What appealed to me about the Witcher from the beginning was how it leapt into fantasy’s most visible contradictions. These books genuinely believe in typical fantasy fare: true love, destiny, and all the rest. They also though sharpen the hard edges of knighted romance and Grimm fairy tales. These tales are drenched in blood and smoked in fire. The noblest intentions are swept up into the material world— the world of kingdoms and war and poverty. Sometimes, these books fall into the easy tropes of dark fantasy, but often they marry the gritty and Grimm with the whimsical and magical.
The first two novels, while nevertheless having compelling high points, felt as if they had lost the plot. Frequently mired in exposition, in dozens of disparate character motivations, in the grand stakes of fantasy books, these novels diluted the Witcher’s power of contrasting the cosmic with the mundane. Fortunately, Baptism of Fire is the series’s most straightforward fantasy novel so far. That readjustment of focus helps the book gain grounded stakes and clarity. While Sapkowski cannot avoid some of his worst instincts, this novel sets aflame what felt most resonant about the short stories.
It picks up, with a little backtracking, right where the last book left off. Geralt leaves Brokolion with best friend and poet Dandelion to rescue Ciri from Nilfgaard. Along the way, he picks up Milva, a human helping elven revolutionaries, Zoltan, a gruff and rough dwarf with a good heart, Regis, a surgeon barber turned vegan vampire, and Cahir, a Nilfgaardian defector once pursuing Ciri, now trying to rescue her. In short, they are a band of misfits on a quest. They are the most elemental unit of post-Tolkien fantasy.
This might seem contradictory to The Witcher novels’ unstated goals. The books often poke fun at the self-seriousness of most fantasy. However, their journey is not through whimsical, if dangerous, forests or the old dungeons and mines of the world. Rather, through the shifting borders and fiery villages of a war zone. It’s a nigh perfect encapsulation of the aforementioned contrast between grand stakes and small characters. Geralt and crew might be competent and magical, but they are still just ordinary people, no match for grand armies. So they sneak around, trying to watch for armies and patrols, only really getting into trouble when they dare to get involved with the problems of war.
This journey takes up most of the novel. The pace is more languid, letting the characters soak in misadventures or a drunken evening. This simultaneously makes the book significantly less plotted (i.e. a lot less of importance happens) and more engaging. It lets the stakes become individual character motivations and struggles. For example, Regis introduces himself as barber surgeon and is revealed to be a vampire later. Though he promises he has sworn off blood and continues to help the party in fantastic and self-sacrificing ways, one cannot help but wonder if he is just another creature of the night. Milva refuses to reveal to the party that she is pregnant, shouldering a burden alone, as she mulls over keeping or aborting the child. As always, Geralt struggles with his desire to be left alone, to not make trouble, even as his conscience demands that he get involved.
It’s all a bit clumsily drawn, as Sapkowski cannot help but flit between stories and perspectives, even when the premise is straightforward. Nevertheless the novel always returns its focus to the characters. In moments, it feels like Sapkowski has finally figured out where his strengths lie and shown to lean into them.
His bad habits mostly show up in the novel’s asides. A couple sections and one chapter in particular concern themselves with the formation of a council of sorceresses. This chapter has all the thrill of attending a board meeting. Names and characters, only briefly introduced, wiz by you. The stakes are high: the preservation of magic in the world, the possible establishment of a northern empire to resist Nilfgaard, with Ciri as its queen, the establishment of Ciri’s mythical genealogy, which makes her destined for greatness. Still it all feels perfunctory and slow. Yet again, chunks of the novel are mere set up.
Still this section has its moments. At their most compelling, the Witcher novels never forget that destiny does not choose the golden and pure, but rather the broken and battered. As boring and trite and clichéd as the long discussion of Ciri’s lineage is, it does not forget that these powerful figures discuss Ciri as if she was a puzzle piece. Yennefer squirms in her chair, knowing that she has failed her surrogate daughter. Soon after the meeting, she bolts off to find her, to make things right. It spends too much time on it, but it’s still an effective example of the disparity between small loves and the massive machinations of the world.
Ciri gets the least to do in this novel. When she does appear it does little to assuage my fears from the previous essay. Essentially, Ciri has fallen in with a bad crowd, a found family of peers, and they have corrupted her into violence and death. It is fundamentally reactionary, a young woman being done in by the pleasure of the flesh, seeking rescue from a traditional father figure. This plotline remains at the peripheral, a way of tightening the stakes for the rest of the characters. Furthermore, this book does not represent the conclusion of this story, but it does further its troubling subtext.
In contrast, the book also puts forth the series’ most explicit feminism, however awkwardly. When Milva discusses the dilemma of her pregnancy, multiple characters turn to the camera and affirm that it is her inalienable right to choose. The book spends time lingering with her, as she talks with Geralt over her decision. When she decides to keep the child, in memory of its nameless revolutionary father, it does not feels like the triumph of traditional womanhood, but the desire to hold on to a memory, however she can. By the book’s end, she is wounded and miscarries. The tragedy is not only that she lost a child, but that her choice to have one was so cruelly robbed from her. It’s hamfisted and trite, but nevertheless effective. A small, familiar tragedy given a grand fantastic scale.
This book cannot avoid feeling like a stopgap, a set up for yet more plotting to come. I was convinced, for example, that Geralt would rescue, or at least encounter Ciri, by the end of the novel. Oh how wrong I was! Even though the novels keep resetting the stakes, pushing the central conflict further into future novels, they have not yet lost sight of their heart. Baptism of Fire introduces new characters that slot right in to the series’ established cast. They grow to care for each other and for a common goal, despite their tensions and their sins. These books really believe that love could save us, if not from the horrors of the world, at least from each other. If we are to be baptized in fire, there is at least the hope that we will come out on the other end, broken but surviving, choosing to believe in each other’s goodness.