The world of the Witcher just got a whole lot bigger.
Blood of Elves is the first full-length novel in the saga, but it still reads like a hybrid between a short story collection than a novel. It’s a series of loosely-connected, chronologically-placed narrative vignettes spanning a whole host of characters. There isn’t really a conventional narrative arc – no rising action, climax, falling action -but a series of strung-together moments, slowly building up the overarching story to a rising crescendo. As moments, however, some of them are greatly affecting – and I think this is one of Sapkowski’s signature traits.
There is a clear trend here that the world of the Witcher is slowly chelating into a coherent place. No longer is it a misty, indistinct fairy-land of vague polities; great power politics and war become central plot elements, weaving themselves in with the more human stories of Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer.
The book starts with Ciri, the princess of the kingdom of Cintra, fleeing her homeland as the forces of the Empire of Nilfgaard raze it to the ground, but is rescued once again by Geralt at the end of Sword of Destiny. The impressionable girl trains in the art of witchery (swordfighting, in other words), which engenders some comical moments, and is just as endearing a daughter-figure to Geralt as in the previous book. Ciri is a MacGuffin character whose bloodline and apparent sorcerous potential make her a target for a number of groups, and this causes a succession of characters to look after her as she grows up. The book follows Ciri as she leaves the Witchers’ stronghold to study how to use her Magic under the sorceress Yennefer’s guidance. Yennefer’s developing relationship with Ciri is another wonderful vignette from the books, raw, real, and possessing a certain genuine quality. As the reader, you really come to care about these people as people – and that’s a rare feat indeed.
The old themes of the previous books return. One vignette pontificates viscerally on the horrors of racism and the toxic distrust of the other, engendering mutual and cascading hatreds. There are the inevitable inclusions of venal and self-serving power politics, with kings and sorcerers treating lives like pawns on a chessboard. The blood-and-guts reality of war is a sobering theme. And of course, Geralt the Witcher slowly and painstakingly comes to realize that the refusal to take sides is in itself a choice with potentially terrible consequences, as a terrible and destructive war looms in the horizon, with Ciri at the center of it all.
The world of the Witcher was always dark, but compared to this book, The Last Wish and the first few stories of Sword of Destiny are beginning to feel somewhat idyllic in comparison.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 pendulums