Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
The following is the fourth in a series of eight reviews of the Witcher books. Because this review assumes reader familiarity with previous entries, there may be spoilers for the preceding texts.
In what I consider the finale of Blood of Elves, Geralt nearly defeats the rogue sorcerer Rience, but during the fight, Philippa Eilhart learns from a nearby assassin that Geralt had mortally-wounded Rience’s master, who is the current architect behind the search for and abduction of Ciri. Upon learning this information, Philippa incapacitates Geralt, foiling his efforts. It is this interaction, rather than those between Ciri and Yennefer at the novel’s conclusion, that provides the backdrop for the main event in the novel for this review, The Time of Contempt.
Readers sensitive to mature content should approach the literary Witcher series with caution equitable to the video games. This is literature for adults. As each book in the series is over 400 pages, an exhaustive content guide detailing what Christians might find offensive would be a novel to itself. In this space, I will adhere to The Blood of Elves. To supplement potential gaps, I recommend reading the content guides of our reviews of The Last Wish, The Sword of Destiny, Blood of Elves, The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3 for additional insight concerning the mature nature of this franchise.
Nothing really happens in this regard besides two whole schools of mages eviscerating each other with spells. By this novel, we are long past explanations concerning the Conjunction of the Spheres.
What happened later haunted her dreams for a long time after. She remembered everything, every movement. The half turn which saved her from the spear blade placed in an ideal position. The spearman was leaning well forward, unable either to jump away or to protect himself with the spear shaft he was holding in both hands. Ciri thrust flat, spinning the opposite way in half turn. For a moment, she saw a mouth open to scream in a face with the bristle of several days of beard growth. She saw the forehand lengthened by a bald patch, fair-skinned above the line where a cap or hat had protected it from the sun. And then everything she saw was blotted out by a fountain of blood (315).
There are about four fight scenes in this novel, and each is where the bulk of the violence takes place. Compared to the previous books, there is nothing here that is out of the ordinary.
“When, after three days, Aplegatt reached the gates of Tretogor, it was well after midnight. He was furious because he’d wasted time at the moat and shouted himself hoarse—the guards were sleeping sinfully and had been reluctant to open the gate. He got it all off his chest and cursed them painstakingly and comprehensively back to the third generation. He then overheard with pleasure as the commander of the watch—now awake—added totally new details to the charges he had levelled [sic] against the soldiers’ mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers” (43).
The Time of Contempt is actually one of the tamer novels, given that all but 1/4 of the novel is dedicated to the learned and scholarly. The typically crude language has been exchanged for clever euphemisms. When the time comes, one will eventually see the standard four-lettered stuff when brigands reappear.
“‘To hell with heraldry, Fenn. The king, who is the king?'” (29).
“‘So Calanthe,’ Codringher took up, ‘tried very hard to fall pregnant and produce a son. Nothing came of it. She bore a daughter, Pavetta, and miscarried twice after which it became clear she would have no more children. All her plans had fallen through. There you have a woman’s fate. A ravaged womb scuppers her lofty ambitions.’
‘You are execrably crude, Codringher.’
‘I know. The truth was also crude’ (26).
For what this novel lacks in spectacular violence or brutal language, it instead concentrates on sex and sensuality. Unbeknown to readers, it will be some time before relevant characters make love after the main event, and so Geralt and Yennefer do not waste this opportunity. Later, this book depicts a scene where a teenage girl is about to be raped, but another female rescues her, only to seduce the victim herself. Though she is more receptive to the male than the female, the victim never gives her consent (the first time), and so, their coupling can still be interpreted as rape.
“‘Don’t talk so loud, Marti,’ hisssed Sabrina. ‘Don’t look at him and don’t grin. Yennefer’s watching us too. And stay classy. Do you really want to seduce him? That would be in bad taste.’
‘Hmm, you’re right,’ agreed Marti after a moment’s thought. ‘But what if he suddenly came over and suggested it himself?’
‘In that case,’ said Sabrina Glevissig, glancing at the Witcher with a predatory, coal-black eye, ‘I’d give it to him without a second thought, even lying on a rock.’
‘I’d even do it lying on a hedgehog,’ sniggered Marti.
The Witcher, staring at the tablecloth, hid his foolish expression behind a prawn and a lettuce leaf, extremely pleased to have the mutation of his blood vessels which prevented from blushing”(124).
In his trademark fashion, Andrzej Sapkowski opens The Time of Contempt while focusing on Aplegatt, a king’s messenger and minor character, instead of the dramatis personae of interest. He does, by happenstance, meet Yennefer and Ciri during their journeys, but none involved in this encounter understand its implications. Only a certain spy named Dykstra is able to determine their trajectories and import. Meanwhile, a certain Witcher leaves a dead manticore in his wake on his way to Codringher and Fenn, a law firm infamous for skirting the law. For no small fee, Geralt acquires from them valuable information regarding the motions those in pursuit of Ciri and himself have set forth. Though he is warned that he should bide his time hiding at Kaer Morhen while they place a decoy Ciri to thwart her stalkers, Geralt mounts up and takes to the road to intercept a party hired to capture or kill the white-haired witcher and his flaxen-haired companion. Little do they know, the white-hair goes alone, and responds to being hunted as a White Wolf would.
“Margarita Laux-Antille shook her head in disbelief as Yennefer cursed. The innkeeper flushed and opened his mouth. He’d heard many curses in his life, but never that one” (91).
As for the whereabouts of the flaxen-haired Ciri, she accompanies Yennefer on a pilgrimage serving a dual-purpose. Near the conclusion of Blood of Elves, Yennefer receives a summons requesting her presence at Aretuza, the women’s academy for mages; capitalizing upon this invitation, Yennefer decides to enroll Ciri not only so that she may continue her studies as a sorceress, but also because the location of the school, Thanedd Island, is exclusive to mages, and therefore, safe. However, upon hearing what Yennefer and her compatriots, Margarita Laux-Antille and Tissaia de Vries, have planned for her, she steals away on horseback. She fails to make much progress; not understanding the implications of being the Child of Destiny, the spectral Wild Hunt seizes the moment of terrorizing her while she is separated from her guardian. In a demonstration of her inexplicable ability to find what she desires most (recall that in “The Sword of Destiny,” much younger Ciri exclaims that she never gets lost), she finds Geralt in a nearby hovel. Yennefer, detecting the disturbance in the ether, intuits its source and teleports there, casting a spell to banish the Wild Hunt upon her arrival. Now Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri are united for the first time in four books!
“A blinding flash materialised [sic] into a transparent sphere, and inside it loomed a shape, assuming contours and shapes at frightening speed. Dandelion recognised [sic] it at once. He knew those wild, black curls and the obsidian star on a velvet ribbon. What he didn’t know and had never seen before was the face. It was a face of rage and fury, the face of the goddess of vengeance, destruction, and death” (100).
Geralt and Yennever reconcile, and together attend the banquet at Thanedd, hob-nobbing with the likes of Triss Merigold, Sabrina Glevissig, and Philippa Eilhart among others who are a part of the Brotherhood of Mages, though they are surprised to see Dijkstra in attendance. After this soirée, Geralt and Yennefer make up physically, after which the former wakes up in the night to relieve his bladder. He stumbles upon a confrontation he is not supposed to see, and Dijkstra says describes this as “being in the s**t.” What ensues here is arguably the most earth-shattering event in all of Witcher lore: the Thanedd Coup. By the time the dust settles, Geralt has been critically wounded, Yennefer is nowhere to be found, Ciri finds herself lost in a desert, and the series’ main antagonists have revealed themselves.
“‘I haven’t seen Geralt for ages, and we have a lot of catching up to do. There’s already a long list. We’re going through it point by point.’
‘I see,’ said Triss hesitantly. ‘Hmmm…After [sic] such a long time I understand. You must have lots to talk about…’
‘Talking,’ smiled Yennefer suggestively, giving the Witcher [sic] another smoldering glance, ‘is way down the list. Right at the very bottom, Triss.’
The chestnut-haired enchantress was clearly discomforted and blushed faintly.
‘I see,’ she said, playing in embarrassment with her lapis-lazuli heart” (118).
Upon my first reading of The Witcher novels, The Time of Contempt ranked as my least favorite. However, upon revisiting it, I no longer hold it in…contempt. However, my initial criticisms remain, because the novel is a chore for the everyday book-reader to navigate. It is a novel of intrigue more than action, which means more names and schemes than (heroic) violence. The catalog of characters launch from the pages in rapid-fire, dizzying me with a cast that I would only remember because of marginalia or a second read; the lists of locations depict a world too large for my brain to map without a cartographic aid. Geralt disappears for 1/3 of the text, and Ciri’s desert trek lasts entirely too long. Indeed, in my review of The Sword of Destiny, I hint at my fear of how the series begins to shift its focus away from Geralt and towards Ciri; the transition takes effect here. This book cements Ciri as the saga’s focal point within the grand scheme of the battle between the Northern Kingdoms and Nilfgaard.
The Time of Contempt is a good book, but naturally juxtaposed alongside the other Witcher novels, it is middling. First-time readers will struggle with all the names, locations, and pacing, while fans of the video games might prefer reading about an adult Cirilla rather than a teenage one. Even better would be more Geralt, but all parties will have to wait for the next book to experience what I consider his last hurrah. In the grand scheme of the saga, crucially important events transpire here, but important does not necessarily translate to interesting or entertaining. The Time of Contempt is necessary to complete the Witcher series. Approach it with this in mind.
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+ Hilarious dialogue + The most spell-flinging in any novel + Ciri's witcher training gets put to use
- Geralt's absence - The Rats are underwhelming - Ciri desert scene overstays its welcome - It will be a long time before readers learn why the coup takes place
The Bottom Line
A critical piece in the overall puzzle that is the Witcher saga, The Time of Contempt is a necessary, albeit challenging read.