Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review of The Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

I am one of the millions of people who bought, played, and absolutely loved CD Projekt Red’s Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt video game. The tip-top best in storytelling action-adventure, the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of hours I spent playing were wholly engrossing for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, here (rather, here). But The Witcher IP remains the creation of writer Andrzej Sapkowski, and reading recently of his disgruntled (jealous?) views towards the game’s development and writing, I decided to have a go at his novels to see how the original compares.

The Blood of Elves (1994) opens on the dramatic scene of a young princess forced to flee her ruined and pillaged kingdom of Cintra. Attacked by the ruthless Nilfgardians from the North, princess Ciri finds her way to Kaer Morhen, home to a small enclave of witchers (magically endowed monster hunters) who teach her what they can of their art. Ciri’s mysterious potential for magic discovered in the process, the group decides the best course of action is to entrust her to a school for enchantresses. But transporting Ciri from Kaer Morhen to the school is not an easy task. The Nilfgardians still looking to kill the princess to rightfully claim Cintra, the witchers entrust Geralt of Rivia to escort Ciri through the hazards of the cities and the wilds—something which proves to be a bigger challenge than just killing monsters.

The Blood of Elves is a character and scene focused intro to a pentalogy. Unfolding slowly, much of the novel spends its time in dialogue, laying out the racial tension between humans, elves, and dwarves that populate the wider setting, building a political backdrop among the kingdoms posturing for war, and telling the backstories of the main characters. Save the witcher elements, the book feels Tolkienian.

But it is precisely in the witchers that the book is unique. Mutated humans possessing limited magic, witchers like Geralt are a step above the average human in terms of abilities. They train hard with the sword to fight monsters, but they also have bountiful knowledge of plants and herbs, knowledge they use to decoct powerful elixirs that help them fight in differing conditions with various supernatural beasts. And they have a small repertoire of spells at their disposal as the need allows—nothing resembling the magic of wizards and magicians, but something to help in a pinch. Outcasts from society, however, they fight the good fight with little appreciation, making for gray characters that are not found in the good vs. evil of Tolkien.

To be clear, The Blood of Elves is not the first Witcher material I have read. Many years ago I read The Last Wish, a collection of short stories that was mediocre. My criticism was that the ethical and philosophical discussions were too overt, too simplistic for the limited page length of each story. While The Blood of Elves skims the surface of some of this same thematic material, the broader canvas of a novel feels a more comfortable home to Sapkowski’s ideas. Short stories apparently too small a place to house concerns, the dilemmas and situations Geralt finds himself in as he trains and escorts the teen Ciri feel more natural to the world, rather than forced themes on a certain scene. All in all, the novel makes for the more natural, and thus enjoyable reading experience. (The translation was markedly better, as well, which may have something to do with the reception.)

Which seems a good time to jump in on the discussion of the Witcher game versus the books. After foolishly signing over the rights to CD Projekt Red to make video games many years ago for a measly $10,000, Sapkowski sued CD Projekt Red in 2018 for 16 million, trying to recuperate what he perceived were lost royalties. Another way of putting this is: CD Projekt Red’s implementation of the Witcher concept was overwhelmingly more successful than the books. And while I need to finish reading the series to make a final judgment, the initial reasons seem clear. The first is the overall quality of the video game, particularly Witcher 3. CD Projekt Red did a phenomenal job building the world and implementing its ideas. It represents the pinnacle of action-adventure gaming on current platforms. Secondly is audience. CD Projekt Red had a global market to sell the game into. In the 90s when the books were first published, Sapkowski had only the Polish-speaking audience—a significantly smaller market. And lastly, I would argue CD Projekt Red’s treatment of the story material is more mature, both in substance and technique. This is not to say Sapkowski’s material is on par with the simplistic likes of David Eddings or any other generic epic fantasy. It isn’t. But at the same time, the game treats the player more like an adult, putting them in situations and giving them options that feel more gritty, lived and true. Storytelling in video games denser in form given the amount of space needed for visuals, it forces video game writers to value each word written, and deliver situations and dialogue with impact. Again, not that Sapkowski is ineffective at this (The Blood of Elves stands on its own feet), only that the game’s writers are more effective. Thus, while I can’t fault Sapkowski for trying to profit from the video games’ successes, the criticisms he levels at CD Projekt Red’s storytelling seem unwarranted given that without the games people like me wouldn’t be reading his books—let alone in English.

In the end, the game The Wild Hunt remains the better Witcher experience for a variety of reasons, but it does not mean the source material, started in The Blood of Elves, is bunk. Sapkowski has a unique idea (the witchers) laid on top of familiar ones (dwarves, elves, and other typical aspects of Medieval fantasy), and treats them with a much appreciated moral grayness. Good vs. evil is not the moral foundation. While the backdrop and characters are familiar, the story moments and overall arc are not, making for a fresh enough experience for readers coming from the games, like me, to enjoy.

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