This second collection of short stories in the Witcher franchise isn’t as good as The Last Wish as a whole, but there are some stories in there that include brief moments of storytelling transcendence.
Sword of Destiny takes place later in the chronology of the Witcher saga, and, like The Last Wish, plays an important role in introducing important characters into the saga. It also explores the character dynamics between Geralt and other established characters. The first two stories in the anthology are a bit of a drag, mostly because they focus on Geralt and Yennefer’s tempestuous relationship, with its somewhat flimsy and unconvincing emotional dynamic. But the underlying themes of the series – racism and ecological awareness – are given some face time in the first story, The Bounds of Reason, which involves Geralt unwillingly joining an expedition to hunt a rare dragon. One cannot fault any of the Witcher stories for lacking some form of social consciousness.
The second story, Shards of Ice, is probably the least compelling of all the Witcher stories so far, given that it essentially depicts Geralt fighting with another man for Yennefer’s affections. The third story is entertaining but unremarkable, featuring Geralt and Dandelion helping out a hapless halfling merchant who discovers that a shapeshifter has taken his place. It’s a light-hearted but ultimately unmemorable story.
It’s in the fourth story, A Little Sacrifice, that the series really starts to find its footing, where the stories began to have surprising emotional resonance. This story features Geralt attempting to help a Duke get together with a mermaid in order to earn some money with Dandelion in tow. In it, he meets Essi Daven, another bard with whom Geralt forms a kind of connection, but who harbors an unrequited love of him. Just as we expect that Essi would be joining our cast of recurring characters, however, Sapkowski pulls the rug out of the reader’s expectations by ending the story with an addendum that abruptly recasts it in an entirely different emotional shade – one that is wistful, meditative and tragic.
The last two stories are the best in the collection, because they debut the important character Ciri. Ciri is a wonderfully written character – an impetuous, willful but endearing child who just happens to be the focus of an elven prophecy that foretells the end of civilization. Geralt stumbles across her and becomes her protector, and develops a strong bond with her, almost that of a parent. She constitutes one of two pillars in Geralt’s emotional life, the other being Yennefer, but this bond is more affecting because it involves an element of paternal love and protectiveness. Geralt, you could say, finally finds his purpose and destiny, after having been a wandering sword for hire – even though he might reject it at first. But his destiny becomes ever interlaced with that of Ciri’s. Ciri’s portrayal has an air of authenticity about it – her character about as close to that of a real child as can reasonably be expected – childlike but intelligent, given to sulking and tantrums, but full of curiosity, wonder and pain, and her growing trust in Geralt is endearing to see.
The last story’s conclusion is especially affecting, as we see a poignant reunion between Geralt and Ciri after the former decides to accept his destiny and look for her after he hears that she is feared dead after an attack on her home kingdom. Ciri has been through much that is terrible , but her resilience and strength, not to mention her endearing cheerfulness, is the impetus for her character’s charm.
So, The Sword of Destiny is worth a read for the two important stories that introduce Ciri, but it should be read for the charms of the series as a whole – its preoccupation with darker themes, the compelling nature of its wandering protagonists, and its wry humor and compelling worldbuilding. The world of the Witcher is, in this volume, becoming more defined, less like a collection of adapted Slavic fairy tales, and more like a dark, full-fledged fantasy world in its own right. And The Sword of Destiny sets things in motion for the saga that will follow.
I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 Gold Dragons