I felt pressured to reading the Witcher after the series was turned into a Netflix original starring Henry Cavill, and a trilogy of video games for PC, PS4 and Xbox. Even my nephew, who abhors reading anything more than a JRPG dialogue box, told me he had read the first book, so I figured I needed to know what all the fuss was about.
As far as I can tell, Andrzej Sapkowski has a gift for words. Unless his translator went above and beyond the call of duty, turning the original Polish prose into English poetry, which is doubtful, Andrzej is quite the wordsmith in his native tongue. More than once, I found myself whipping out the dictionary to look up a term, like menhir, which is sure to come in handy when I write my next book.
Now I must admit that I got confused by the chronology of the series, and started with the third Witcher book, Baptism of Fire. This was a HUGE mistake. Since the main character, Geralt, is the brooding edge lord type, I imagined a character similar to Robert Howard’s Conan, in an ongoing series of loosely connected adventures, wherein chronological order doesn’t matter. Boy was I wrong! Baptism of Fire is about as convoluted as A Game of Thrones, with a litany of names and places I could not keep straight. Every other page, I kept asking myself, “Who’s that again?” Hell, I can only remember about ten or so people IRL, so how am I supposed to remember the royal families’ nephews and cousins and third uncles etc.? This is one fantasy trope I just wish would die already. What ever happened to good-ol’ fashioned storytelling? Where the strength of the story is based on—you know—things that actually happen in the story?
This leads me to perhaps my biggest gripe about Baptism, and that is, I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it. Geralt is a flat, 2-dimensional character, who rarely says much, and only rarely betrays his feelings. The reader is spared any insight even into the character’s thoughts. His cause, to “save the girl,” Ciri, is your basic Hero Plot, but why should I care, when after 340 pages, we are given no reason as to why the protagonist cares? There are about two dozen other characters thrown in for good measure, none of whom I felt attached to in any way. I smirked at the jokes made by the dwarf, laughed at some silly thing said by Dandelion, Geralt’s bard companion, but ultimately, I just didn’t know enough about them. Some authors can get away with 2d archetypes with dashing prose, exciting action, and interesting plot lines, but Baptism didn’t offer much in that regard either. I counted two semi-exciting battle scenes, but the story was like the middle part of a D&D campaign, not going from point A to B, but C to D. It starts in the middle, with Geralt following a river to find Ciri, and ends with him on the same river looking for Ciri. Great storytelling is like a house of cards. Remove any one card, and the whole thing comes crashing down. From what I read, I honestly couldn’t tell you why a reader couldn’t just skip ahead to book 4.
OK, I will admit that, twenty pages until the end, something “eventful” happens; it’s revealed that the heroine, Milva, is pregnant. The story then veers off course into political territory, wherein the five main male characters debate whether Milva should have an abortion. This could have been an intriguing moment in the book, if handled tastefully, but it was just plain embarrassing. There is ZERO buildup to the abortion scene, no foreshadowing, no relevance to the overall story or to the characters or to anything for that matter. It’s as if the author watched a documentary about abortion the night before and said to himself, “Hey, I should put this in my book!” And, despite Andrzej’s pro-feminist stance, with his hero, Geralt, arguing “it’s her choice,” the scene reeked, to me at least, of chauvinism, because Milva is NOWHERE to be found in any of these scenes. Sure, most of the men argue on her behalf, but where is Milva to speak for herself?
Too often I am frustrated by the popularity of certain books. Why this got made into a video game and a show, and not some other fantasy series, is something I may never understand. But I can think of about a dozen novels more deserving of this success. Where’s our Discworld video game? Our Xanth Netflix special? Or maybe, god willing, anything based on THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING besides Disney’s Sword and the Stone?
Anyway, if you’re looking for bland, uninspiring, yet surprisingly well written fantasy, look no further than the Witcher Series.
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