Thursday, June 18, 2015

Blood of Elves review

     “We have to live next to each other,” Yarpen continued. “We and you, humans. Because we simply don’t have any other option. We’ve known this for two hundred years and we’ve been working towards it for over a hundred. You want to know why I entered King Henselt’s service, why I made such a decision? I can’t allow all that work to go to waste. For over a hundred years we’ve been trying to come to terms with the humans. The halflings, gnomes, us, even the elves – I’m not talking about rusalkas, nymphs and sylphs, they’ve always been savages, even when you weren’t here. Damn it all, it took a hundred years but, somehow or other, we managed to live a common life, next to each other, together. We managed to partially convince humans that we’re not so very different—”

    “We’re not different at all, Yarpen.”

     The dwarf turned abruptly.

    “We’re not different at all,” repeated Ciri. “After all, you think and feel like Geralt. And like… like I do. We eat the same things, from the same pot. You help Triss and so do I. You had a grandmother and I had a grandmother… My grandmother was killed by the Nilfgaardians. In Cintra.”

     “And mine by the humans,” the dwarf said with some effort. “In Brugge. During the pogrom.”

     Blood of Elves is the first full-length novel of the Witcher franchise. Strangely, it was translated into English as the second novel despite the second anthology, Sword of Destiny (reviewed here), having a huge role in setting up this novel's events. How huge? Well, about sixty-percent of the story deals with the aftermath of the Nilfgaard invasion of the North. The Nilfgaard invasion of the North happens in Sword of Destiny. The rest of the novel deals with Geralt's adoption of Ciri, which is kind of important since she gets adopted in the Sword of Destiny too.


    Seriously, I pity the fool who attempted to read this novel after The Last Wish, since it must have been nonsensical. Anyway, Sword of Destiny is now available in English and there's nothing preventing readers from reading the book in its proper order. Blood of Elves follows the events of Sword of Destiny by recapping the previous book's events as a story told by Dandelion. We, immediately, get a sense that this is going to be a different kind of tale than the short-stories. Much focus is given on the politics, interrelationships, history, and culture of the North over the short stories being about Geralt's comedic monster-slaying.

    Nilfgaard invaded the country of Cintra, destroyed its capital city, and was promptly driven back due to the outrage from the North. Nilfgaard has switched tactics, however, and now are undermining the North by covertly funding an elven terrorist group called the Scoia'tael. The Scoia'tael has popular support from nonhumans but is too few in number to do anything but cause civil war and economic collapse. Which Nilfgaard is counting on. The Southern Empire is also using a combination of religious prophecy and economic warfare to divide the North. As a result, the monarchs are debating whether a first strike against Nilfgaard may be their only chance to avoid defeat by their foes without a war.

    Meanwhile, Geralt of Rivia has taken the sole surviving member of the Cintran Royal Family, Ciri, under his wing. Training her as a witcher despite the fact it was never meant for unmutated girls, let alone princesses, they discover Ciri has immense potential as a Sorceress and invite Geralt's old flame Triss Merrigold to join them. Events conspire to set them on the road, though, as both Nilfgaard and the Northern monarch's plans do not tolerate a loose end as big as Ciri.

    Blood of Elves isn't a typical fantasy novel as very little of it is about actual events but, more, exploring the aftermath of a war. If I were to liken it to another series, I'd say it's similar to the scenes where Arya and the Hound explore the Riverlands in the aftermath of the War of Kings. It's more a mood piece than anything else. The characterization is particularly strong with Geralt, Ciri, Yennefer, and Dandelion all having very strong scenes. I'm also impressed with new characters Triss Merrigold and Yarpen, who have smaller but still essential roles. Ciri, in particular, is an impressive bit of characterization because she's one of the very few children in fiction I don't find annoying. 

     I like the depiction of Nilfgaard inside the book as they back away from the Nazi-analogues from the previous novel. Instead, Nilfgaard is a ruthless and aggressive dictatorship which has many horrific qualities--but the North isn't much better. More than anything, the Nilfgaard is extremely good at conquering and if they can't get you through one method, they'll try another more subtle one. We also get an introduction to Emperor Emhyr, the secret mastermind behind the invasion, and he is an effective character defined entirely by other's interactions with him. Not since Sauron or the Galactic Empire have I gotten such a strong character feel from someone off-camera.

    The Scoia'tael and their role in the book is also well-handled. Sapkowski created a group which has all the hallmarks of a plucky resistance against a racist set of governments but the truth is more complex. They're killing large numbers of innocent people for dubious gains. In the North, peaceful cooperation between the races is a pearl without price and the conflict between them only creates more bodies which does no one any good. Still, you understand where they're coming from and why they believe what they do. Yarpen's scene above, also, is a real gut-punch for how some people are sacrificing everything in the name of peace (and won't be appreciated for it).

    I've mentioned before I'm not a huge fan of the Yennefer and Geralt romance. I think Sapkowski means for them to be a flawed but noble couple but, honestly, I just think they're toxic for one another and would be happier with other people. I, pretty much, prefer ever single other romance for Geralt to her (especially Triss). Despite this, I love Yennefer as a character and enjoyed her scenes with Ciri a great deal. Yennefer is a terrible mother-figure, mostly because she didn't go into it intending to be one at all, but her gradual warming to Ciri reminded me of Angelina Jolie's performance in Maleficent. Who, honestly, wouldn't be a bad pick for playing Yennefer in the imaginary super-big-budget adaptation of the series. Yennefer is a fun, engaging, and witty character I would love to see in future works with or without Geralt.

    But I could be talking about this stuff all day. It's a deep-deep book.

     In conclusion, Blood of Elves is a great novel. I very much enjoyed it and recommend it to everyone who is a fan of the Witcher series plus fantasy in general. It's not something you'll be able to read, however, without having read the previous two volumes. Likewise, it's a very slow and characterization-driven piece versus event-driven.


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