A marked improvement over the previous two books in terms of structure and pacing.
Baptism of Fire continues the adventures of Geralt as he searches for Ciri amidst war, intrigue and adversity, but it now feels much more focused and tautly-paced than Time of Contempt, which meandered and had too many odd narrative threads that didn’t seem to go anywhere. The core of the series, and its greatest strength, has always been the depiction of Geralt and his travails, and it’s no surprise that this entry in the series features Geralt most heavily, not to mention a wonderfully odd assortment of characters that he meets as he journeys across the ravaged landscape to save his adopted daughter. There’s Zoltan Chivay and his hilariously profane parrot, Field Marshal Windbag, the elf-sympathizer Milva, the foppish bard Dandelion, the benign vampire Regis, and Cahir, the Nilfgaardian who is not a Nilfgaardian. Sapkowski’s wry humor shines through the translation, particularly in Geralt’s dry quips – the series hasn’t been this darkly funny since The Last Wish.
Baptism of Fire is an apt name for the book, in a series where the titles of individual volumes have often been more contrived metaphors than actually evocative of the themes of the book. Characters go through multiple baptisms of fire – Geralt’s band of misfit allies, for example, are one bunch forged in literal fire. Fellowships tempered through adversity are one of the motifs of the book, both where Geralt and Ciri are concerned. Sapkowski appears to be becoming more sophisticated as a writer, in terms of using rudiments of literary craft. Something I noted was Sapkowski’s use of innovative narrative frames as a way to pace Geralt’s journey. For example, Geralt’s travels are told in short vignettes interspersed with interludes that suggest that the story is being recounted far in the future. This allows Sapkowski to depict the passage of time without actually having to write it out, because he can jump from vignette to vignette by using his narrative frames. The novel is also now a lot easier to follow and flows better, feeling for the first time like an actual novel, rather than a hodgepodge of narrative fragments.
If I had to criticize one aspect of the series so far, it would be the unconvincing way in which Ciri’s transformation into murderous bandit was effected. It began in Time of Contempt, after Ciri’s own baptism of fire, when she was picked up by a gang of thieves known as the Rats, after which she suddenly dons an alter ego and starts reaving. Is this teenage rebellion? A weird reaction to jumping through a magic portal? Or the evil spirit of the Elder Blood that is causing her to act out? The book seems to couch it in terms of Ciri’s resentment at being abandoned, but that character motivation doesn’t really sit well with me, considering that she leapt through a magic portal to escape the carnage in Thanedd. But the jury is still out, so we’ll see.
And at this point we come to an awkward stumbling block in the reading journey – because the final two books have not, at the time of this post, been released for publication in English. I’m going to be reading the fan translations of the final two books just to catch up on the lore leading to the Witcher: Wild Hunt, but I won’t be reviewing them because the awful translations don’t do justice to the original. Hopefully the actual books get released soon.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 sihils