‘Nothing. But what about Kaedwen, Dandelion? Why didn’t Henselt of Kaedwen come to Demavend and Meve’s aid? They had a pact, after all; they were bound by an alliance. But even if Henselt, following Foltest’s example, pisses on the signatures and seals on documents, and the royal word means nothing to him, he cannot be stupid, can he? Doesn’t he understand that after the fall of Aedim and the deal with Temeria, it will be his turn; that he’s next on the Nilfgaardian list? Kaedwen ought to support Demavend out of good sense. There may no longer be faith nor truth in the world, but surely good sense still exists. What say you, Dandelion? Is there still good sense in the world? Or do only contemptibility and contempt remain?’
-Geralt of Rivia, The Time of Contempt
The Time of Contempt is a really hard book to review which is ironic because, really, when I say that, I just mean it's a really hard book to review because of the last twenty pages or so when things go from a really-really well done book and my favorite in the series to super-super uncomfortable. For those who wish to know what precisely I'm talking about, I'll say a main character is sexually assaulted. There's some controversy about this event not just because it is happening to a fan favorite but also because of the event is depicted with questionable consent. The victim also rationalizes it away afterward.
It is deeply ****ed up.
To be fair to Andrzej Sapkowski, it's supposed to be deeply ****ed up. However, the age of the character as well as the bond which had been established between the reader and them is one that makes it doubly horrifying. Readers will probably be able to figure out which character suffers such if they continue on with this review so consider yourself warned.
Except for the last thirty pages or so, The Time of Contempt is perhaps the best in the Witcher novels. It is a book which provides an immense amount of world-building to the Witcher universe. We get a multidimensional look at the Second Nilfgaard War's beginnings, progress, and horrors. We also get an expansive look at mage society in the North before the actions of Vilgefortz and Francesca Findabair destroy it. There are some great moments with Ciri, Yennefer, and Geralt as a family plus some great comedy.
Also some truly terrible bits.
A major theme is the terrible things people do in wartime as well as the moral compromises they make, which erode everything which is good about them. When Nilfgaard invades, the majority of nations lose their resolve to resist and fall over one another betraying their neighbors. Nilfgaard has re-envisioned itself as the "victim" of the First Nilfgaard War so they have begun engaging in large-scale atrocities to avenge themselves. A Sorceress betrays the Scoia'tael to be slaughtered by the North because it's the only way to guarantee her a crown and a homeland despite the fact it comes from a human monarch (which they were supposedly trying to resist).
Geralt, Yennefer, Dandelion, and Ciri are the only ones to remain true to themselves.
Well, no, Archmage Tissaia also remains true to herself.
It just destroys everything good in her world because of it.
The depiction of mage society in the Witcherverse is an intriguing one, for as long as it lasts. Mages in the North live lives of incomparable luxury and decadence compared to most people due to their powers and neutrality. They live forever, look beautiful, indulge themselves in nonstop sex, and can have fresh crab teleported in from the sea.
They're also a major force in politics while never being threatened by it. However, the Nilfgaard War has split the mages in a way which is imperceptible. Some believe Nilfgaard's triumph is inevitable and others believe it should be resisted at all costs. The Old Guard of the Mages like Tissaia believe the idea is RIDICULOUS that mages would choose their homelands over their fellow sorcerers. After all, the North is full of evil tyrants and Nilfgaard is worse.
So, why would they?
Nationalism is a funny thing.
I enjoy the depiction of Vilgefortz as well. While I initially took him to be a rather one-dimensional Jaffar-esque Evil Sorcerer, his conversations with Geralt really fleshed him out as well as the moment when he finally cut-loose with his wuxia staff skills. Vilgefortz is a self-made mage in a society of people who live lives of total privilege and had to build himself up from nothing. When he sees Geralt, he sees a kindred spirit, and there's perhaps something else there if I don't miss my guess (and Geralt is oblivious to). Watching Vilgefortz cut loose as the equivalent of Darth Vader in a world of squishy wizards was also damned impressive, bad guy or not.
Ciri is a hard character to write about this time around since eighty-percent of the novel has her being one of the most adorable Young Adult characters in fiction. Watching her fight the "basilisk", her relationship with both her parents, her adventures with her unicorn, and other stuff lulls you into a false sense of security before going for the throat. It's an emotional gut punch, yes, but not one I really think which was necessary. I'm fine reading about trauma and torture but having it happen to a fifteen-year-old isn't high on my lists of enjoyment factors.
The geopolitics of the book are well-done and a highlight. Aside from Westeros, I can't think of any book series which has done as nearly a good a job establishing the various powers and how they interact in the setting. Despite their limited screen-time, I got a strong sense for Foltest and Henselt and other major powers in the Continent. The fact Sapkowski was able to do it in a single book instead of an entire series of novels is a testament to his writing capabilities.
Geralt and Yennefer are also people who deserve commenting on as they both have some delightful moments together. They are a fabulous couple, even if I prefer Triss in the games, and they're just entertaining to watch. I'm especially fond of their "date" where poor Geralt is forced to dress up for the Platonic ideal of the "rich person's party with no decent food and too much gossip." There are many couples deeply in love in fiction but very few who are entertaining to watch. Our heroes are always entertaining and you can tell both love Ciri more than anything else in their lives.
In conclusion, I should give this book a 10 out of 10 but I can't because of the ending leaving me feeling queasy about the whole process. Many believe an author making you feel is something that should be lauded but, bluntly, I don't think an author making you feel lousy is a good thing.