Book Review: “Blood of Elves” by Andrzej Sapkowski

Last night at 2am, I finished this book. Here’s my review of it. Now, for writers,  books are read for analysis as well as enjoyment. This is why I’m expanding the review to make it about the background, world building, character development, and so on. If that doesn’t interest you skip to the end.

Be warned since this is the third book in a series, there will be spoilers for the other two books here. So tread carefully.

Background

This is a book of Sapkowski’s The Witcher series and is the third book in the chronological series, but the first in a saga. The first two books (The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny) are short story collections that take place over the course of a several years with flashbacks included. However, these short stories also help establish characters and plot elements that are important to the saga.

The Witcher series also inspired the award winning game trilogy of the same name by Polish developer CD Project Red. The games take place after the conclusion of the saga and are considered to be independent from the books themselves although sharing source material.

The games have helped launch the series’ popularity worldwide in recent years, but the series and the stories were started in the 80s, published in literary magazines in Poland. They gained almost a cult following in Poland and Eastern Europe, due in part to the feeling that the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, reflected similar political attitudes regarding neutrality and overall disdain for politics.

There’s a lot of Polish culture represented in the series by way of folklore, attitudes and opinions, and more. The games reflect this as well in a much more visual sense. As an American, it’s important to remember that Poland is a nation with a rich cultural heritage and a tough history, so this sense of culture and cultural preservation after decades (or even centuries) of attempted erasure is important to keep in mind while moving through the series.

The World

The world of The Witcher takes place on the Continent, which is divided into a few countries but the most important division is the north-south in which the two main entities are The Northern Kingdoms and the Empire of Nilfgaard. Think of Nilfgaard as an ancient Rome-like empire. In Blood of Elves, and in the previous collection of stories, Nilfgaard is moving further north, attacking the northern kingdoms. In this book, peace has been achieved two years after a major war, however the northern economies aren’t doing well. The Continent was once home to the elves, and the two have been in conflict for a long time. There are dwarves as well who are involved in the anti-non-human conflicts and the two have created a militant guerrilla group called the Scoia’tael.

This world is also one of monsters and magic. The protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, is a professional monster slayer for hire (called a Witcher). A long time ago, the Conjunction of Spheres (a cosmological event) resulted in multiple universes (or “worlds”) colliding together, creating magic in this world and also allowing monsters to come into the world.

 As a result the Witcher caste was created so that they could get rid of the monsters as humans made their way to migrating and populating the continent. In the modern day (at the time of the books) humans have firmly settled the land and the monster population is declining. As a result, there aren’t very many Witchers left. The Witcher training is complicated, but the gist of it is that boys were either given to the Witchers or taken in by them to one of the different Witcher strongholds. There they were trained which involved physical work (fighting) as well as reading history and books to gain knowledge of monsters. However, the Witchers are mutated humans undergoing a mutation process which gives them heightened senses, longer life span, physical strength, and so on. The process can be deadly and only 3-4 out 10 boys survived the process. Geralt of Rivia underwent further mutations after taking to the mutations fairly well (or as well as one could) and is considered one of the most powerful Witchers to have ever lived. He lost pigment in his skin and his hair turned white as a side effect of the mutations.

One more thing about Witchers that’s important: One of the ways the Witchers would recruit children to become Witchers was via “Child Surprise”. If a person couldn’t pay a Witcher or said “I’ll give you whatever you ask” as payment, the Witcher could invoke “Law of Surprise” which basically means giving up something you have but do not know you have, referring to a pregnant woman. The Witcher would return in a few years and take the child. Because of this, a lot of people don’t like Witchers. There are a lot of superstition and legends around them such as one that states Witchers feel no emotions because of the mutations (this is a myth).

Mages are also another important group. There are many mages throughout the world and all have differences. Some serve kings and queens as advisors, others are devoted to research, and so on. Mages are well educated and often are involved, or involve themselves, in politics. There are many female sorceresses in the books.

Characters

There are a few main characters of import, so let’s look at them:

Geralt of Rivia: Legendary monster hunter and hater of politics with an up-and-down reputation due to some events that happened in the first two books.

Ciri: Princess of Cintra with Elder Blood (leading to magical abilities) who escaped the slaughter of Cintra after her family was killed and her home destroyed. Later taken in by Geralt.

Triss Merigold: A powerful sorceress who had a one night stand with Geralt. Asked by Geralt to help Ciri with her problems and abilities. She’s an idealist who likes to dedicate herself to greater causes.

Yennefer of Vengerberg: Another sorceress and on-again-off-again lover of Geralt. Asked to train Ciri in magic later on in the story. She’s brash and bold and often hard to get along with, but she’s intelligent and kindhearted under her tough exterior.

Dandelion: Geralt’s good (best) friend. A well-known bard/poet with a flamboyant personality and a lover of many women, who often finds himself in trouble. Some of Dandelion’s songs and poems feature Geralt and his adventures.

Vesemir: Another Witcher, much older than Geralt, who trained Geralt and lives at the Witcher stronghold. He helps train Ciri earlier on in the story.

The Plot of the Book

Now that we have all that out of the way, let’s talk about the book.

The book begins a little bit after the end of the last one with Dandelion finding himself in trouble. Some people are looking for Geralt and resort to violence to try and get information out of Dandelion. He’s rescued by Yennefer. We then meet Triss Marigold who is on her way to the Witcher stronghold at Geralt’s request to help Ciri.

This part of the book was also intriguing and hilarious. We learn about Triss, who is a survivor of a traumatic battle and a proud woman. She loves her long hair because she feels it represents her freedom. Her ideals about dedicating herself to a greater cause clash with Geralt who takes the the “Not my problem” stance and favors staying out of politics by nature of his profession. This interaction is a beautiful and emotional scene for both characters.

The hilarious part is the interactions with Ciri. Ciri is about 12 and because Geralt didn’t know what to do with a girl, he trains her just as he would a boy. They don’t have her undergo mutations, however. Now, all the men involved are completely clueless until Triss has to explain to them that sometimes when Ciri complains of discomfort, she is experiencing her period, something the men involved didn’t really think about or consider.

Through her training with Triss, Triss discovers Ciri is a “source” of powerful magic with incredible, and dangerous abilities. It’s beyond Triss’ capabilities so they decide to reach out to Yennefer and have Ciri live at a temple to further her education. On the way there, Triss falls ill and they have to reroute to get her help. They are attacked by a group of Scoia’tael after a long, philosophical conversation about it.

After these events, Geralt finds out that Ciri is being hunted as other groups (mages and Nilfgaard) have found out about her importance both politically and pertaining to her abilities. Geralt is on a mission to uncover why and to protect Ciri with the help of his friends, namely Dandelion and Shani. They also have the “help” of another prickly sorceress named Philippa Eilhart. However, Philippa is working for another king and has her own goals, and during a confrontation, prevents Geralt from getting more information that he needs. There is a confrontation where Geralt is wounded and passes out.

The end of the book returns to Ciri and covers her time spent learning about magic and training with Yennefer. Ciri is a feisty, wild 13 year old girl at this point, but retains much of her childish naivety. After a rough start, the two eventually bond and come to really care for one another. The talk of war is starting up again and the two decide to leave the temple.

Thoughts

One of the things I love about Sapkowski’s work is his ability to info-dump without making it feel like an info-dump. A lot of the current political and philosophical issues in the stories are discussed at length between characters entailing long monologues. However, none of it feels tired or “ugh here we go”, it feels very natural for these characters to discuss these things at that specific time. It’s reminiscent of many conversations I’ve had with friends and family about big questions and it works. This is one of the areas Sapkowski is strongest in.

The pacing in this book feels much slower than in the previous ones, which makes sense as those were short stories and this is the beginning of a saga. It was a weird adjustment at first, as I’d gotten used to the short stories, but at the same time it fits. It makes sense for it to slow down, and as a result we learn a lot more. Sapkowski also starts employing other POVs including Dandelion, Ciri, and Triss Merigold whereas before we mainly followed Geralt.

There are also fantastic quotes. Sapkowski always brings his A-Game with the one-liners and they send chills down the spine (in a good way). A long huge tangent often culminates into a single powerful sentence that ties it all together and it’s so satisfying to read. Here’s one I loved: “I state that we ought to live. Live in such a way that we don’t, later, have to ask anyone for forgiveness.”

The book, as well as being dramatic and dark, is also hilarious. Geralt may seem like the type of very serious person never to crack a joke, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The book is full of very dry, sarcastic, and dark humor so if that’s your thing, you’ll have great laughs along the way.

One thing Sapkowski does is he tends to do blow-by-blow action of fights (I did a post about this) and I did find myself grazing those scenes a bit. I understand why he did it, to show off the Witcher fighting style and that is a way to do it, but at the same time, I think it could have been done a bit differently and still achieve the same impact.

The book also fluctuated. Some parts I was at the edge of my seat and other times I was waiting for it to pick back up again. Now, this is the first in a saga, so I’m going full benefit of the doubt, since it’s harder to judge without having read all of them, but still. The short stories were incredible page turners and some of that energy got lost in this book, I feel. However, I trust Sapkowski as a writer enough to think he knows what he’s doing. Personally, I feel Sapkowski (at this point) is strongest in short story. The short stories were an incredible example of how fantasy tackles big questions in a profound way. He has managed to preserve it in a longer form, but I think some of it does get clunky or jumbled along the way.

My final point, and this could have been exclusive to my eBook or translation, is that POVs can shift mid chapter without any warning. It’s a little jarring, but not difficult to adjust to.

Parting Words

Overall, this is a great start to the saga. We learn more about characters we have met before and get introduced to new ones. It’s fun, hilarious, dark, and dramatic. There’s a beautiful balance of these things in the story. We also expand more on the world that we’ve come to know in the first two stories so that’s another plus.

No work is perfect and this is no exception. There are issues of pacing, some nitpicking about combat scenes, and it can be confusing why certain conversations are happening at times. However, Sapkowski does manage to bring his points home which is something to be praised. The book ends on a high note, and I’m excited to see where the next one takes us.

I’ll give this book an 8/10.

Links

The Witcher Novels: Wikipedia

The Last Wish (first short story collection) on Amazon

Blood of Elves on Amazon

CD Project Red (Developer of the game franchise)

Guide to Reading the Witcher Books (Witcher Reddit)

Andrzej Sapkowski Wikipedia

Andrzej Sapkowski Website (all in Polish)

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Coming up Next

StormOfSwords

I’ll be taking a break from The Witcher to finish A Storm of Swords (the third in the A Song of Ice and Fire saga) by George R.R. Martin. Visit the Currently Reading page to learn more.

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