As a lover of fantasy – in particular, one who got into the genre via The Lord of the Rings – world-building is very much vital to my enjoyment of any fantasy world. Certainly, interesting characters and an excellent plot are vital, too, but oftentimes I look for a well-constructed world, as well. I have often described immersion into lengthy novels (or novels I wish were lengthy) as “exploring” or “investigating” a novel, and the most pleasurable explorations or journeys often involve well-built worlds, whether in science fiction or fantasy.
There are quite a few novels that can fit this description, but one of my most recent discoveries was the world of The Witcher series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. I had heard of The Witcher series before in its iteration as a well-known and critically-acclaimed video game – one that I have never actually gotten to play, but which, due to its reputation, I had heard about. What impressed me most about the video games, though, was that they were based on a series of novels, and not the other way around. This implied that the books themselves had to be good, and I began to attempt tracking down the novels in Sapkowski’s works. I had to stop, however, when I found out that Sapkowski’s works were all in Polish, and since I could not read Polish, I told myself that I would simply have to wait until English translations came out. Given the popularity of the video games, my hopes were high that I would not have to wait very long.
I was, fortunately, correct in that assumption, as earlier this year I found out that two books, The Last Wish and Blood of Elves already had official English translations (there were, apparently, fan translations of all the books Sapkowski has written so far, but I have learned to be very picky when it comes to translations and so I’m leery of fan translations, no matter how convenient). I acquired both, and finished The Last Wish earlier this year. As it turned out, The Last Wish was a collection of short stories, but I found this to be an excellent way of introducing myself to the world of Sapkowski’s novels. There is no stress to commit entirely to the world via a single, whole storyline, and various aspects of it can be introduced without the need to strictly adhere to a single plot line or set of plot lines that would force the writer to stick it out with only one aspect of the world.
But after reading the stories in The Last Wish, I was sufficiently intrigued, and willing to commit to a longer, more concrete story arc – which Blood of Elves is supposed to be: the beginning of the longer story arc that Sapkowski is still writing about.
Blood of Elves occurs several years after the events of The Last Wish – in particular, the events of the short story “A Question of Price.” In the intervening time between the end of events in The Last Wish and the beginning of Blood of Elves, war has come and gone from the world: the Nilfgaardians, a mysterious, warlike people, have come close to conquering the rest of the world, and it is only at the Battle of Sodden Hill that their advance was stopped. An uneasy peace has settled over the land, but unrest stirs as humans begin to look at the non-humans amongst them, especially the elves, with unease. With the danger that had brought them together seeming to pass, the alliance that brought all races together against a single threat is beginning to fall apart – and threatens to expose them to the dangers of another Nilfgaardian invasion.
But Geralt of Rivia has other problems. He has the care of Ciri, princess of Cintra, the Lion Cub – and also the Child Surprise, his destiny, who was to be given to him as part of the result of events in “A Question of Price”. Ciri is the ultimate pawn in the political game being played over the ruined kingdom of Cintra, but she is far, far more than that, and Geralt only has a small inkling of how important Ciri is. Nevertheless, he takes her with him, and attempts to find a way to bring her up as best as he can. In the meantime, the world is falling apart all around them (in more ways than one), and it would appear that it is only a matter of time until trouble finds Geralt – and Ciri.
Without a doubt, Blood of Elves is a beginning, and a very good one: lots of prophecies, a handful of new characters, and the very beginnings of intriguing plots are laid out. Some characters are revisited, not least Geralt and Yennefer (first introduced in the short story “The Last Wish”), though the state of their relationship does not appear to have improved much at all since the last time they met. Nenneke is still around, too, though she does not play as prominent a role as she used to in The Last Wish. Dandilion also makes an appearance – in fact, he is the first character from The Last Wish that the reader encounters. For the most part, these familiar characters appear to be doing well – at the very least, they are alive. I rather imagined some of them would be dead, but I speculate this is just me carrying over expectations from reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, where losing characters every book or so is an expected occurrence.
Blood of Elves also introduces other characters: Geralt’s fellow witchers and their stronghold of Kaer Morhen, and Triss Merigold, another enchantress who is a friend of Yennefer’s, and who is also in love with Geralt, though he does not care for her that way. There are also the other movers and shakers of the world, not least the many kings, queens, knights, and wizards who are trying to grab more power for themselves, even as Nilfgaard looms threateningly nearby, waiting for any opportunity to pounce or gain power to conquer what they could not the last time.
This is where a reader may run into a problem with this book: there really isn’t much of a plot. Blood of Elves is a good beginning, even a great one, but it’s nothing more than that – it is just a beginning, promising more, but not really delivering much in terms of plot. This is not to say, of course, that it completely lacks a storyline: if anything, Blood of Elves is about Ciri’s growing up, about her training and education into something that might be capable of facing what lies ahead – including the grand destiny that lies ahead of her, whatever that might be. There are hints connected to that in this novel, of course, but nothing is explicitly stated. Other characters are developed as well, relationships established: Ciri and Geralt, of course, but also Geralt and Yennefer, and Geralt and Triss, to a degree. But in terms of world-shaking plot, there are whispers and hints, but nothing concrete. That is something that will be left for later books, obviously, but the reader may feel he or she has been deprived.
Overall, Blood of Elves is a good start to what promises to be a truly epic storyline – except it is so obviously just that: a beginning, and nothing more. There are character introductions and character developments made in this novel, and while those are important and quite enjoyable in their own way, it doesn’t quite make up for the lack of world-changing events beyond the prophecies that Ciri makes from time to times. It will take having to read the next book, Times of Contempt, to know when (or if) anything big happens – that book will come out in its official English translation in August this year, so the wait (for me, at least) will, fortunately, not be that long at all. In the meantime, The Last Wish and the video games will have to suffice for those who want more of Geralt and the world in which he lives.