The Witching Hour—The Blood of Elves

After Sword of Destiny, I wondered how Sapkowski would adapt the world of his short stories into a novel. Those books play with myth, which is rarely coherent and singular. Building Geralt up into a figure of legend requires tales from disparate parts of his life. Sword of Destiny seems to be in a loosely chronological order, but time in it is nevertheless fuzzy. The sorceress Yennefer and Geralt will be together at the end of one story and apart of the beginning of the next. We know Geralt is old, but his slowed aging obscures just how old he might be. It’s the beautiful whisper of stories told by campfire, of an implied wider world. In those first two books, history flows, picking up flotsam and jetsam, building disparate pieces into something that feels whole. Sword of Destiny in particular does this with efficiency. Geralt’s final finding, and adoption, of Ciri feels like the culmination of every other story in the volume. It elevates the entire book, makes it shine with a brilliant coherence.

Blood of Elves, the first novel in a five book series, struggles with this kind of disparate consistency. In many ways, the story gets down to brass tacks, dropping the small scale of the previous books for massive prophecies, for nations scheming against each other, and for the epic journeys of fantasy stories. The book struggles under that weight. Several sections are resigned to exposition. Plot threads get dropped as soon as they are brought up, to be revisited in book two or three. From the title you might presume that the primary conflict would be between human settlements and elven armies, but that takes up one of the novel’s seven chapters. It is, in short, doing a lot of set up for the four sequels to come.

This is fitting, if awkward, because the novel is in part about the burden of expectation, and the uncertainty of how history will use the individuals caught in its  wake. Though the novel flips perspectives, from Geralt to Yennefer and new characters like the sorceress Triss or the emperor Emhyr var Emreis etc, the real main character of the novel is Ciri. Each part of the novel revolves around her. 

At first, Ciri dwells in Kaer Morhen, the ancient and desolate home of the Witchers. She trains to become a Witcher, leaning the tricks of the trade from Geralt and his colleagues. Then Triss and Geralt take her to the temple of Melitele, a safe haven for the hunted. On the journey there, they meet up with a caravan under threat of elvish attack. After misadventures, Ciri arrives safely. While she learns magic from Yennefer at the temple, Geralt tracks a mysterious spy pursuing him. This spy is not trying to kill Geralt, but rather to find Ciri through him. She might be even more than she appears. Nightmares and memories torment Ciri throughout the novel. The ever escalating empire of Nilfgaard destroyed her hometown in Sword of Destiny, but failed to capture her. She dreams of the black armored knight that threatened her life and of the violence that awaits her in the future. These dreams are more than just the nightmares of a distressed teen. Upon her arrival at Kaer Morhen, Triss discovers that Ciri is a Source, a magical conduit. What magic force dwells within Ciri is unkonwn. Nevertheless, Geralt, Yennefer, and Triss all make their attempts to find out and to prepare her for whatever will come next.

This is where the most magical and mundane parts of the novel take place. Despite the grand mechanization of nations, the encroaching empire of Nilfgaard to the south, the guerilla rebellion of the elvish band called Scoia’tael or “Squirrels,” and the magic that threatens to envelope Ciri, she is just a little girl. She needs a community, a family. Though the central characters debate about what exactly she needs, there is no question that she requires care and that the people at hand, though not her immediate family, are the people to do it. 

It’s not anything surprising to be sure, but it is affecting. I particularly love the way Yennefer’s teasing morphs from the aloof superiority of a strict teacher to the caring playfulness of a parent. Ciri is almost a cliché of brash, young femininity, but she manages to surprise everyone in the novel with her curiosity and thoughtfulness. The flickers of doubt she shows ground her characterization and give a stereotypical heroine a warm and depth she might otherwise lack. The novel gestures toward Yennefer being her mother and Geralt being her father, the proper hetero-normative family restored. However, the sheer spread of Ciri’s parental figures undoes this notion. Triss acted as a mother figure for Ciri well before Yennefer. In one exhilarating sequence, every one of the five Witchers at Kaer Morhen teach Ciri new skills. It is hard not to be compelled at this story of at once powerful and marginalized people banding together to protect an innocent from the powers that would consume her. While the gears of history turn, we still have to care for each other.

Ciri is the novel’s beating heart, and where the book’s fragmented elements most clearly work together. It’s everything else that feels strained and tired. The grand politicking which takes up a substantial part of the novel is almost entirely expository. For a good chunk of one of the chapters, the monarchs of almost every nation sit at the same table to talk over their problems. It’s just as boring as it sounds.

The source of the novel’s evocative title is also inert. The conflict between the elves and humans is one of the Witcher’s most compelling, and troubling, thematic threads. So I was wary and excited for a novel that would dive headfirst into it. Unfortunately most of this is again set up. The Scoia’tael are simply another problem that faces the multiple political parties at play. The one time they show up in the novel is retread of themes covered by the short stories. 

To summarize, the caravan Ciri, Triss, and Geralt travel with is run mostly by dwarves, loyal to a human king. Though Geralt claims the Scoia’tael would not attack non-humans, they decimate the caravan. The few remaining living are saved by the king’s cavalry. After the battle, the convoy leader, a human, reveals that the human king tipped off the Scoia’tael to caravan’s presence in an attempt to weed out traitors. Those not killed by the elves would be murdered by the hiding cavalry. There were no disloyal dwarves though. These non-humans were never trusted. Their efforts to assimilate earned them nothing but death. It would be an effective end to a short story, but the novel just keeps moving. From then on, themes of colonialism take a backseat to capital P plot.

The result of these different threads is a confused book, almost entirely set up for a story that we do not yet have the stakes of. We learn that the Nilfgaardian emperor is the man who wants to capture Ciri, but we do not know why. Nations prepare for a war that does not yet begin. Even its most affecting moments, the characterization of found family around Ciri, are likely setting up the character dynamics that will shape future novels. Blood of Elves makes a lot of postures toward epic fantasy, but at its core is a group of people who care for each other, despite distance and difficulty. It is my sincerest hope that future novels do not lose sight of that.