Written by Andrzej Sapkowski
Translated by David French
As the Netflix produced Witcher series supposedly approaches, I have been re-reading the book series in anticipation. I have already been over the first book, here, but right here is the place for me to take a look at the second book, or at least the second book in the timeline of the Witcher world. This is a collection of short stories, published later than the first novel but exploring a time period before the main narrative begins. This time the book goes by the name Sword of Destiny, and again it fills in some gaps and generates interesting context for the continent and the characters around which the central story revolves.
If you don’t know, Geralt is a Witcher. A mutant, created to destroy monsters to protect man in a fantastical but brutally dark world.
You don’t really need to know much more than that, but if you want to be a real nerd about it like I do, there’s plenty to know.
So let’s take a look at these shorts, one at a time.
We start with The Bounds of Reason. I’m not about doing a full plot summary for any of these stories, they already exist, and since I recommend them wholly, I don’t want to ruin them completely in case you take that recommendation to heart. In any case, this first story in Sword of Destiny revolves around a noble known as Borch Three Jackdaws, who accompanies Geralt as he unwillingly tracks a dragon which is being hunted by a retinue of chancers, warriors, sorcerers, and a king. In terms of geeky fantasy lore it gets nice and deep into the Witcher code, in turn barging face first into the moral and philosophical implications of exterminating monsters in a world in which humans were not there first. It also is one of the most interesting stories in the whole Witcher-cannon concerning Geralt and Yennefer, as they are split at the beginning of this tale and have plenty of harsh words for each other. The dialogue between the two is particularly sharp, and sometimes biting, yet somehow Sapkowski never fails to convince that those two are genuinely made for each other, djinns wish fulfilled or not. In the end, it is a completely satisfying short which is fulfilling in itself, but also absolutely vital in building these characters before the “true” story begins. I hope we see some kind of version of this short in the coming adaptation.
What follows is A Shard of Ice – a story which exclusively follows the relationship of Geralt and Yennefer. Over the course of the series their relationship undergoes plenty of ups and downs, ins and outs, togethers and aparts. This is a together story. To begin with, anyway. Yennefer is visiting an old friend, a sorcerer who intends to propose to her, whilst in the company of Geralt in a town he despises. Essentially it boils down to two men smitten with the sorcerer battling it out with one another, although Yennefer is clearly above such banality. She gets some fantastic lines, but Geralt’s sometimes strangely adolescent tone rings out strongly here and I’m not sure if this short really satisfies by itself, or even really in the context of the book at large. Despite some tasty dialogue, I think this is one of the more happily missed shorts in the series due to the fact Geralt is actually a bit annoying in his pubescent stroppiness. You can of course take this stroppiness as proof of this mutant’s humanity, and you should, but I do wish it was done in a slightly less annoying way. Indeed, it is done in a less annoying way just a few shorts away.
Eternal Flame is the third short, and one which will satisfy those who have played The Witcher 3, as it takes place in Novigrad, and features Dandelion, Dudu, Chapelle, and Vimme Vavaldi. The context is important in understanding how the series of games acts as part soft reboot, part sequel, to the novels, as the Novigrad in the game very much feels like the Novigrad which is inevitable in this story. It does a good job of gently probing the racial tensions of Sapkowski’s world, never feeling too heavy handed or lazily analogous of the real world. It also, quite happily, features one of the more fantastical and strange creatures featured in the series, the Doppler (or mimic). Although on its own this is a satisfying tale, its real quality shines as a world building exercise. It is a must read for anyone who invested nearly as much time in The Witcher 3 as I did, simultaneously working as a great primer for the tensions which the novels more openly encounter.
In A Little Sacrifice the annoyances that I found in A Shard of Ice are lessened slightly by Geralt’s character development. After struggling to find work whilst travelling with Dandelion he takes on a job acting as a translator/liaison between a Duke and his lover, a mermaid. This leads him into another job, investigating the murder of pearl divers by underwater beasts, but more importantly to an old friend of Dandelion’s – the poet Little Eye. The young woman falls head over heels for Geralt, who is still aching from his departure from Yennefer and knows he cannot fully reciprocate. Geralt often uses his ‘otherness’ as a shield, and both Little Eye and Dandelion call him out on this. Little Eye is not simply curious about the strange Witcher, she deeply cares for him, and the unbalanced relationship helps Geralt understand Yennefer’s perspective on their own relationship, and also to get over the self-pity which he exudes in the previous story. It is gives us a better look at the depth and importance of Dandelion to this world, demonstrating the importance of the lies he weaves into the stories his ballads tell, although they are all supposedly based on truths.
In many ways this story is about stories.
It is about what the Witcher hears about himself, and what he chooses to believe.
It is about what other people hear about Witchers, that they are unfeeling, merciless, mercenaries, that all their emotions are flushed from them by their transformation from young boy to murderous monster hunter. It can also be seen to include a commentary on the story that we the reader are enjoying. The important thing about stories, songs, art in general, is not necessarily truth, but the ability to move someone, to make someone think something or feel something profound. Dandelion is very sure in the way he dodges the truth in order to generate thought and emotion. It feels as if Sapkowski is rightfully justifying the fantasy of his world in this short, as it is this fantastical element which allows him to put upon the reader questions about their world which may not be so easily or happily consumed in the cold, plain manner of the absolute truth.
The titular Sword of Destiny introduces Ciri, the child linked to Geralt by destiny thanks to his actions in the previous collection. He meets up with her, seemingly by chance, on an envoy mission to the forests of Brokilon, to converse with the leader of the Dryads, an Elder Race holding defiant and bloody dominion over their last remaining forest, killing any humans who enter its shadows. Ciri is a fantastic foil to Geralt and grows to be a character in her own right, but here she serves to help mature Geralt. The adolescent tone he grows out of in the last story is replaced by a paternal instinct which immediately reveals itself as soon as Ciri enters the story, although he has no idea who she is at first. The setting allows Sapkowski to delve deeper into the tensions which drive his world, namely those of race. It would be easy enough to say that humans are terrible, that their natural urge for constant progression, fast growing populations, and hunger for the consumption of resources, makes them innately awful, but Sapkowski holds fast and has no interest in such a black and white depiction. For all the slightly predictable terrors of humanity, he holds a mirror up to the more graceful, older and supposedly wiser Elder Races. Geralt says it best:
‘You, the Elder Folk, like to say that hatred is alien to you, that it is a feeling known only to humans. But it is not true. You know what hatred is and are capable of hating, you merely evince it a little differently, more wisely and less savagely. But because of that it is more cruel.’
There is no battle between good and evil here, but there are lesser evils. There are glimmers of good. As such what could be seen as unanimous terribleness, what could be seen to make this series dire and nihilistic, is brightened by a never blinking glimmer of hope. Ciri represents this, and although Geralt does not embrace his fate, his position upon the two bladed sword of destiny, in this story, her mere existence promises hope at the end of a dark tunnel through which this world is about to be plunged.
Finally, Something More is a time-hopping bridge between the shorts and the novels. Geralt, injured protecting a merchant from necrophages, has once again invoked the Law of Surprise. The merchant bravely takes the Witcher’s wounded body on his cart, and begins to transport him to his home, all the while the world around them prepares to plunge itself into war. Rolling in and out of consciousness, Geralt dreams of his past: a brief encounter with Yennefer, and a meeting with Calanthe, the Queen whose granddaughter is the promised child. As I have already said, Sapkowski’s world is a grim one. Not only is the world at war, but the war brings forth the terrible monsters the likes of which Geralt is forced to engage with at the beginning of the short, but there is always hope. Ciri. It seems likely that she is killed as the war reaches Cintra and takes Calanthe with it, but Geralt has invoked the Law of Surprise, and something, a refugee perhaps, awaits him at the merchant’s home.
You certainly could start this series with the first novel, Blood of Elves, but the two short story collections provide so much context and character development that I think missing out on them would be a terrible shame. As much as some of Geralt’s more petulant behaviour irritates me, it only enhances my enjoyment as he grows out of this (mostly) and becomes the snarky infertile killer with the heart of a great father that I know and love. Whereas the first collection does at times feel like a slightly ramshackle collection of tales which form a loose fantasy world, Sword of Destiny is tightly focused on forging an interesting character from this earlier version of Geralt, who could quite easily have been a more generic, super-solider-tough-guy in less thoughtful hands.
He is a man with many foibles, a contemplative killer. His very existence is built upon hypocrisies, upon tensions, and with so much push and pull you can hardly fail to create a fascinating character, and Sapkowski most definitely does not fail.
If you’ve already read the main novels, I absolutely recommend going back to both of these collections, and if you’re yet to start, start with them.