Sword of Destiny: Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 3*

We’d finished Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and needed a new series to get our teeth into, so I suggested The Witcher on Netflix. I’d bought the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski back in the autumn, when the Kindle versions were on sale and, though I hadn’t yet read any of them, I was intrigued to see what the series was like. The result was an hour of complete bafflement, with both of us trying to get a handle on this new world while also remembering the names of a dizzying number of characters. We haven’t yet moved on to the next episode, but I decided that I needed to do some preparation first. Although Sword of Destiny isn’t the first book in terms of the series’s inner chronology, it was the first to be published, and I hoped this collection of six short stories would give me a better understanding of the context. As it happens, there’s only the very slightest crossover, but the stories turned out to be an unexpected joy. Far funnier than the TV show, they were the perfect way to whet my appetite before plunging deeper into this engaging world of old-school sword-and-sorcery.

*Opinion seems to differ on the reading order, but this seems the most common.

The Witcher series has cult status in Sapkowski’s native Poland and in Eastern Europe, but has kept a low profile in the UK – unless, of course, you’ve played one of the phenomenally popular video games. If you don’t have Netflix, you might never have come across it: English translations of the books have only appeared in the last few years. Admittedly, six short stories can’t give me much sense of how the world fits together, but we’re clearly in classic heroic fantasy mode. There are kings in castles, peasants in villages, sorcerers, dwarfs, elves, halflings and a bevy of other mythological characters. Our hero is Geralt of Rivia, one of the few remaining ‘witchers’. Genetically modified by his gruelling training (which is hinted at here, but not described), Geralt has powers of speed and endurance far beyond those of other men, along with pupils that narrow like cats’ eyes, white hair, some basic spells, and a bag full of helpful elixirs. He makes a living killing monsters, although it isn’t quite that simple, because the Witcher Code specifies which fantastical creatures are fair game and which are not. And Geralt, besides, has a complex conscience of his own – much to his patrons’ irritation. These six stories follow our errant witcher as he rides the highroad from place to place, sometimes alone and sometimes in company, seeking to make his living – and driven by destiny.

Geralt doesn’t want to believe in destiny. That’s an ongoing theme across all six stories. He seems to be influenced by his own experience: there are all sorts of legends about witchers finding children who are ‘destined’ to succeed them as apprentices, but Geralt knows from his own experience that reality often works quite differently. You take the tools that you have and you shape them, regardless of whether a child is radiant with the light of destiny or not. Unfortunately for him, though, destiny really does believe in him and, try as he might, Geralt just doesn’t seem to be able to outrun it. Now, probably the best way to deal with this volume is to give an overview of each story and then come back to some general thoughts at the end. There are recurring themes, as I’ve already said, and recurring characters across all the stories.

  • The Bounds of Reason – After finishing a job, Geralt takes to the road with the cheerful traveller Three Jackdaws and his dazzling Zerrikanian guards (think scantily-dressed Amazons). When they happen to meet Geralt’s old friend, the troubadour Dandelion, they hear news of a great hunt being undertaken by the young King Niedamir of Caingorn. Warriors, sorcerers and people in search of a quick buck have all joined his expedition, and our travellers decide to go along out of curiosity. An unexpected encounter with Geralt’s old flame makes matters more awkward, but the surprises are far from over.
  • A Shard of Ice – Reunited with Yennefer, Geralt is kicking his heels in Aedd Gynvael, a small town with very little to recommend it. While he stews, Yennefer is spending a suspicious amount of time with the sorcerer Istredd. Usually placid by nature, Geralt bristles at the thought of having a rival, but finds that there are other matters to concern him – not least the presence of the famous swordsman Cicada. A more introspective story than usual, giving us deeper insight into a relationship which is clearly so fundamental for Geralt. Less so, perhaps, for Yennefer.
  • Eternal Flame – In the city of Novigrad, Geralt finds Dandelion being publicly berated by his latest fiancee. The friends are both short of money, as usual, but Dandelion suggests that they benefit from the largesse of his acquaintance Dainty Biberveldt, a successful halfling merchant. When they track Dainty down, however, it soon becomes clear that all is not as it seems. Geralt’s skills face a new challenge as he must tackle an unusual kind of creature, keep the authorities happy, and try to solve the mystery of Dainty Biberveldt’s transactions.
  • A Little Sacrifice – An arrogant duke tries to win the love of a mermaid, while the local industry of pearl-fishing suffers an alarming blow. Geralt attends a betrothal party with Dandelion, meets the bard Essi Daven, and finds himself wondering how one draws the line between being cruel and being kind. Another quieter story, giving us a clearer idea of Geralt’s personality and his inner torment.
  • The Sword of Destiny – Deep within the dangerous forest of Brokilon, Geralt is on a diplomatic mission to the leader of the dryads. We learn a little more about the way humans have imposed themselves on this world, driving fantastical creatures deeper into the wild, or forcing them into reservations. But Geralt’s mission is unexpectedly sidetracked by the discovery of the runaway princess Ciri: small, opinionated, slightly runny-nosed and, as it happens, bound to Geralt by the forces of destiny.
  • Something More – After being attacked while defending a merchant, Geralt is taken back to the merchant’s house for treatment and recuperation. On the way, stupefied by elixirs, he finds himself reliving moments from his past alongside his deepest fears. He believes he has come to terms with the hand life has dealt him, but destiny hasn’t quite finished with the Witcher yet. After encountering a long-lost figure from his past, Geralt will find that destiny has one more surprise lined up for him.

After these six stories, I have some idea of the wider picture. We have the sorceress Yennefer, with whom Geralt obviously had a significant relationship at some point, with whom he broke up, and with whom he suffers a lovelorn on-off relationship that leaves little space in his heart for anyone else. There’s Dandelion, the roguish troubadour who always has several different women wrapped around his little finger at any one time, and who invariably gets caught up in trouble. And then there’s Ciri. Am I mistaken in thinking that Something More describes some of the events shown in the first episode of the TV series, i.e. the fall of Cintra? If so, Ciri in the TV show is much more grown up than Ciri in the books and I don’t know what that signifies. Is there supposed to be a romantic relationship further down the line? Don’t tell me, of course! I’m just thinking aloud.

Some further questions, which will hopefully be answered by the rest of the books. Are there any other witchers around? People refer to them, but we don’t see any in this story. Is there a central institute for witchers or does each witcher train his apprentice as and when he finds him? What is the history of this world? Is it supposed to be like Middle Earth, a world formerly ruled by elves which is slowly being taken over by men? What is the full story of Geralt’s childhood? We have a glimpse here, but it’s frustratingly brief. How did he end up bound to Ciri? What are the vows that he exacted from her grandmother and her parents, and why do these create a bond between them? What is that bond supposed to do? And, perhaps most pressingly, what’s all that stuff in the first TV episode that isn’t to do with Cintra or Ciri? Why was there a wizard with a tower full of offensively and unnecessarily naked women? (The ‘offensive’ and ‘unnecessary’ are mine. Monsieur found it a perfectly legitimate storytelling device.) When are we going to learn more about the different monsters in this world? So much to find out! It’s always like this when you first enter a new fantasy series, but here – with books, video games and now the TV series all adding different storylines – I feel like I’ve dipped a toe in an ocean.

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting these stories to be as good as they were. One never quite knows how well translated fiction will work, and I’m always suspicious of books which are tie-ins with games or films. However, it’s important to remember that Sapkowski wrote virtually all his Witcher books before the video games took off: this is fantasy inspiring technology, not the other way around. And he really is jolly good, even if virtually all his female characters seem to be aimed at thirteen-year-old boys with improbable ideas of anatomy. Perhaps things get better in the novels, where he has more time to flesh them out (no pun intended).

The characterisation of Geralt is wonderful: very different from the impression given by the first episode of the TV show. Here the Witcher is a gentle, tortured, lonely and principled man, driven by a firm sense of right and wrong, yet warmly appreciative of companionship. Book-Geralt thinks himself unattractive, which TV-Geralt, in the form of Henry Cavill, could never believe even on the hardest of mornings (‘What a hideous smile I have, Geralt thought, reaching for his sword. What a hideous face I have. And how hideously I squint. So is that what I look like? Damn.’) There is a fair amount of soul-searching in the stories, but Sapowski doesn’t allow things to get too heavy. His characters tend to get into slapstick-heavy brawls and he’s a master of the throwaway comment that leaves you raising an eyebrow (on Yennefer: ‘She also possessed a very expertly stuffed unicorn, on whose back she liked to make love‘). He also writes dialogue which feels real: a shout-out goes to the conversations between Geralt and Ciri in Eternal Fire, which sound utterly plausible for an adult trying to deal with a recalcitrant child.

As for the translations, they honestly couldn’t have been better. Different translators have taken on different books in the Witcher series, but here David French gives the text a sprightly irreverence that’s a delight to read. Compassionate, comic and colloquial, his renditions of the stories were just perfect. Fortunately, I see he has also translated some of the novels, so I’ll really look forward to spending more time with his work.

In many ways this is classic sword-and-sorcery, but Sapkowski makes it feel very fresh and modern, and it’s enormous fun. Now, I know this has been more of a waffle than a post which might actually help people decide to read the book. However, I’ll keep posting as I read more of the series and hopefully you’ll be able to see my understanding blossoming. In the meantime, feel free to weigh in and tell me which of the books is your favourite, what you make of the characters I’ve encountered so far, and perhaps to reassure me that some of my questions do get answered?

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