Blood of Elves (1994): Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 4

Blood of Elves gathers together strands from the short stories in Sword of Destiny and sets us off on the first instalment in an epic tale of fate, love and loyalty. As far as I can see, nothing in Season 1 of the Netflix Witcher relates to Blood of Elves, so I imagine that its storylines will come into play in Season 2 (hopefully in a slightly more linear fashion). Here we rejoin Geralt, Witcher and monster-slayer by trade, and his new ward Ciri, deposed princess of Cintra. They have withdrawn to the Witcher stronghold at Kaer Morhen, where (excitingly!) we meet other Witchers and watch Ciri being trained in the skills she will need to survive in the outside world. But this is merely a moment, a brief catching of the breath, before that world begins to impose on Kaer Morhen once again. As Ciri’s needs outstrip the Witchers’ abilities, they must find somewhere else for her, while Geralt has unfinished business out on the politically ravaged Continent.

A lot happens in this first full-length novel, as Sapkowski brings into play various threads of the tapestry that will sustain the series. We move from the micro-story to the macro-story, from the fates of individuals to those not only of nations but of races. The result can be dense, but it builds a sense of anticipation, like watching a chess grandmaster setting out his pawns. On the personal level, of course, our chief concern is Ciri. Plucked from the ravaged remnants of Cintra, her rightful kingdom, she has been carried off to the safety of Kaer Morhen. Here she has been taught the skills that this depleted band of world-weary men think might keep her safe for long enough: to run, to jump, to fence, to balance, and to survive. Geralt has known for some time, however, that this vagrant princess has a significance beyond her royal line. Tremendous magical power lies dormant in her blood, and now it has started to struggle into wakefulness as Ciri reaches puberty, causing violent dreams and physical pain. Geralt and his colleagues – the chief Witcher, Vesemir, and the younger men Lambert and Coën – can’t handle the magnitude of Ciri’s abilities any more, so someone else must be brought in. That someone is the mage Triss Merigold, who does her best not only to control Ciri’s powers but also to teach her what it means to be a woman – an ill-suited task for a group of awkward men. But even Triss knows that Ciri’s potential outstrips her powers to contain. Ciri must go elsewhere. The Temple of Melitele, headed by Geralt’s old friend the priestess Nenneke, is a safe choice. And there Ciri can be taught, moulded and trained by someone stronger than Triss – by Yennefer, Geralt’s on-off girlfriend and a powerful sorceress.

So much for the personal level. While Ciri grows into herself, tensions simmer between the nations of the Continent. In the books of stories preceding this one, the Continent was threatened by the encroaching tide of Nilfgaardian armies. A defeat at Sodden – shown in the first series of the TV show, but not yet described in the books – has temporarily driven the Nilfgaardians back, but no one expects that their ambitious Emperor, Emhyr var Emreis, will be stilled for long. (On the subject of Sodden, there are some interesting allusions to the fact that Yennefer and Triss have managed to claw themselves back from the brink of death after they and their fellow mages sacrificed themselves to save their countries.) The remaining powers of the Continent come together in an alliance against Nilfgaard – Temeria, Redania, Aedirn and Kaedwen. But what of Cintra, Ciri’s kingdom? The allies suspect that Ciri is still alive somewhere. Rumour ties her to Geralt, and they know that if they can track down the Witcher then they have a chance of finding Cintra’s rightful queen. But what do these seasoned politicos want with Ciri? It’s the wrong time for a child queen to sit on the throne. Do they mean to marry her off, winning the friendship of a powerful man to help them keep Nilfgaard at bay? Or do they have worse in mind? As these rulers linger in council rooms, sizing one another up, never quite willing to trust their peers completely, Geralt is on a mission of his own – trying to evade their scouts while tracking down a man who seems to have an inconvenient interest in him: a fellow with a burned face, named Rience.

Thus, the stage is set for tension and war between the human domains of the Continent. But Blood of Elves emphasises that humans aren’t the only race with an interest in the future of this region. What of the elves, who used to occupy this land? We have the clearest explanation so far for what happened to them, thanks to the allies’ meetings. The elves’ experiences with humans offers a sober lesson about facing up to Nilfgaard:

When our ancestors landed on the beaches five hundred years ago the elves also hid their heads in the sand. We tore the country away from them piece by piece and they retreated, thinking all the while that this would be the last border, that we would encroach no further. Let us be wiser!

People assume that the days of the elves are over. But making such assumptions is dangerous, and no one has told the elves themselves that their race is run. We saw the first simmerings of elvish resistance in ‘The Edge of the World’, one of the stories in The Last Wish. Now they have grown even stronger, and unwary travellers are beginning to be harried by vicious groups of elvish commandos who call themselves The Squirrels. Manned by young elves angry at having been disenfranchised, and determined to take their country back, the Squirrels seem to be the first wave of a deeply worrying new challenge for the kingdoms of the Continent. As yet, most of the rulers are too busy looking the other way towards Nilfgaard. But that may change, because prophecies suggest that mass destruction is on its way – and Ciri, with her strange powers and her enigmatic past, may have a central role to play.

This feels like proper fantasy stuff, easy to get one’s teeth into. I’d wondered how Sapkowski would fare in full-length novel form; whether his facility with short stories would carry through. I think it does – though Blood of Elves feels very much like an overture, setting everything up for the next instalment. But it feels tight-knit and well-paced, with enough plot strands to be interesting but not so many that the reader starts flailing around. And, although Ciri appears to be the standard Magical Child of Prophecy beloved of fantasy series, she’s only one of a number of main characters, all lovingly drawn. She and Geralt share top billing in this novel, each running their own plotline, so to speak, and it’s Geralt’s story which takes us out around the Continent again. Here we meet old friends – the bard Dandelion is back, cheerfully mining Geralt’s experiences to make heart-wrenching ballads for his audiences, and being casually insulted by other characters (‘I know you’re almost forty, look almost thirty, think you’re just over twenty and act as though you’re barely ten,’ one begins, witheringly). There are also new faces, though, such as the student Shani from the Continent’s main university at Oxenfurt (Sapkowski’s sense of fun continues; the chief Master at the university is named Radcliffe). And there’s Philippa Eilhart, another sorceress, who has a habit of incarnating as a large grey owl. I have to admit that the whole section around Oxenfurt lost me a little bit, but it all boils down to Geralt’s pursuit of Rience. I think things will become clearer as I go on.

What’s clear is that something monumental is beginning to build up – something which may involve another attack by Nilfgaard, or perhaps a damaging clash of humans against elves, or maybe something even more destructive and primordial. It looks as though Ciri is going to be responsible for setting this off – somehow – but will Geralt and her other friends teach her to control her powers before it’s too late? And, when the moment of reckoning comes, will humans and elves be fighting together or against one another? At the moment, anything could happen. I really must carry on with the series (I read this book some time ago, while we were still watching the Witcher TV show on Netflix). There are so many threads that I’ll forget them if I wait much longer, and Sapkowski really is a rewarding and satisfying read – proper fantasy, but with a modern lightness of touch that’s constantly engaging. (I should add that this, like The Last Wish, is engagingly translated by Danusia Stok; her slightly more sober style came as a surprise in The Last Wish, after the sprightlier translations of David French in Sword of Destiny, but here it works well in sending up the grand sweeps of an epic saga.)

Buy the book

Last in the series – Sword of Destiny
Next in the series – Time of Contempt

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