The Witcher. Reading the fables

The last story expansion/DLC to The Witcher 3 is upon us. And I haven’t played the game yet because I’m waiting for it. That’s despite the fact that I still remember how The Witcher 3 was launched from within the office of CD Projekt, as I was working at GOG back then. There was much rejoicing *yaaaay*. That’s also despite the fact that I’ve played the first The Witcher game about 3 times in just a few months after it was first released, that’s how much I loved it. But that love for the first game was a surprise to me – I never read the books. They were super popular here in Ukraine, probably less so than in Poland, of course, but we had fans, we watched the TV series… Well, I didn’t. So I wanted to read the books, finally. And so I did. And the books were a bit of a mixed bag.

The books, like the games based on them, are essentially a weird mix of slavic folk tales/myths with some western folk tales/myths, with a more “standard” fantasty of Tolkien, and some bits of “dark fantasy” (like Conan). And with some bits of Zelazny’s Amber (which I really loved as a teen and need to re-read finally). So, we have a medieval world, but with magic and dragons, which are slightly more in common with folk tales in how they are portrayed, yet at the same time have a lot of grim “normal life” elements to them, and on top of that a concept of multilayered universe. And the characters here are both heroic, as common for high fantasy, and yet have commentary for modern real world events and darker fantasy elements.

Also, I need to add that I was reading the books in a fantastic Russian translation made by a very talented translator Jewgienij Wajsbrot, who apart from his good understanding for Polish to Russian interpretation, was buddy-buddy with Andrzej Sapkowski, so the quality of the translation is incredible. Sadly, he passed before the latest book was released and the quality of the translation there is notably lower. I cannot attest for how English translations fare, and how… different the understanding of the things that are so “native” for me can be for an English reader.

Anyways. Due to the fact that the story was borne of short stories, the story develops quite slowly and gradually. First two books in the series (The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny), for example, are collections of such short stories about Geralt of Rivia. It’s a nice introduction to the world and mythology of The Witcher, with the first book even having a nice frame story that connects the short stories into one complete narrative. It tells about different events and monster hunting jobs Geralt takes at different points of his life, with no real “meta” story to it all. While the second book introducing some important elements and concepts that will have an important role in further books and games. If I’m completely honest, these two books are the absolute best of the entire collection, because they’re just fun and nicely written adventures with Geralt in the Witcher world. First book manages to cover about 20 years of his life, second only about 3 and during this time it becomes very clear who he is, what he does and who his friends are. You meet the womanizer bard Dandelion, a coward with a kind heart, you meet the deadly and forever tied to Geralt femme fatale sorceress Yennefer. And you meet a little tomboy princess Cirilla, aka Ciri, who becomes a key character for the rest of the books.

And that rest of the books… There are 5 of them. And the biggest problem they have is that there could’ve been 2 or maybe 3 of them, and the story would only get better. But there is 5 of them. All suffering from the same problems, all having the same positives. What’s good about them is the main story, the world lore and the issues that the books constantly tackle. The problem – all of the above is agonizingly slow burning and some books feel like the author trying out new narrative tools for no good reason but just to do it. I mean, one book can have a sudden “and then hundreds of years later” which feels unnecessary. Another can be narrated by some Uncle Old Farty telling a bed story to his nephews, which, again, adds absolutely nothing. Then Sapkowski can suddenly feel like for dramatic purposes he needs to make recursive structures and paragraphs, which is used for great effect the first few times, but is then repeated for way too many times more.

The first of these books, Blood of Elves, tells a story of Ciri learning sword and magic in Kaer Morhen and with Yennefer, for way too many pages, and establishes that Ciri is an important “source” of magic and for that reason different parties try to get a hold of her to use her for their own means. It also sets in motion the political part of the story, pitting the Northern Kingdoms against the Nilfgaard. There’s a sudden appearance of Shani as a secondary character, who will play a much more important role in the first The Witcher game, but doesn’t reappear in books until the last one. It returns Yarpen Zigrin as an important character from the short stories and properly introduces Triss Merigold (mentioned in the short stories) as Yennefer’s best friend, Ciri’s teacher and friend with unrequited love for Geralt.

Second book (Time of Contempt) has more stuff going for it, but it could’ve been much shorter. By the end some very important for the Witcher world events happen – sorcerers start an internal war, Nilfgaard start an open war and it becomes clear who wants to get Ciri and for what reasons… more or less. That said, this entire book could be shorter and part of the previous one and would only be better for it.

Baptism of Fire is essentially when Geralt Takes on the Main Quest after a bunch of side quests. He goes on to search for Ciri (who got teleported to a different part of the world) and collects his Party. It features a short appearance of Zoltan Chivai and the “main party members” of the rest of the books – Regis, Milva and Cahir. Basically – mage, rogue and warrior. Yep. It’s not particularly boring, but still, as a whole, feels like a wasted time which can be described as “and so Geralt decided to stop being a lone wolf asshole and gathered a team”.

Now the fourth book, The Tower of Swallows, is just a pain to read. The storytelling constantly confusing itself with constant “and then this person told how it happened when that person told what happened when that thing happened and will happen” which, when you actually chronologically look at it, tells basically nothing at all. Ciri is angry and kills some dudes out of revenge. There’s a cool action scene at the end of the book. There’s a cool dude who kills cool witchers. There are almost 500 pages of this for some reason.

The last Ciri-centric book, and for the longest time the last book of the series, Lady of the Lake, is both good and bad. On one hand, it actually tells a good story, tackles interesting concepts, evolves some of the cool ideas only touched upon before and even does fanservice right by re-introducing all more or less important characters from the previous stories in a good natural way. On the other hand, it feels like a really forced way to make a “final book”. It kills off a lot of characters just for the sake of it. It has way too many already mention narrative fuckery that isn’t needed and constantly do a disservice to the story.

The newest book in the series, disconnected from the main plot of the last 5 (Season of Storms) actually suffers less from the issues of those 5 books. It’s still a bit too long, but at the same time it’s more or less fun to read, since it’s basically another collection of short stories, like the first 2 books, except told as one continuous tale. It has very few dumb narrative decisions, and even those mostly fit and actually improve on the themes they tackle. And the events are fun. Where the last 5 books felt like a much shorter story spread thin across many pages, this book feels almost “just about right”.

Also worth mentioning are 2 stories which were published separately. Something Ends, Something Begins is a non canon fan service written after the first two books were out and is just a silly happy end type of deal that can be safely ignored. A Road with No Return, on the other hand, is a bit more curious, since it tells of a simple adventure featuring characters that are strongly hinted to be mother and father of Geralt. It’s not a very interesting story in its own right, but it’s short and can be worth a read.

Do you need to read the books before playing the games? Nope. First game tells enough, second brings back a lot of important stuff that first game skips and I would assume the third one can be a fresh start of its own. At least from what I heard. Was it a waste to read the books? Nope. I might even give another go for the first two books and the Season of Storms. The Ciri books – hell no. Too long, too boring.

So if you have a chance to check the books out – definitely check the first two. If you feel invested in learning more, try going further. If you get bored, don’t feel sad, it’s an absolutely justified feeling. Get the Season of Storms and play the games instead. The book happens, story wise, somewhere in the middle of the first book anyway, so you won’t be missing anything. Anyway, I’m off to replay the first two games and play the third one…

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