The OF Blog: Andrzej Sapkowski, Blood of Elves

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Andrzej Sapkowski, Blood of Elves

'She is not a child,' the voice repeated. 'She is the Flame, the White Flame which will set light to the world. She is the Elder Blood, Hen Ichaer. The blood of elves. The seed which will not sprout but burst into flame. The blood which will be defiled...When Tedd Deireádh arrives, the Time of End. Va'esse deireádh aep eigean!' (p. 88)

Andrzej Sapkowski's third book in The Saga of Geralt of Rivia, Blood of Elves, is the beginning of a five-novel sequence that builds upon the stories and characters introduced in the first two short story collections, The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny (not yet available in English translation). In particular, there are two passages from each of these books respectively that I want to cite as a way of giving a sense of how the stories relate to the novel.

From "A Question of Price," the conclusion contains an enigmatic exchange between Geralt and the Queen of Cintra, Calanthe, that plays an important role in the Saga proper:

'Duny," said Geralt seriously, 'Calanthe, Pavetta. And you, righteous knight Tuirseach, future king of Cintra. In order to become a witcher, you have to be born in the shadow of destiny, and very few are born like that. That's why there are so few of us. We're growing old, dying, without anyone to pass knowledge, our gifts, on to. We lack successors. And this world is full of Evil which waits for the day none of us are left.'

'Geralt,' whispered Calanthe.

'Yes, you're not wrong, queen. Duny! You will give me that which you already have but do not know. I'll return to Cintra in six years to see if destiny has been kind to me.'

'Pavetta,' Duny opened his eyes wide. 'Surely you're not -'

'Pavetta!' exclaimed Calanthe. 'Are you...are you - ?'

The princess lowered her eyes and blushed. Then replied. (The Last Wish, p. 156)
The other passage involves an exchange between Geralt and the young Ciri at the end of the story "The Sword of Destiny." This exchange appears to bear a hint of the storyline that follows, beginning with Blood of Elves. I have translated this from the Spanish translation, so any errors are my own:

" Geraaalt!"

He turned around. Ciri was on foot on top of the mountain, a little grey figure with disheveled hair the color of ashes.

"Don't leave!"

Geralt waved his hand.

"Don't leave!" she cried with a very high-pitched voice. "Don't leave!"

I have to do it, he thought. I have to do it, Ciri. Because I...I always am leaving.

"You won't achieve it!" she cried. "Don't believe it! You won't flee! I am your destiny, you hear me?"

Destiny doesn't exist, he thought. It doesn't exist. The only thing destined for all of us is death. Death is the other edge of a double-edged sword. I am one. The other is death, which follows me step by step. I cannot, I should not injure you, Ciri.

"I am your destiny!" reached him from the top of the mountain, a voice distant, desperate.

He spurred the horse on with the spurs and rode forward, sinking as in a sinkhole, in a dark forest, cold and humid, in the known, friendly darkness, in a darkness that didn't seem to have an end. (La espada del destino, p. 242).
I give these passages from the first two books because without them in mind, much of the tension that develops in Blood of Elves would be lessened; it really is essential to have read these first two collections before reading the novels, although that option has been taken away from the English-language readers. However, there are contextual clues in this novel and the ones that follow after that refer to these events.

The novel opens with Ciri having a flashback to the sacking of Cintra and Geralt comforting her. In an echo of the passage I quoted above, Ciri thinks this:

Ciri had heard such reassurances in the past. They had been repeated to her endlessly; many, many times she had been offered comforting words when her screams had woken her during the night. But this time it was different. Now she believed it. Because it was Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, who said it. The man who was her destiny. The one for whom she was destined. Geralt the Witcher, who had found her surrounded by war, death and despair, who had taken her with him and promised they would never part.

She fell asleep holding tight to his hand. (p. 7).
From there, the action shifts to a performance given by the talented, foppish bard Danilion (Jaskier), who is one of Geralt's few friends. Danilion has finished singing a ballad based closely upon the events of the first two collections, stories involving Geralt, the sorceress Yennefer, and Ciri. Before the action commences, Sapkowski foreshadows future divisions by means of this passage:

But even during an event as exceptional as the world-famous troubadour's just-concluded performance the travellers kept to themselves, remaining in clearly delineated groups. Elves stayed with elves. Dwarfish craftsmen gathered with their kin, who were often hired to protect the merchant caravans and were armed to the teeth. Their groups tolerated at best the gnome miners and halfling farmers who camped beside them. All non-humans were uniformly distant towards humans. The humans repaid in kind, but were not seen to mix amongst themselves either. Nobility looked down on the merchants and travelling salesmen with open scorn, while soldiers and mercenaries distanced themselves from shepherds and their reeking sheepskins. The few wizards and their disciples kept themselves entirely apart from the others, and bestowed their arrogance on everyone in equal parts. A tight-knit, dark and silent group of peasants lurked in the background. Resembling a forest with their rakes, pitchforks and flails poking above their heads, they were ignored by all and sundry.

The exception, as ever, was the children. Freed from the constraints fo silence which had been enforced during the bard's performance, the children dashed into the woods with wild cries, and enthusiastically immersed themselves in a game whose rules were incomprehensible to all those who had bidden farewell to the happy years of childhood. Children of elves, dwarves, halflings, gnomes, half-elves, quarter-elves, and toddlers of mysterious provenance neither knew nor recognised racial or social divisions. At least, not yet (p. 9).
Immediately after this, the action begins with Danilion being confronted about his story by a mysterious personage, one whose role in this novel (and in future volumes) appears to be malevolent. Soon after, the invasion of the realms (first with the conquest of neighboring Cintra, then continued in the backdrop into the other cities and principalities featured in the first two collections) by the Nilfgaard Empire sparks a series of conflicts; the Nilfgaardians try to divide and conquer by means of encouraging the non-humans to rise up against the humans, while simultaneously they exploit human fears and antagonisms towards the elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings. "Freedom fighters" such as the elvish Scoia'tael, the Squirrels, rise up and the devastation spreads in a decentralized fashion, as group hatreds explode in a bloody frenzy.

Through all this, young Ciri is taken by Geralt to the home of the Witchers, Kaer Morhen. There she is tested and trained in the ways of the Witchers, although she does not undergo the mysterious, mutation-causing infusions that the Witchers receive during the course of their training. All the while, Ciri continues to be beset by strange dreams and visitations which seem to hint at a dark, nebulous future ahead for her, Geralt, and certain others. Geralt takes heed of this and the events that follow after open the action from small, local affairs to a broader world in which the causes and consequences of prejudices, fears, and hatreds are seen to be flowering like poisonous mushrooms.

The pacing is excellent; in just over 300 pages Sapkowski ties in the events of the earlier two collections to a sprawling world that is full of conflicts, both internal and external. The characterization is well-done, as Geralt's wish to stay neutral stands in sharp contrast to what Ciri experiences when she, Geralt, and the sorceress Triss Merigold meet up with the dwarf Yarpen:

'You've got pretty good hearing, girl, like a marmot.' He grinned broadly. 'You're also a bit too bright for someone destined to give birth, cook and spin. You think you know everything, don't you? That's because you're a brat. Don't pull silly faces. Faces like that don't make you look any older, just uglier than usual. You've grasped the nature of the Scoia'taels quickly, you like the slogans. You know why you understand them so well? Because the Scoia'taels are brats too. They're little snotheads who don't understand that they're being egged on, that someone's taking advantage of their childish stupidity by feeding them slogans about freedom.'

'But they really are fighting for freedom.' Ciri raised her head and gazed at the dwarf wide wide-open green eyes. 'Like the dryads in the Brokilon woods. They kill people because people...some people are harming them. Because this used to be your country, the dwarves' and the elves' and those...halflings', gnomes', and other...And now there are people here so the elves - '

'Elves!' snorted Yarpen. 'They - to be accurate - happen to be strangers just as much as you humans, although they arrived in their white ships a good thousand years before you. Now they're competing with each other to offer us friendship, suddenly we're all brothers, now they're grinning and saying: "we, kinsmen", "we, the Elder races". But before, shi - Hm, hm...Before, their arrows used to whistle past our ears when we - '

'So the first on earth were dwarves?'

'Gnomes, to be honest. As far as this part of the world is concerned - because the world is unimaginably huge, Ciri.'

'I know. I saw a map - '

'You couldn't have. No one's drawn a map like that, and I doubt they will in the near future. No one knows what exists beyond the Mountains of Fire and the Great Sea. Even elves, although they claim they know everything. They know shit all, I tell you.'

'Hmm...But now...There are far more people than...Than there are you.'

'Because you multiply like rabbits.' The dwarf ground his teeth. 'You'd do nothing but screw day in day out, without discrimination, with just anyone and anywhere. And it's enough for your women to just sit on a man's trousers and it makes their bellies swell...Why have you gone so red, crimson as a poppy? You wanted to know, didn't you? So you've got the honest truth and faithful history of a world where he who shatters the skulls of others most efficiently and swells women's bellies fastest, reigns. And it's just as hard to compete with you people in murdering as it is in screwing - '

'Yarpen,' said Geralt coldly, riding up on Roach. 'Restrain yourself a little, if you please, with your choice of words. And Ciri, stop playing at being a coachwoman and have a care for Triss, check if she's awake and needs anything.'

'I've been awake for a long time,' the magician said weakly from the depths of the wagon. "But I didn't want to...interrupt this interesting conversation. Don't disturb them, Geralt. I'd learn more about the role of screwing in the evolution of society (pp. 136-138).
I cite this entire scene because it encapsulates perfectly many of Sapkowski's gifts as a writer. The dialogue is interesting and at turns bitter and hilarious. Ciri and Yarpen's personalities are shown via the way each addresses the other, one being inquisitive and eager to learn while the other is embittered and yet ready with sharing his own sarcastic take on the world. We learn about how the various races are not getting along, how rhetoric seeks to both divide and unite groups, as well as what is transpiring around the travelers. In short, it is a microcosm of the unfolding events and serves to make the reader focus not just on the plot actions, but also on the thematic underpinnings of the story. Sapkowski accomplishes much with scenes such as these and while Blood of Elves truly is a set-arranging opener that doesn't advance the main plot too rapidly, these undercurrents that Sapkowski explores serves to create an opener that is exciting and one that plays off of the tensions introduced in the story collections and the opening chapter, creating the promise of a rewarding payoff. One of the better opening sequences to a multi-volume fantasy series that I have read in years. Highly recommended.

Publication Date: October 16, 2008 (UK); US release scheduled for Summer 2009. Tradeback, Hardcover.

Publishers: Gollancz (UK), Orbit (US).


Mihai A. said...

Very nice review, Larry, once again :)
I received "Blood of Elves" too and I will read the both books of Sapkowski very soon, certainly until Christmas.

Larry Nolen said...

I'd suggest starting them earlier than that, but that's just me... ;)

ThRiNiDiR said...

well...larry enthused about a mere (*cough* substandard *cough*) epic fantasy; can't believe it ;)...nah, just joking. read the witcher and liked it quite a bit - will be reading this one too :). i'm just dropping by :)

Larry Nolen said...

Pfft! :P I read them...sometimes ;) And good to see you're still breathing...I was beginning to wonder :P

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