Saturday, August 1, 2015

Baptism of Fire review

    Baptism of Fire is the fifth book in the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. A big fan of the series, I've enjoyed the previous novels and reviewed them here on my blog (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, Book 4). For those unfamiliar with the series, it follows monster-hunter Geralt of Rivia awith his adoptive child Ciri as they struggle to make their way through a corrupt world where the nobility is selfish, the peasantry is uneducated, and war is horrific.

    The series started more funny than grim with Geralt living through several fractured fairy-tales such as the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White. Since Blood of Elves, however, they have been their own original fantasy epic which followed Geralt dealing with countless forces out to seize Ciri for the purposes of fulfilling a prophecy even they don't understand.

    When last we left our heroes, Geralt had been beaten within an inch of his life by the cruel mage Vilgefortz while Ciri was forced to flee through an unstable portal which dumped her in the middle of a Niflgaardian desert. Adopted by a murderous band of highwaymen, Ciri has begun an unhealthy relationship with bandit Mistle due to her desire to not be left alone. Likewise, the North is being savagely looted and burned by the Nilfgaardian Empire due to the failure of its nobility to do anything to check them.

    Geralt, finally recovering from his wounds, is spurred to action by a dream of Ciri which lets him know she's alive. Unwillingly attracting a collection of oddballs, misfits, and badasses every bit as much so as himself, Geralt sets out to rescue his daughter from whoever might be threatening her. Ciri, meanwhile, degenerates further into insanity while we finally find out what happened to Yennefer and why she hasn't been looking for Ciri herself.

    So what do I think of this volume?

    Eh, it's pretty good.

    There's nothing wrong with Baptism of Fire, don't get me wrong, but it's very much a road story which doesn't get to its destination by the end of the book. Geralt and his oddball collection of traveling companions get to know each other, have some adventures, and they get slightly closer to their destination of meeting with Ciri. I can't say it's my particular favorite in the series. I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a book of filler but I can't help but think Sapkowski could have inserted an actual plot too.

    Newcomers to Geralt's "hanse" (or friends who travel and fight together), are Zoltan the Dwarf, Milva the Huntress, Cahir the renegade Nilfgaardian soldier, and Regis who is very-very obviously a supernatural being disguised as a human. Aside from Dandelion and Milva, none of these individuals really have a reason to help Geralt but agree to journey across the land facing immeasurable dangers for a girl they don't know. Indeed, they practically force their help on Geralt who makes several attempts to get away from them. I'm not sure it's not meant to be a parody of traditional fantasy given it seems more or less like a stereotypical Dungeons and Dragons game, "You guys all meet, now here's the adventure."

    Despite this, I can't be too hard on the book due to the simple fact it's so damned fun. All of the characters are interesting and unique, perhaps too unique, and they play off of each other well. I'm also impressed Sapkowski actually has Ciri go crazy, for lack of a better term, due to her experiences which would have broken most people and does, well, her. The fact the relationship with Mistle reverses its power dynamics, starting with Ciri's rape, only to switch to Ciri when she realizes Mistle is a broken scared girl herself is quite clever (if horrifying).

    Another thing I liked about this volume is it deconstructs the Chosen One narrative a great deal. Ciri is portrayed as the product of a centuries-long genetics experiment which only got lost because, well, it wasn't working, and only started to work by accident. This doesn't make Ciri the kind of person who can save the world but the subject of a dozen or more schemes to forcibly impregnate her or dissect her or marry her. Worse, all of the enormous power she was supposed to wield has been sacrificed due to a magical accident last volume. In short, she's a Chosen One who cannot actually be the Chosen One and her life is being ruined by it.

    Good writing, that.

    Overall, Baptism of Fire is a dark and entertaining but ultimately kind of meandering volume which I recommend for fans of the series but note isn't perhaps the best volume Sapkowski has done. I'd give it a lower score but it's still pretty damned enjoyable and mostly just suffers in comparison to its predecessors.


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