I have been enjoying myself so much this year reading whatever’s taken my fancy, writing about book covers and such things, that I didn’t realise I am super behind on my Book Bingo until last week when I added my “Achieved” banner to the ‘Scary Sci-Fi’ tile and counted only seven out of twenty tiles marked off. And only three and a half months left!! I’ve done the maths and it’s going to have to be Book Bingo all the way to New Year if I want to get my completion badge (yes, I’ve made myself a badge) … so, let’s get on this thing!
I had Blood of Elves pegged for my ‘Fantasy with a Green Cover’ category from the get go. I found it in a charity shop last year during my Great Stock-Piling of 2016 and was intrigued to see what Polish fantasy might be bringing to the game, so I made the Green Cover tile with this book in mind. I only found out last week, however, that Sapkowski’s series is the source material for the Witcher video games (I haven’t played them, but the trailers have always been pretty cool), so I guess that’s why I’ve picked it up now. I say “picked it up” but what I actually had to do was burrow into the mountain of books stacked in the corner of our living room and retrieve it after much cussing and book-balancing. Sweaty and dusty I brandished it aloft with a cry of glee when I finally dug it out. Thumbs just rolled his eyes and carried on killing skags (Borderlands 2). I truly am an under-appreciated heroine sometimes …
Blood of Elves is the first novel in the Witcher series, but there are two collections of short stories, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, that Sapkowski produced before this that I think I’d have benefitted from reading beforehand. I had the distinct feeling that I was coming into a series part way through and that I was missing significant knowledge that would help me understand what was going on. Having finished the book now it wasn’t as big a problem as it felt while I was reading, but I’m still going to find those first two collections before I go any further with Sapkowski’s saga. Which I really want to do because this was such an enjoyable read.
Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a magically mutated human paid to kill the monsters of the world. He is in the book a fair bit, but he’s not really the main character. His story seems to have taken place offstage before the start of the book, (or perhaps in those two collections of short stories), and he has no real arc here. Instead he is a thread that binds the various characters and events together. He has taken in a young girl, Ciri, heir to the throne of Cintra, a country now under occupation by the enemy, Nilfgaard. Geralt believes Ciri to be his destiny and the subject of an elvish prophecy of which the reader doesn’t really learn many specifics. But there are a lot of different parties taking an interest in the girl’s whereabouts so Geralt and a number of old friends and colleagues work together to protect her. As far as there is a plot, that’s kind of it. There’s a lot of political stuff going on that is referred to here and there, but it’s all a bit difficult to follow as there are a phenomenal number of players, various rulers, wizards, countries, and races all being involved. And while it’s not a particularly long book at 315 pages, it feels very much like the start of something much bigger.
That’s not to say it’s not brilliant though. This is an awesome world. It’s peopled with fantasy-typical humans, elves and dwarves (and gnomes, but we don’t meet any in this first book), but it all feels really new. Sapkowski layers up this picture of a muddy difficult history where the various races have done violence to one another again and again, and every new act is coloured by what has gone before. It feels dirty and realistic, and it’s hard to root for any one group because everyone is as ambiguous as everyone else. What I really loved about the book though was that all this history and all these tensions aren’t explained in long prosy chapters, but through characters’ conversations. Sapkowski tells more of the story through these seemingly incidental pieces of dialogue than through straight description, and these exchanges are so alive with humour and feeling, that I positively zipped through Blood of Elves. There’s a fantastic discussion that Ciri eavesdrops on between a dwarf called Yarpen Zigrin (excellent name – Sapkowski gets full marks for all his character’s names) and Geralt about the impossibility of remaining neutral in the face of conflict, which is funny and eloquent. And maybe twenty pages later events make it desperately poignant too. Or the hilarious discussion between Geralt and Master Tutor Pitt while on board a barge about the (Pitt insists) impossible existence of a particular type of predatory water monster that then attacks their boat and kills several people. It’s all just so well done. The loose structure of the novel could have annoyed me a lot, but I enjoyed the way Sapkowski kind of pulls the reader over here to see this, then over there to see that, all the while threading the story with beautiful details and letting you draw it all together for yourself.
So, compelling writing, a deliciously grey and murky world, some fascinating characters (Yennefer the enchantress, Dandilion the bard-spy, and Ciri, to name my three favourites so far), and the promise that we’re only just scraping the surface – what’s not to love about this book? I thought it was a blast.