” Like a complicated magic spell, a Sapkowski novel is a hodgepodge of fantasy, intellectual discourse, and dry humor. Recommended. “
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
Written in his native language of Polish, The Witcher fantasy books long went unnoticed outside of Poland, due to their lack of translation. However, when a series of critically acclaimed video games were created based on the books, the series was propelled into the limelight and all eight novels are now able to be enjoyed by English speaking readers.
The books may not enjoy quite the same level of fame as Harry Potter or Game of Thrones (yet), but most fantasy fans who’ve read Sapkowski’s books would agree that they are definitely worth checking out, especially if you find yourself growing weary of tired fantasy clichés.
Sword of Destiny is the second instalment in The Witcher series and, like its predecessor, the novel consists of several short stories which allows newcomers to dip their toes into Sapkowski’s fantasy world, rather than having to jump into some dense tome that is just the first stop in a long series. Losing yourself in a new series of books is a great feeling, but starting a new series set in a deep fantasy world full of unfamiliar characters, locations, and lore can be a little daunting. Sapkowski sidesteps this issue by making his first two novels a collection of short stories which gently ease the reader into his world, rather than throwing them in the deep end.
The Witcher books follow the character of Geralt of Rivia, a seasoned warrior who slays monsters for a living. More than a mere mercenary, Geralt belongs to the order of Witchers, a group of individuals who’s abilities have been enhanced through potions, magic, and mutations. The last of a dying breed, Geralt wanders the land earning his pay by dealing with things that go bump in the night. However, as I mentioned earlier, Sapkowski’s stories often subvert tired fantasy tropes and Geralt’s contracts often take unexpected turns. In classic fantasy stories, the hero is a handsome knight in shining armour and the villain a monstrous beast, but things are far more morally grey in the world Sapkowski paints. A handsome young prince may be less than a beast behind closed doors and a fearsome werewolf may turn out to be far more moral than his fangs and claws suggest. Sapkowski delights in taking readers on a journey of moral quandaries and in some cases there simply are no wrong or right decisions, only the choice between two evils. The most enjoyable subversions are those which take fairytales we grew up with and turn them inside out. I won’t spoil anything but there are some excellent nods to classic fairytales that make you examine them in a new light.
Stuck in the middle of it all is our grizzled hero Geralt. Despite his exceptional abilities and encounters with people and creatures both great and small, Geralt has no desire for fame or power. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a man with a grim job and he aims to do that job as well as he can. Geralt’s been around far too long to still believe that things are as simple as ‘good VS evil’, and his cynicism prevents him from taking sides in wars or politics. He’s not a soldier or a would be ruler, he’s a man who does the dirty jobs no one else can do, he slays monsters. On the surface, our protagonist can seem cold and indifferent to a fault, but stick around and it soon becomes clear that, beneath his cold exterior, Geralt is indeed very human, despite his Witcher mutations. He’s fiercely loyal to his friends, he goes out of his way to help the downtrodden and destitute, and his own personal code of morals means he’s no thug for hire. No amount of gold will persuade Geralt to kill a creature he doesn’t believe has it coming.
While Geralt may be our leading man, and understandably a fan favourite, I continue to be impressed by how alive Sapkowski’s secondary characters feel. Even those who only appear briefly leave a lasting impression and, as much as I enjoy Geralt, I also loved hanging out with the charming bard Dandelion, the beautiful but fierce sorceress Yennefer, and the child of destiny, Ciri. Each feels fully fleshed out, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and I greatly enjoyed journeying with these outcasts and misfits. Feeling a connection to the main characters creates as greater sense of tension and the stakes felt genuinely high as I turned each page and crossed my fingers that the characters I’ve come to love (or love to hate) would still be breathing come the next chapter.
As previously stated, The Witcher books, despite being a fantasy series, are set in a morally grey world where the lines between good and evil seem constantly blurred. The books feature plenty of adult content and, while I wouldn’t describe them as being as adult as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, they’re certainly not for children. The Witcher books include the fantasy creatures and magic from the likes of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, while adding the maturity and grounded realism of Game of Thrones and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. There’s nothing outrageously adult, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend you read these to your children at bedtime.
Sword of Destiny is comprised of a total of six stories, The Bounds of Reason, A Shard of Ice, Eternal Fame, A Little Sacrifice, Sword of Destiny, and Something More. While the first book in the series is mostly a self contained novel, I began to see how, in his second collection, Sapkowski begins to lay the groundwork for future full length books. Don’t worry, like the previous book, The Last Wish, Sword of Destiny is still a book that stands up on its own merits but, as someone who now fully intends to finish the entire series, it’s exciting to see Sapkowski start piecing together a bigger picture when it comes to characters and plots. I have a feeling that events and characters in this book will go on to play a much larger role in future books.
Each short story felt devoid of any dead weight and none of them felt as though they didn’t live up to the quality of the others. Everyone will have their favourites, and I particularly enjoyed the bittersweet A Little Sacrifice and the last story in the collection, Something More, which perfectly ties up the main threads of the book and leaves you excited for the third (but first full length) book in the series. With his second book, Sapkowski proves that his first successful outing was no mere fluke, and that he clearly has plans for an epic fantasy tale to unfold. I look forward to continuing my adventures with Geralt and his companions and I would highly recommend The Witcher series to anyone who enjoys a good bit of fantasy.
Added 8th September 2019