Andrzej Sapkowski, “Blood of Elves” (1994) (translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok) (read aloud by Peter Kenny) – Three possibilities, here: the first is that you really should read the Witcher short stories before starting this, the first novel in the Witcher series, the Polish fantasy epic that has taken the world by storm via video game and netflix adaptation. The second possibility is that Andrzej Sapkowski just really expects you to be very heavily invested in his characters, especially titular Witcher (freelance mutated monster hunter, more or less) Geralt of Rivia (pronounced like a townie saying “Revere”) and his sometimes lover, the enchantress Yennefer, and that reading the previous short stories won’t really give you much more reason to care about them. There’s also the possibility of “both” – the earlier stories will give you more background, and Sapkowski has an exaggerated idea of how compelling his characters are.
In any event, “Blood of Elves” could probably use more context than I had to fully enjoy, but I also admired that it didn’t hold the reader’s hand too much. You get plunged into… I’m not sure that the world or part of the world in which it is set has a name, or if I just haven’t remembered, but anyway, a continent sort of like a mish-mashed medieval Europe. People describe the Witcher series as based in Slavic myth- I don’t know enough Slavic myth to say, but it makes sense, though from the names, institutions, etc., it doesn’t seem like Sapkowski is shy of dashing in cultural influences from all over Europe. It’s a fractured land with many kings ruling minor principalities, and there are also elves, dwarves, gnomes, and other sentient fantasy creatures running around, living in uneasy peace with the humans who are relative newcomers to the land. Looming over it all (like how Russia and/or Germany have loomed over Poland, historically, one is tempted to say) is Nilfgard, which tried to take over the whole area a few years back and did a lot of damage in failing to do so.
There’s a little girl, Ciri, who’s a refugee from the last war, and heir to the throne of one of the kingdoms (since occupied by Nilfgard). For both reasons of state – others of the royal lines want to use her as a symbol, or marry her into their families to establish a claim to her former realm – and reasons of prophecy, she is a Special Child. She hangs out at Witcher academy for a while, which is where we run into Geralt. She gets trained in Witcher stuff, like fighting, but they don’t zap her with mutagens to give her Witcher powers, super strength etc., and also the Witcher’s separation from humanity. She also trains some in magic with Geralt’s on-again off-again lover, the enchantress Yennefer.
There’s a lot more training, scheming, and portents – a lot, a lot of divining portents, most of them to do with Ciri’s special destiny and how it relates to Geralt – than there is real action, here, which again, might have been cooler had I done the preliminary reading. Geralt swears to protect Ciri, and there’s something about Ciri being “promised to him” in prophecy, and it’s unclear whether that means marriage or protection or what (the former is a little creepy because she’s a kid, and Sapkowski doesn’t stint on grown-up characters commenting on her “development” as she enters adolescence, which is about as fun to listen to as it sounds). One of the portents means she has to leave Witcher academy, though I’ll be damned if I could figure out why. They have to travel through a countryside with a pretty well-depicted guerrilla insurgency/counterinsurgency war going on between elves and humans who used to be chill together. Geralt has to do some derring-do monster fighting on a boat, and some spy stuff. Then there’s more portents and that’s more or less it.
There’s cool stuff in here but it doesn’t really gel- though again, I’m not sure if that’s the style, or if I’m just missing the context of the earlier books, like if I tried to start “The Lord of the Rings” with the second or third book. I kind of doubt it would blow me away anyway, but it’s fun enough to pick up the series again sometime, this time, at the proper beginning. ***’