CW: Sexual Assault
From the first chapter, Sapkowski did little to assuage me that he has learned any lessons from his previous novel. The Time of Contempt is once again dense with new characters, with scenes of pure exposition, and with continental scale politics. The first chapter flits from perspective to perspective, from a kingly messenger to Geralt to a band of elvish revolutionaries. This kind of narrative flexibility can be thrilling in the right hands, but here it feels as if it diminishes the novel’s sense of personal stakes. A couple things are clear, the Nilfgaardian empire has an uneasy truce with the northern kingdoms and Ciri, the princess that everyone wants to capture, is widely believed to be dead. The rest of the novel concerns itself with the pursuit of Ciri, as well as Geralt and Yennefer’s attempts to protect her, and the eventual disillusion of the truce with Nilfgaard.
In theory, this could be pretty straightforward, and in the novel’s best moments it is. Geralt and Yennefer care deeply for Ciri and fight to the death to protect her. However, Geralt struggles to express himself and Yennefer cannot help but try to use Ciri’s powers for her own ends. One of the things that drew me to the Witcher in the past is its portrayal of powerful, but still all too human, people caught in the machinery of history. The Time of Contempt has that in spades.
Unfortunately, the way this is trotted out is often pretty damn boring. Much of the first chapter is a conversation between Geralt and, for lack of a better term, a sneaky lawyer. It drags as the lawyer explains to him everything that has happened in the northern kingdoms since the last book wrapped up. The third chapter is entirely a massive banquet, before a meeting the council of mages. Geralt floats between various factions at the banquet, who all exposit further details about the state of the world. Several new characters get introduced with long names, proper nouns, and only flickers of characterization. Even in the chapter’s most interesting section, where a mysterious sorcerer offers Geralt an alliance with Nilfgaard, is bogged down with exposition of magic’s foundational myths. I appreciate how material the world of the Witcher can be, but chapters like this make me long for the ambiguous mysticism of Earthsea.
When things really kick off about two-thirds through the novel, it feels at once over developed and undercooked. In the night after the banquet, Nilfgaard secrets elven commandos into the mages’ homestead, while mages loyal to the their kingdoms attempt to rat out the Nilfgaardian traitors. It explodes into violence, as Geralt attempts to find Yennefer and as Ciri tries to escape the Nilfgaardian empire’s clutches. Countless of the mages introduced in the party sequence are killed, without a clear sense of why that should matter. I barely know who any of these people are after all; their deaths hardly lend the novel clearer stakes. There are flickers of brilliance here. Yennefer directly puts Ciri in danger by exploiting her prophetic power. Geralt’s final confrontation with the sorcerer who recruited him is an effective and haunting action scene. Ciri finally combats the knight who tried to steal her from her kingdom so many years ago and finds just a scared man, no great angel of vengeance. However, these are all just moments, and it is difficult to feel out how they fit together. The novel is again all set up for future events.
What elevates The Time of Contempt, however slightly, above Blood of Elves is some old fashioned narrative propulsion. Ciri gets to be the center of attention for much of the novel. She gets to choose, even in desperate and frightening circumstances. The novel maintains the delicate balance of making her both victim and agent. Besides, a story about powerful innocence caught up in cosmic forces beyond its reach will never fail to be at least somewhat compelling to me.
Chapter six, which focuses almost entirely on Ciri, is easily the best part of the novel. She manages to get away from the chaos at the mages’ stronghold, but only by taking a portal to the middle of a vast desert. She survives with the help of Geralt and Yennefer’s advice, and with the assistance of an actual unicorn. This chapter obviously foregrounds Ciri’s status as a “Child of the Elder Blood.” However, it never forgets that she is a 14 year old girl. She relies on her surrogate parents’ advice for survival, but alone she runs into the lies they told to protect her. In one striking scene, she taps into a vast vein of magic, awakening her ancestor’s rage and witnessing the apocalypse she could create with her power. It’s a terrifying moment, mostly because you know that Ciri just wants to live a good life, she’s filled with all the dreams of a child, and all the world wants to use that for its own ends.
The final chapter shares some of the same strengths, but runs into Sapkowski’s worst instincts. Ciri gets captured by a band of Nilfgaardian thugs, but then is freed with the help of a youthful gang, the Rats. This is where the ultimate arc of the novel solidifies itself. The Rats are in many ways like Ciri. They are children of war, abandoned by society and turning to desperate measures to survive. Unlike Ciri, they are without the people that could help them, without father or mother figures to show them the way.
This concludes in a disturbing scene. Kayleigh, the boy who helped Ciri escape the Nilfgaardians, attempts to rape Ciri. Another Rat, the only other girl, Mistle makes him back off. In turn though, she lies next to Ciri and propositions her. Ciri wordlessly allows it with what the novel describes as “a disgusting and humiliatingly pleasant submissiveness.” Their encounter’s status as a consensual act is nebulous at best, and it acts as a kind of induction into another misfit family. However, rather than one dedicated to her protection or her safety, it is one that lashes out against the world in frightful violence. There is something here about the hatefulness of war, of the violence children can learn when it is shown to them, and where that cruelty can lead them. Simultaneously, it’s also easy to see the Rats as the improper family, in contrast to the correct family that Geralt and Yennefer provide. Additionally, it is impossible to ignore that The Witcher’s first moment of explicit queerness is effectively a sexual assault. Using that as a metaphor for Ciri’s fall into bad elements is callous to say the least. Ciri’s queerness is gestured at in the games, and perhaps it will be explored in future novels. Still, this is a grim introduction.
In retrospect, the entire arc of the novel is tragic. It is about Geralt and Yennefer’s complete failure to protect Ciri from the world which wants to devour her. Ciri has found a community, but one that forces submission rather than uplifts her. When Mistle says “You won’t be alone now” it feels like a threat. However, the novel doesn’t really build to this. With its flitting perspectives, exposition, and politicking, it feels like its climax is far distant from the pages of this novel. But what that climax will be is mostly unclear, especially with such a careless and bleak conclusion.
Sidenote: I didn’t quite have room for it in the essay proper, there’s simultaneously too much and too little happening in this book, but I wanted to update on the elven stuff. As previously mentioned, the elves are siding with the villainous empire. However, they are only doing it to ensure the return of land to the elves. However, the empire is also exploiting them. The newly formed elvish kingdom is forbidden by the Nilfgaard emperor from helping the elvish bands, so they are left to die while the empire uses their death for its expansion. Once again, Sapkowski cannot resist calling out both sides, but the elves are clearly being wronged, another victim of empire.