Review: BLOOD OF ELVES (The Witcher #1) by Andrzej Sapkowski

Peace with Nilfgaard is not what it was meant to be. Despite the victory of the Northern Kingdoms at the Battle of Sodden, Nilfgaardian financial power is destabilising their economies, Nilfgaardian diplomats and envoys spread propaganda among the merchants and nobles of the north and, after decades of oppression, elven and dwarven partisan terrorist cells have taken up arms against the humans of the Northern Kingdoms, supported and funded by Nilfgaard. Into this unstable world a young woman of royal blood is coming of age and showing signs of incredible magical ability. She has the power to change the course of the world, for good or for ill…

BLOOD OF ELVES is the first full length novel in The Witcher series and picks up the tale of Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri where Sword of Destiny left off, with Geralt having taken Ciri to the Witcher’s Keep of Kaer Morhen to begin her training as a witcher.

I enjoyed this book a fair bit. And to those of you who’ve read my reviews of the short story collections (The Last Wish and then Sword of Destiny) that might come as a shock. I honestly couldn’t believe I was reading the same author at times. Where the prose of the previous stories was often clunky and the dialogue awkward, Blood of Elves was much easier to read. Whether this was down to Sapkowski improving as a writer, a different translator being involved or a combination of the two I don’t know, but this story flowed much better and was a much more enjoyable experience.

The characterisation in this book is also much stronger and there’s lots of emphasis on the developing relationship between Ciri and the women who mentor her. I particularly enjoyed watching the bond that begins to develop between her and Yennefer, who in many ways takes on the role as a mother figure to Ciri, after Ciri’s own mother (allegedly) died in a shipwreck and her guardian grandmother committed suicide during the Nilfgaardian invasion of her home country of Cintra. For those who have read the short story ‘The Bounds of Reason’ this is a particularly meaningful relationship for Yennefer, despite her often outwardly cold and aloof demeanour. It’s quite touching in many ways.

The portrayal of women is significantly better in the novel as compared to the short stories as well, in so far as there is much less titillating sexualisation. I’m still critical of the subtext that women are inherently more emotional and suited to looking after children than the men at Kaer Morhen, though at the same time there’s some good exploration of how the needs of women are not met or even considered by the male witchers who structure Ciri’s training around their own needs and capabilities.

My favourite part in Blood of Elves is the heightening of political tensions and the scheming and maneuvering of the rulers of the Northern Kingdoms in the face of a resurgent Nilfgaard. Anyone who gets a kick out of kingdom politics, the plots and plans of rulers, nobles and merchants will love this part of the book. I studied International Relations and the history of conflict at university and just find stuff like this fascinating – it also has the advantage of being much less morbid in fiction than in real life, so there’s also that. Sapkowski does a good job of showing the slow build-up to a war that everyone knows is coming, looming like an unstoppable dark shadow on the horizon. I enjoyed this aspect a lot; often in fantasy war simply breaks out, with little exploration of the forces behind it or the economic warfare, soft power projection and military skirmishes that precede it. For anyone familiar with international relations theory I’m a committed structuralist and absolutely love seeing this stuff explored in the fiction I read.

I did have a few issues with the structure of the book and the story itself. For one thing, the chapters are just too damn long. And there’s no need for them to be. I found there were often times when a story beat came to an end, where the narrative moved off in an entirely new direction and there were very clear places for chapter breaks, but instead the chapters rolled on for many more pages. This is purely a psychological thing but it can really kill the pacing of a story when you find yourself looking ahead to see if the chapter ends soon or if you should just try and find a reasonable place to stop.

The narrative itself felt like it jumped around a bit too much at times as well. There was a particularly jarring moment around the middle of the book where, after spending a bunch of time with Geralt and Ciri at Kaer Morhen, the story suddenly jumps to some indeterminate point in the future where Ciri is off with Yennefer in Ellander and Geralt is now on his own, working a witcher job. This was the most jarring example but I felt there were a few instances where Sapkowski could have done a better job of transitioning between scenes.

Overall this was an enjoyable book and I’ve found that I’ve enjoyed each new book in the series better than the last, which bodes well for continuing with it. While it’s not necessary to read the short stories to understand the events of the novel, they do add to your understanding of the people involved and the events that begin to unfold, as well as adding a layer of knowledge about past events that characters sometimes refer back to. I personally didn’t enjoy them as much as I liked this novel, but they’re definitely worth reading first if you’re the kind of person who likes to have as full a picture as possible of all the moving parts of a story.

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