Blood of Elves
Reviewed by Jason Easter
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:1 (#342) in January 2011.]
Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, but he stands out from other witchers with his white hair and piercing eyes, as well as his cynicism and lack of respect for authority. Although a magically and genetically mutated monster-slayer for hire, he is far more than just a striking-looking man. As a witcher, his sorcerous powers, enhanced by elixirs and long training, have made him a brilliant fighter; a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer; his targets are the vile fiends and demons that ravage the land.
Sapkowski’s world of Cintra is assembled extremely well, and his sense of depth is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The author includes the usual range of fantasy characters and types you would expect, but also manages to uphold the genre with energetic, intelligent, and compelling writing. What is most clever is his skill in adding a hint of Polish folklore, which has undoubtedly been partly responsible for catapulting his Witcher Saga onto to the European stage.
Blood of Elves (the original Polish title is Krew Elfów) is the first novel in this saga and was first published in Poland in 1994. The English translation was published in late 2008. This book is a sequel to the Witcher short stories collected in the books The Last Wish and Miecz Przeznaczenia (“A Sword of Fate”). It is followed by Czas Pogardy (literally “The Time of Disdain”, but marketed as “Times of Contempt”). Krew Elfów was the winner of the Janusz A. Zajdel Award for best novel in 1994. Blood of Elves is only the second book by the author to hit the British (and now American) bookstores, the first in what is expected to be a five-part series.
For more than a hundred years the superficially familiar world of humans, dwarves, gnomes, elves, and warring human kingdoms lived together in relative peace. But in this fantasyland, time is changing, where magic gives its users genetic mutations and the uneasy peace is over. Now the races once again fight each other—and themselves: dwarves are killing their kinsmen, and elves (an ethnic minority) are using guerrilla tactics to fight back against human colonization.
Sapkowski creates a world where there is moral ambiguity coupled with dark cynical humour. Cintra is a land which is mirroring our reality, with hard-hitting politics and unstable economies. It also begins to show the larger scope of events in the land where war is imminent and race discourse grows tense. The complex plot in the Blood of Elves focuses on the Empire of Nilfgaard attacking and overwhelming the Kingdom of Cintra. The Lioness of Cintra, or Queen Calanthe, commits suicide and her granddaughter, Cirilla—called Ciri, or Lion Cub of Cintra—somehow flees from the burning capital city. Emhyr var Emreis, who is the Emperor of Nilfgaard, sends his spies to find the youngling. He realises Ciri’s importance, not only because of her royal bloodline, but also because of her magical potential: the elven blood that runs through her veins.
The heart of this installment is not the saga’s signature character, the preternatural assassin Geralt of Rivia, but the young ward Ciri who needs his protection. He takes her to the witchers’ stronghold in Kaer Morhen; the witchers, it transpires, have been waiting for the prophesied child. It becomes obvious that Ciri is extraordinary, so she is educated by old Vesemir, Coen, Eskel and Lambert. She learns about monsters and how to fight with a sword (learning with the blindfold). But Geralt knows that she can never become a witcher. During her “education” a sorceress named Triss Merigold comes to Kaer Morhen. Triss (Geralt’s former girlfriend) teaches Ciri how to control her abilities and helps with her strange, troubling, and abnormal behavior. Together they reveal that Ciri possesses powerful magical abilities. Individuals who exhibit such promise and power are referred to as the Sources.
As the political situation grows ever dimmer and the threat of war hangs almost palpably over the land, Geralt searches for someone to train Ciri’s unique powers. At the same time, a mysterious mage of considerable skill called Rience (not the Rience in Arthurian legend) is looking for the girl. He is a servant of the powerful mage Vilgefortz of Roggeveen who is himself a member of the Chapter of Sorcerers. Rience catches Geralt’s friend, Dandelion the bard, and demands information about Ciri, but another sorceress — this one called Yennefer — manages to save Dandelion and injures Rience in a conjuring battle. Dandelion might not have survived to continue his role as Geralt’s frequent companion were it not for Yennefer.
Although initially painted as a helpless waif, Ciri the prophesied child soon grows into a tough, spirited girl under Geralt’s protection. Holding this promise of immense power, for good or as a harbinger of doom, it is up to Geralt to ensure Ciri takes the right path and remains safe from those who wish to kill her.
The pace of the novel is a little lethargic and the political discourse can sometimes become irksome and often onerous. The most pronounced drive of the novel is that Ciri is a descendant of an ancient elven bloodline and that Ciri’s is the key to harnessing all power in Cintra. There is disproportionately little action, and what there is seems overshadowed by lengthy political discussions and war strategy. (This is perhaps not terribly surprising in a novel from a former Soviet Bloc nation.) However, Sapkowski does address most aspects of a good fantasy story eloquently and with surprising ease. His style reads as easily as David Gemmel’s, but hits harder and deeper. It recalls George R. R. Martin too, by creating a world that is both familiar and comfortable. And it is through his inventive use of characterization that Sapkowski makes this novel a new and realistic reading experience.