I finished reading book one in The Witcher series on Friday, Blood of Elves, and I have to say, I’m very impressed. It’s a series of books that has been around in the original Polish since the 90s of course (Blood of Elves dates from 1994), but has really only hit the mainstream with the video game from 2007, I believe. The games merely use the characters from the series, but I understand that they don’t otherwise adapt the book material. Could be wrong, though, as I’m not a video gamer!
Book One in the series takes all of the stuff we learnt across the two anthology books, particularly from Sword of Destiny, and begins the story in earnest. I’d say that it also begins to pull all of the fairly disparate stories into a more cohesive whole, but honestly, this novel still has an element of the short story anthology to it. There are just seven chapters in the book, but they’re long, and almost disjointed enough to feel like separate stories.
We begin with Dandelion being tortured by a man named Rience, for details of the real people upon whom one of his popular ballads is based – notably, Geralt and Ciri. Rience is very interested in where the child is, but fortunately Dandelion is saved by Yennefer before any serious damage is done.
Roughly the first half then sees us at the Witchers’ keep of Kaer Morhen, where the sorceress Triss Merigold has been asked to help them deal with Ciri, who is having some strange episodes. The witchers haven’t tried to give her any of their elixirs, in part because it seems their infrastructure is collapsing, but they also have next to no understanding of female biology. It’s clear that she possesses some form of magical potency, and during one of these she tries to delve into the girl’s mind, with fairly disastrous results. Triss informs Geralt that Ciri needs a stronger mentor, and to see more of the world.
With the spring, Geralt, Triss and Ciri set off for the Temple of Melitele in order for Ciri to gain some more mainstream education. On the road, however, Triss becomes ill, and Geralt is able to seek aid from his old friend, the dwarf Yarpen Zigrin, who is leading a caravan on the business of King Henselt of Kaedwen, one of the Four Kingdoms. We get to learn something about the political situation, and the caravan is attacked by eleven marauders. It turns out that the caravan was only a ruse, to work out if Henselt could trust Yarpen.
The story then fractures, as we get to see Geralt on the hunt for Rience, whom he tracks down with the help of Dandelion, but whom escapes from him. We end with Ciri receiving a magical education from Yennefer, before the two head off from the Temple, amid rumours of a new war.
I enjoyed this one, although the chapters sometimes ran a bit too long for my liking. The way the story is paced did take some getting used to, as well, but overall I think it didn’t take too long to get into.
While it perhaps isn’t compulsory to read the anthologies first, I think I got so much more out of the story for having done so. There are references both huge and trivial throughout the book, and while it would feel just like any kind of fantasy story that begins with the fallout from a historical war, having read all of the preamble in the earlier books, I think the setting does become all the richer for it.
I also really liked the way the story was buttressed by the two educational styles. To begin with, Ciri is learning almost entirely how to handle a sword, and she seems to be pretty good at that, to boot. We later see her come into her own magically, and it seems likely she will be a force to be reckoned with in that arena, as well. She’s a really well-developed character over the course of the novel, becoming beautifully rounded out, and I found myself really invested in her story by the end. Interesting that the book should be sold under the tagline of The Witcher, when this really seems to be Ciri’s story.
As we know, Geralt is a Witcher, meaning he has undergone training and mutations to kill the many monsters that plague the land. However, only once do we see him in his professional capacity, and that is a sideline to his hunt for Rience. There is an excellent battle sequence at the caravan, though, which I enjoyed tremendously, and he does get to kick some serious ass during his fight with Rience. I hate to think of the shape that guy will be in if and when he shows up for book two!
We also get to spend a lot of time with Yennefer, and while in many ways she is as inscrutable here as she ever was in the short stories, we do get to have some insight into her as a person, and I think it helps to round her out more as well, rather than just being the woman over whom Geralt painfully pines.
There is quite a bit of politics and power-plays later in the book, but I definitely feel as though we need a map because I do struggle to picture where all of these kingdoms and cities are in relation to one another. There are some really interesting bits about the Wizard Council as well, and in general I think the world-building is great. In particular, the history of the elves is explored, and I was almost overjoyed to see that here we have a credible reason for just why the elves are an ancient race that is dying out.
In short, I think the first book in the series (book three if we’re counting actual volumes, though, but the first novel) is really good, and I’m thoroughly invested in just what is going on. I would have preferred a more in-depth discussion of the politics, or a map, to help with the bigger picture, but the character drama that is playing out has really sucked me in!