The following is the fifth 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.
The Time of Contempt concludes with Geralt literally broken, and licking his wounds while hiding among the dryads of Brokilon Forrest. Yennefer has gone missing, a fugitive whose role in the famous Thanedd coup remains a mystery. Ciri, escaping pursuit from someone who is revealed to be the series’ main antagonist — a wizard by the name of Vilgefortz of Roggeveen — escapes through an ancient and unstable portal that dumps her in a desert located in parts unknown. She survives by joining the ranks of rogues known as the Rats, taking on the alias “Falka” to protect her identity since being the last living heir to the Cintran throne has caused her so much turmoil. Baptism of Fire picks up with Geralt’s disquiet spurred by his dreams of Ciri’s exploits.
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 Baptism of Fire. To supplement potential gaps, I recommend reading the content guides of our reviews of The Last Wish, The Sword of Destiny, Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt, The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3 for additional insight concerning the mature nature of this franchise.
Two short story collections and two novels deep into the series, I do not believe that there is much in Baptism of Fire that could be considered potentially more offensive than the content found within prior-reviewed mediums within the medium. Therefore, I will keep this section brief, while highlighting a few details specific to this novel that might warrant attention.
“Even if the marauders were thinking about putting up a fight, the sight of falling corpses and blood gushing in streams effectively discouraged them. One of them, who had his trousers around his knees since he hadn’t even had time to pull them up, was slashed in the carotid artery and stumbled onto his back, comically swinging his still unsatisfied manhood” (98).
One scene depicts our heroes’ encounter with a small hamlet showing signs of being ravished by the plague. They remain hidden in reconnaissance. A band of brigands arrives shortly thereafter, ignoring the pestilence, so that they may rape the lone survivor. Of all the Witcher texts, this one is the most vivid in its narration of war’s atrocities, sparing no man or woman from violent scenes of all kinds. Not since “The Lesser Evil” and “The Bounds of Reason” do I recall depictions sexual violence.
“There was a spread-eagled girl, lying near a burnt-out farmyard, naked, bloody, staring at the sky with glazed eyes.
‘They say war’s a male thing,’ Milva growled. ‘But they have no mercy on women; they have to have their fun. ****ing heroes; ****n them all.’
‘You’re right. But you won’t change it.’
“I already have. I ran away from home. I didn’t want to sweep the cottage and scrub the floors. I wasn’t going to wait until they arrived and put the cottage to the torch, spread me out on the very same floor and…’ She broke off, and spurred her horse forward” (69).
Later, a woman withstanding the burdens of her sex suffers from morning sickness. In a touching scene, she reveals how she came into this condition. A certain barber-surgeon creates a concoction so that she might terminate the pregnancy, but a man ironically known as The Butcher of Blaviken convinces her otherwise by showing her compassion in her choice rather than disdain. This scene contrasts strongly with an early spectacular scene where a priest declares that a prisoner should only be exonerated should someone accomplish an impossible task. In this way, his intent is to guarantee guilt—judgment from an otherwise unfair trial.
There are positives to be found throughout the Witcher series, but Baptism of Fire conveys them with utmost clairvoyance. For example, the text demonstrates the possibility for individuals who are literally different races (dwarf, gnome, human, etc.), yet they come together while contributing to just causes. As if Sapkowski had not already underscored the value of women in this universe, their prominence is further emphasized here.
Of course in Christendom we understand a very specific meaning behind baptism. We undergo a symbolic death of the physical body so that we may live in the spirit. Likewise, there are many instances in this novel where something dies both symbolically and literally so that something else they live—fear, animus and racial prejudices die so that compassion, friendship, and acceptance may thrive.
Baptism of Fire stands out in the Witcher series for being the most traditional in its structure as an adventure novel. For this reason, it is my favorite book in the entire saga. Though we already have Witcher games for WRPGs, Baptism of Fire‘s plot structure is a template for if Geralt had to assemble a party.
As is his custom, Sapkowski opens this book with a framing character: Dandelion in Blood of Elves, Aplegatt in Time of Contempt. Here, it is Milva (Maria Baring), a human who has integrated herself with the Dryads of Brokeloin forest. Those familiar with “The Sword of Destiny” know how this should have been neigh impossible, but because of her status as a female and her skills as a sharpshooter and tracker, she lives in harmony with Queen Eithné’s warriors. It is she who spies for Geralt on the outside, bringing him news of what has transpired in the world while he has spent two fortnights in Brokilon. Specifically, he is interested in the whereabouts of Ciri, who is rumored to be the potential bride of Emhyr var Emreis. With this information, Geralt’s quest is decided: rescue Ciri from the Nilfgaardian emperor.
“‘The war seems to be coming to an end,’ she answered, shrugging. ‘Nilfgaard, they say, has crushed Lyria and Aedirn. Verden has surrendered and the King of Temeria has struck a deal with the Nilfgaardian emperor. The elves in the Valley of Flowers have established their own kingdom but the Scoia’tael from Temeria and Redania have not joined them. They are still fighting…” (11).
Of course, the reader knows that this is a quixotic quest, because Ciri is with the Rats, not with Nilfgaard. Attentive readers will realize that Geralt always already knew this because he is bound to Ciri by destiny, and witnesses her exploits through his dreams. Therefore, this book serves to solidify Geralt’s ethos as a witcher: it does not matter where he goes or what he is doing, as long as it is somewhere and something.
Good Guy Dandelion risks his life looking for Geralt in Brokilon, wooing the dryads while singing in Elder Speech. Though the pair think they are traveling alone, Milva stalks them, revealing herself only when absolutely necessary to preserve their lives. Now a trio, they encounter a fourth, the Nilfgaardian who has been haunting Ciri’s dreams all of her life, who bore the helmet adorned with the wings of a bird of prey, who captured/rescued her as Cintra fell, who tried again during the Thanedd coup but was beaten in Ciri’s first fight against a man. His name is Cahir (Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach).
Geralt, a man of honor, spares him again, and despite his stern warnings, Cahir follows him nevertheless. Eventually, the trio-plus-one crosses paths with Zoltan Chivay and his band. Witcher game fans rejoice, for this is the novel where all our favorite characters are featured! After a few additional misadventures, the party meets an odd graveyard-dwelling man who goes by the name of Emiel Regis. He too joins the troupe.
In contrast to the comradery and fellowship forged within Geralt’s party, elsewhere, cunning and deceit fester. The Nilfgarrdian emperor is not fooled by the false Ciri and says he would recognize her from anywhere (readers will have to wait to find out why, while gamers should already know). Because Vilgefortz and his lackey Rience failed to secure Ciri during the coup, they send a charlatan. The Emperor, then, enlists the expertise of a man named Stefan Skellen, A.K.A. Tawny Owl, to track down not only the traitors, but also Ciri. While recruiting his own thugs, he also enlists the talents of the bounty hunter Bonnart, who becomes this series’ second antagonist.
Saving the best for last, Baptism of Fire is where the formation of the Lodge of Sorceresses takes place. Philippa Eilhart decides that the ambitions of men combined with their testosterone is too volatile, too destructive. She enlists the most powerful of the remaining sorceresses to form a secret Lodge, using their influences among not only the royalty of the Northern Kingdoms, but also the politics of Nilfgaard and the now independent nation in Dol Blathanna, The Valley of Flowers, for the purposes of preserving magic. This is a direct response to the Thanedd coup, which was conceived to destroy the Brotherhood of Sorcerers, an enclave that was key to Nilfgaard’s defeat at the Battle of Sodden. Of course, gamers know that their role in Witcher 2 is crucial.
It is through this cadre of characters that Sapkowski showcases his abilities to juggle a dozen characters while each maintains his or her autonomy. This happens in real-time, rather than the author depending on the reader’s prior knowledge of said characters, or becoming repetitive. For example, Milva notes that Dandelion is mouthy. Cahir’s staid countenance replaces Geralt’s who is now impassioned by the presence of a “Nilfgaardian” and the loss of Ciri. Regis’ sagaciousness puzzles the unschooled Milva. Even among the sorceresses, Triss Merigold’s status as a novice manifests itself in the presence of Phillipa Eilhart, and everyone defers to the studious Sheala de Tancarville. The reader must know that Francesca Findabair is a powerful sorceress to have subdued…well, read and see!
The most important element of Baptism of Fire though, is that this is where Geralt officially earns his surname, Geralt of Rivia. The conditions as to how this takes place, I will address in a future review of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales next month. With all of the lore that this book contains, from the introduction of Zoltan to the movement of the armies during the ongoing war to the roll-call that is the Lodge of Sorceresses, there is enough in this book for even non-Witcher fans to like.
+ Regis' pontifications +The Lodge of Sorceresses + That's *Sir* Geralt of Rivia to you! + Milva may bristle, but is a big softy + Zoltan is even cooler than Yarpin Zigrin + Dandelion might be annoying at times, but he is a total bro
- Cahir is a dull extra wheel
The Bottom Line
Baptism of Fire is the best fantasy novel I have ever read.