gets the best of him, whose own cleverness is sometimes his worst enemy, whose mouth gets him into more scrapes than his swords, who has been way too screwed up and screwed over to go frolicking about thinking everyone is good if you just look hard enough, and who will always help those in need – provided they’ve got the coin.
To conclude, I strongly recommend this series to everyone in the whole wide world. Read them. Read them all. Do it now. You can thank me later.