I finished Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series a little while back. I’ve had a bit of time then to ponder the Work. (Eight books: that earns a capital w “Work.”) I haven’t played the games. I did, rather absent-mindedly, watch the two years of the Netflix series. And I’ve flipped through a few of the comic books. Sorry to anyone reading this who assumed this would be yet another commentary on the Henry Cavill drama. Don’t cavil about it; read on.
It is, I think, important to note that The Witcher commenced as a short story, and its early existence was a continuation of that, consisting of loosely linked short stories that were later collected in the first two volumes of the series. Sapkowski did not, therefore (so far as I know), have a fully mapped out saga to tell when he started writing. Therein, I think, lies one of issues I have with the Work. But let me get to that later.
Praise is probably due before grousing. Even before that, however, let me offer categorization. I think the first two books could qualify as sword-and-sorcery. (If you are interested in how I classify something as S&S, click here.) The remainder, I think, could be considered epic Grimdark. Sapkowski doesn’t spare the grisly details, the filth, the profanity, or the sex. Nor does he spare the characters; many who appeared in early volumes, or are given substantial page time in later volumes, don’t survive the last book.
Sapkowski is a gifted dialog writer. Or his English-language translator is a superlative dialog writer. I don’t speak Polish so am unqualified to say. We’ll assume from here on that the contents (for good or ill) are all Sapkowski’s responsibility. There is a great deal of humor and levity. The leisurely pace of the Work allows plenty of time for digressions, for full descriptions of meals, for characterization spooled out over multiple volumes. It doesn’t drag. It doesn’t suffer from Jordanitis. (With apologies to Wheel of Time fans.) Even the despicable characters are worth spending time with, and I didn’t mind lengthy conversations and descriptions of travel and stays at inns, waiting for the next action scene.
There is plenty of action. Sapkowski seems to know when it is time (metaphorically) for someone holding a gun to kick in the door. But here we get to some criticisms. The Work is extremely episodic. It is incident piled on incident. And that gets back to the issue I adverted to earlier. I don’t think he knew where he was going with the story. Complication adds to complication. More and more characters, intrigues, plots, and sub-plots get added. Prophecies multiply. All this has the virtue of increasing tension, raising the stakes, and maintaining suspense. Yet I received the impression that Sapkowski was plotting by the seat of his pants, because even after finishing the series, I’m not entirely sure what happened. How did that entire “chosen one” prophecy ultimately pan-out? There seems a plethora of sub-plots left unresolved.
This may partially be my fault, due to the manner in which I consumed the Work: audiobook. You really can’t flip back a few pages to review a point, to clarify an issue, or recall a character or place name. While I’m generally capable of concentration and immersion while driving or working out, there remain distractions. So I might have missed some vital clues. The lack of resolution might also (in fact I tend to believe this) have been intentional. Sapkowski is highlighting free will, the uncertainty of the future, the inevitable results of everyone having his own agenda. Or perhaps he’s just flipping the bird at fantasy literature conventions. Whatever the reason, I found the end a rather convoluted mess, even with the psuedo-Arthurian, partially tragic, partially happy ending.
I could also have done without Sapkowski’s occasional interjection of his politics. But thankfully he kept that to a minimum, if we use much of contemporary fantasy writing as our yardstick of comparison.
Did I like it? On balance, yes. If I were to push a Grimdark epic into prominence, it wouldn’t have been The Witcher. I’d give the nod to Steven Erikson or Joe Abercrombie. (Respectively The Malazan Book of the Fallen (including Ian C. Esslemont’s contributions) and The First Law Trilogy (and related works.)) But I don’t regret the time I invested in the story of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri.
Ready for the next installment of Magnus Stoneslayer’s diary? Here you go.
Tell someone “don’t think about an elephant,” dear diary, and you can be certain that the first image lumbering through his mind is a slowly pacing pachyderm. So you can imagine my difficulty when I direct myself to avoid thinking of water.
The desert and a sadly depleted water skin are a troublesome combination. Either one severally is a challenge. Jointly they spell thirst – debilitating, tongue thickening, dry mouthed thirst.
Of course, I was born for this. No, not the desert; I’m a northerner, born to cold climes. By “born for this” dear diary, I mean I’m a barbarian, equipped by nature to deal with climatic adversity, to survive the elements even at their most brutal. My skin has long since taken on a permanent ruddy bronze. With a makeshift kaffiyeh shading my face I can tolerate prolonged solar exposure that would crisp a civilized man like a beetle in a furnace. I continue to trudge along, mile after steady mile, long after lesser men would have dropped – just empty, waterless husks soon stripped to bare, sun bleached bone.
That is simply the way of it. Inserted into an unfamiliar environment with which I’ve no experience –swamp, jungle, desert – I instinctively adapt. I’ll survive this sandy waste on a diet of lizards and scorpions. I’ll catch an adder and quench my thirst with its blood as if it were a cooling draft of spring water, drained gulp after gulp from a silver chalice, beaded with condensation.
Look, it is not easy to avoid thinking of thirst when so fundamentally parched. I have a will of iron and powerful self-control, both mental and physical. Still, given enough time and duress, the strongest self-control will slowly give way and eventually collapse like a dam springing one leak, then another…
Stop. Enough. It is time to rest or a few brief hours before continuing in the pre-dawn starlight, when the desert is as cool as a deep mountain tarn…
Until tomorrow, dear diary.