CW: summary of graphic violence, threatened sexual assault.
Writing these essays since the first Witcher novel has been in part, an exercise in frustration. All of these books have well drawn characters with grounded motivations caught in novels that value needless frame narratives, drawn out exposition and politicking, and a cruelty that blunts their empathetic edge. Tower of Swallows is the pinnacle of these instincts. I don’t know what to write about it except something that reiterates the above points, with more bite and less good will.
The Tower of Swallows starts in theory right after Baptism of Fire, but in practice kicks off several months after. The novel opens with the hermit Vysogota finding Ciri’s wrecked body, nursing her back to health, and then Ciri relaying the events of the novel to him. This is only one of the novel’s multitudinous frame narratives, including a court interrogation of one of Ciri’s pursuers, a manuscript of the bard Dandelion’s memoirs, and innumerable exposition-heavy conversations inter-spliced with more straightforward narration. The intent here is likely to give the novel a proper sense of scale. Though the heart of the series is a father-child relationship, their capillaries and veins stretch out into a worldwide portrait. These relatively small characters are swept up in prophecy and politics, in a wide and corrupt world. In more capable hands, The Tower of Swallows could have the sweeping, global eye of a Cloud Atlas or, closer to home, a Lord of the Rings. Instead, the novel constantly stalls or sets up story that is STILL yet to come. Whenever the story feels it is gaining some momentum, it cuts away to a different scene or a different narrative entirely. I felt the effects of this janky pacing in reading the book in two measly days; I can’t imagine how slow it must feel reading over a week or a month.
Weirdly, though we’ll all properly find out once we go through them on this column, the video games fair better here. They too are sprawling, filled with mad political machinations. But because they must filter themselves through Geralt’s limited, role-played view, the stakes are given immediacy and weight. The short stories also showcase this strength. In the collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, Sapkowski did not have the space to get too clever. While some stories indulged in flashbacks and non-linearity, Sapkowski could only take so long before getting to the damn point. This allowed them a dream-like power and a simple, blunt drama. The novels have this in spurts, but its length and its structure ensure that its potential power is lost in the flood.
The frustration here, and why I’m writing the retrospective equivalent of a compliant letter rather than an outright pan, is that Sapkowski’s talent and the story’s potential are well showcased in the novel. In some of the best action scenes of the series, Ciri becomes a slasher villain, haunting her pursuers, killing them one by one on a foggy, icy lake. Rather than being horrific, it is triumphant, the power of a victim finally exacting bloody justice on a cruel world. In another moment, Yennefer’s unwavering faith in the laws of magic is questioned, as a prayer to an unknown god is answered. I simply love it when belief must be broadened by an encounter with the truly unknown. Geralt’s found family, in far too little of the book, remains a fun and endearing ragtag team. However, these moments feel spliced between the heavy mechanics of fantasy novels. They do not have room to breathe or have impact, as the novel clips along, content to wander into areas with far less impact.
Thematically, the story continues to have an elemental power. Ciri is still just an ordinary girl, burdened with prophecy and the horror of expectation. The world is filled with men who want her dead or used and she must coast on the kindness of strangers and her own will. The end of the book offers her an escape, she enters the tower of swallows to find herself in a mystical world of elves. That is hardly an satisfying conclusion to this adventure. Rather it is a yet another tease for what is to come. Geralt is still a man caught between worlds, and the novel most powerfully pontificates about whether he is really a witcher anymore. In one interesting moment, Geralt’s continued involvement, rather than his neutrality, is questioned. The problem is that these themes don’t evolve. Geralt has always been a liminal figure, pushed to act by his ever empathetic heart. Ciri has always been both a victim and a force to be reckoned with. Since Sword of Destiny’s striking and powerful conclusion, each book has reiterated the same thematic concerns, with only the slightest of adjustments.
This is also easily the cruelest novel thus far. The principle villain, the mercenary Bonhart, unceremoniously murders every member of Ciri’s gang, the Rats. Keeping Ciri alive, he beheads the corpses of the gang, forcing Ciri to watch. He then leashes her, parades her around hostile towns, beats her, and enters her into a gladiatorial arena. While the book never really goes there, Ciri is under the constant threat of sexual violence. The book treats this as a matter of course for a sixteen year old girl in a cruel world. It’s exploitation, but with too much self-seriousness to be truly honest or redemptive.
Ultimately, the book barely moves the needle, either in plot or in theme. Geralt is still lost in the world desperate to find his adopted daughter. Ciri is still alone, without the help of those who most wish to help her. Yennefer has put her love of Ciri first, getting her in trouble with and tortured by the worst powers that be. Despite the book’s sprawling scale, it’s hard not to wonder if all this story could have been reduced, the focus realigned on its principle characters. All the shenanigans of frame narratives and interludes hide a straightforward set of fantasy stories, building to a conclusion which is likely to echo tales past. With that conclusion, The Lady of the Lake, Sapkowski will finally have to pay up. It’s his last chance to prove that the disparate plot threads and constant interruptions contribute to something meaningful. After The Tower of Swallows, I lack confidence that he can pull that off.