Book Review: The Witcher Series

I really enjoyed season 1 of the Netflix adaption of this series by Andrzej Sapkowski, so decided to bump the main series up my to read list just after the series had aired. After enjoying season 2 I remembered there were prequels, and so read them more recently. I would give the whole series a solid 4/5. Mainly it’s the final book that lets the series down for me, but we’ll get to that. I must admit I am very curious to see how the Netflix adaption handles that material, and I hope they change it for the better. I haven’t found time to play the computer games, but I’m told by gamer friends that the story arc is handled very well by them, so perhaps the show will go in a similar direction.

One thing before I get to the books themselves. I saw a number of people on Goodreads bitching that these books are sexist. I wanted to mention how much that made me laugh. I really don’t understand how some people can be so naive. This is a setting in which might makes right. If a person is not mighty they will be crushed without someone mighty to protect them. Women (and children) are generally not mighty in comparison to men. That’s not sexism, that’s reality. These books are very much set in a man’s world and often from a male perspective. If you can’t handle that, maybe go read some children’s books? Better still, go learn to fight and shoot some things. Knowing I can kick a six foot four man in the head (I’m five foot four) and then have a good chance of going on to beat the shit out of him, seems to leave me blissfully unaware of the supposed “sexism” in these kinds of stories. Perhaps because I am quite conscious of how a combat trained woman who does weights compares to an average man, let alone a keyboard warrior who clearly has no real world experience of violence whatsoever. Perhaps also because I understand that depicting a thing does not by necessity mean one is endorsing or encouraging it.

One reviewer opined “Does Sapkowski know what “consent” is?” I wonder if she knows what fiction is. Sapkowski didn’t write an instruction manual for being a pervy creep and raping, he wrote about men interacting with women in a very coarse and violent fantasy setting. What did this person expect? Because what they’re telling me is they have no common sense and would probably accuse me of supporting animal murder because I don’t depict all birds as vegan. Some birds kill their food. Some men are pervy creeps and rapists. In other news, water is wet. If an author described a world in which these things were not so, I would not believe in it. Aaaaanyway:

The Last Wish (Prequel 1)

An excellent set of short stories, following Geralt the Witcher on his monster killing adventures. Geralt as protagonist works beautifully. The stories are fairytale themed, with versions of Beauty and the Beast and Snow White, among others, and if you’ve seen the show you’ll see where a lot of material for that was drawn from.

My favourite book in the series, it opens up an intriguing setting and puts the pieces into place for what is to come, while telling separate and beautifully described tales that poke and prod at our concepts of morality and civility. Elegant and gritty fantasy. 5/5

Season of Storms (Prequel 2)

If you want solid proof these books are not sexist, read this one. We have a sorceress negotiating women’s rights to choose and Geralt himself being sexually harassed by both men and women in the opening chapters. The women doing the harassing are burly guards, farting copiously and generally acting in a very masculine manner. The variety of women throughout the Witcher stories is quite refreshing compared to many other fantasy books I have read, but Sapkowski never falls into the Hollywood “strong independent female” trope. There are no women unrealistically bounding around like ninjas, able to lift men twice their body weight because feminism. The sorceresses are powerful because they have magic and the female warriors are powerful if they have the muscle and skill, women and little girls without these things are fairly helpless, and that is as it should be for realism.

We also have an explicit exploration of prejudice, specifically xenophobia, throughout this book. I’m guessing that because the victims of prejudice throughout the Witcher series (usually the Witchers themselves along with the elves and dwarves) are generally white and male, and written by someone white and male, that means that this doesn’t count for anything though. Because, you know, all white people are the same and that isn’t racist, is it? Feel free to join me for an eye roll here. Well, Sapkowski clearly doesn’t feel that way. Transhumanism, the amorality of science in the wrong hands and the notion of ends justifying means are also broached from some interesting angles, along with a strong dose of snobbery. Who cares about a few dead peasants if we’re making the world a better place, eh?

Again we have Geralt as protagonist on more monster killing adventures. Except this time there are quite a few monsters who pass for human involved. An excellent story. 5/5

Sword of Destiny (Prequel 3)

A series of short stories with Geralt as protagonist, much like The Last Wish. As with The Last Wish, they are well put together, fairytale themed, elegant and gritty fantasy. They are an excellent prelude to the start of the main series, but work very well in themselves. Some of the plots for episodes in the Netflix adaption clearly got their inspiration from this series of short stories. You’ll know when you read them, if you’ve seen the show.

The bit with the mermaid being proposed to gave me a particularly good laugh! 5/5

Blood of Elves (Book 1)

Pretty sure I would have gotten more out of this if I had read the prequels first. But I enjoyed it, nonetheless. Ciri, the child of Destiny, is essentially the main character, with Geralt as her shadowy father figure, overseeing her development as a Witcher. At the same time he is concerned about her magical capabilities, which she does not seem to understand or have any control over. About the first third of the book focuses on Ciri’s training at Kaer Morhen, fortress of the Witchers, under their protection. The sorceresses, Triss and Yennefer, are involved because of her magical powers, with Geralt having a “will they-won’t they” type relationship with Yenn, and an “I just want to be friends” one with Tris, making her seem a little redundant right from the start.

Geralt seems a complex character. A mutant created by magic and alchemy to be a heartless monster killer, but one with rigid morals, insisting he must not take sides in the affairs of men, as one man’s right is another’s wrong, and there is no lesser evil. But with Ciri hunted and desired by virtually every powerful faction in the story, Geralt must provide her protection. His desire to remain neutral within intensifying political intrigues makes this task virtually impossible.

This book has a lot of dialogue and political intrigue, with not much actually happening beyond setting the stage for something big to happen in future. Still, it is charming and fun. 4/5

The Time of Contempt (Book 2)

We are plunged into an inter-race war. Kings are no longer working with mages and a coup threatens the Mages Guild. Ciri is being hunted and Nilfgard are on the brink of war with the rest of the Continent. Dandelion, Geralt, Ciri, Triss, and Yennefer continue to be caught up in a web of political intrigue and war. We are also introduced to some very interesting new characters, including Vilgefortz and Nilfgaard’s ruler. Well paced and fun enough to have me wanting to know what happens next. 4/5

Baptism of Fire (Book 3)

War rages and the very future of magic is threatened, while Geralt takes some time off to heal. But when some damning news finds its way to the Witcher, he saddles up and hits the road.

We follow Geralt and a newly formed posse as they journey to Nifflegard, while the rest of the story focuses on Ciri’s adventures, the formation of a new lodge of magicians, and a tiny bit of Yennefer time. Geralt has to navigate through war-ridden nations and massive armies clashing relentlessly for victory, so there is a bit more action in this book. We get to know more about the mysterious Black Knight and meet some great new characters who form Geralt’s posse: Zoltan, Milva and Regis. Regis is serious competition for my favourite character in this series.

But, for me, this is where things started to go off with Ciri. She’s just not an engaging main character and by the end there is a very weird rape bit involving her that just seemed strange and jarring, not because of the rape, but because it didn’t seem to do or say anything in terms of her story. It almost seems superfluous. This is where I started to wonder what the hell the author wanted to do with this character and suspect that maybe even he didn’t know. She just doesn’t seem to develop, all her “character” coming from attributes and events that she seems to passively endure rather than engage with, and by the end of this book I was starting to find that quite annoying, wanting her to face the facts and grow the hell up already, like heroes are supposed to. But my interest was held enough by the other characters to keep going, still hoping that Ciri would follow in the footsteps of characters like Yennifer or Milva and become a badass. 4/5

The Tower of the Swallow (Book 4)

This one has a lot more violence than the others, some is quite gratuitous and gross. Most of the book focuses on Ciri. A new antagonist, Bonhart, is introduced. Ciri is running from him. She becomes a bandit, joins a group of bandits under a new name and gets a girlfriend. This could have been an interesting context for Ciri to develop her abilities and explore her heritage with her new friends and love interest. It isn’t and she doesn’t, though we the readers get some info dumps. What this whole thing is supposed to say or do for Ciri’s character went completely over my head. Most of what happens with Ciri in this book seems superfluous to the overall story and her character arc. It’s almost like she doesn’t want to be in the story that the rest of us are reading. Okay, if the author could skip to the part where she joins back in with the main narrative, that would be fine. He doesn’t though.

I wanted to like Ciri, I really did. But I couldn’t. She whinges and moans a lot and gets her friends and allies killed a lot. She stubbornly continues to not develop, having super powers she refuses to come to terms with and an identity and lineage she seems to have no interest in for no clear reason. Her behaviour makes very little sense at points. Beyond her, the character narratives are not always linear, there is jumping around and storytelling from multiple points of view, new characters and places introduced, and no pay off for any of it. I was interested enough to know what happened next to keep going, but felt things were really starting to go downhill here. 3/5

Lady of the Lake (Book 5)

If you’re expecting satisfying character development, story arcs paying off and an ending that makes sense, you may be somewhat disappointed. I know I was. Ciri is the primary focus again and I have to admit I just found her ever more annoying. I really didn’t get what the author was trying to say or do with her, apart from some grandiose attempt to connect her to Arthurian legend, which would have been fine if she had been developing and becoming likeable at all. By this point, I didn’t like her, so I didn’t really care about what was happening to her, apart from how it would affect Geralt and Yennifer, who continued to be far more interesting characters I felt actual connection to, along with the band of misfits Geralt forms to travel with.

Even the antagonists are more engaging and interesting than Ciri. It’s as if her blood and her destiny are the only things about her that are worthwhile, dragging her irritating, bratty and cowardly self along with them. Maybe I sound harsh, but she is supposed to be a female hero and she is about as heroic as a cucumber. Pity and frustration are not what I want to be the primary emotions I feel for a protagonist, especially one who has many qualities I should be able to relate to. At points I wanted to grab her and shout in her face. Geralt, Yennifer and many other characters make this book, along with the previous one, and for their trouble the author does not repay them well. The timeline jumps around disorientingly and new characters who have nothing to do with current events and don’t really seem to add anything are focussed on in a way that seems like unnecessary filler. A beautifully written and entirely unsatisfactory end. 2/5

In Conclusion

I would say if you’re going to read anything from this series read the prequels. The rest is good enough that I persisted to the end, but there was so much annoying and confusing me by then that I was put off reading the prequels until quite recently. Then I binged them. They are very enjoyable, solid fantasy.

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