The following is the second in a series of eight reviews of the Witcher books. Because this review assumes reader familiarity with previous entries, there may be spoilers.
There are a couple of fun facts concerning author Andrzej Sapkowski’s work that readers should know. The Sword of Destiny is the first book that the Polish author penned, published in his homeland in 1993; regarding the Witcher saga timeline, the events chronicled in this short story collection take place after those found in its “sequel,” The Last Wish, originally published that same year. Further confusing early-adopting fans, the publishers of the English versions of the series, Gollancz and Orbit, would rightfully translate The Last Wish first, but skip The Sword of Destiny and publish the first novel, The Blood of Elves, second. As I move forward in reviewing this series, I may speculate as to what purpose this rearrangement served.
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 300 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 Sword of Destiny. To supplement potential gaps, I recommend reading the content guides of our reviews of The Last Wish, The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3 for additional insight concerning the mature nature of this franchise.
The Sword of Destiny is no less sexual than The Last Wish. In the first short story, a key character propositions Geralt with an orgy. Later in one scene, a woman is bound and sexually assaulted; a mercenary strips her topless and fondles her breasts in front of an audience of about a dozen men. The book intermittently revisits this woman’s libidinousness–in consensual circumstance, of course. Unrelated to her, another story makes note of a mermaid who swims topless, oblivious to the effect this has on men and women alike when she surfaces for sunbathing.
“Gyllenstiern,” said Yarpen Zigrin, a stocky, bearded dwarf, who was rolling a huge resinous tree stump he had dragged from the undergrowth into the fire. “Pompous upstart. Fat hog. When we joined the hunt he came over, nose stuck up towards the heavens, pooh-pooh, ‘remember you dwarves,’ he says, ‘who’s in command, who you have to obey, King Niedamir gives the orders here and his word is law’ and so on. I stood and listened and I thought to myself, I’ll have my lads knock him to the ground and I’ll [urinate] all over his cape. But I dropped the idea, you know, because word would get around again that dwarves are nasty, that they’re aggressive, that they’re [the sons of wayward women] and it’s impossible to live with them in…what the hell was it? …harmonium, or whatever it is. And right away there’d be another pogrom somewhere, in some little town or other. So I just listened politely and nodded” (26).
Despite the above quote, The Sword of Destiny is arguably the least crude of all the books. The first short story does its best to make up for any lost ground by featuring dwarves who are notorious for their lack of decorum. Readers should expect to see a moderate number of four-letter words appropriate for an R-rated movie.
Drugs and Alcohol Use
Beer remains the beverage of choice, and in the first short story, a pitcher or keg is rarely far from arm’s reach. Drugs, when they appear, are usually imbued with magic. Specifically, a Sylvain forces a girl to drink from an enchanted brew. Later, an enchantress gives Geralt a libation that causes his magic-detecting medallion to quiver.
As the title of this short story collection entails, The Sword of Destiny deals heavily with fatalism. In two short stories, “destiny” is a point of emphasis that is most poignant when certain characters encounter each other on more than one occasion, and under improbable circumstances. Some characters repeatedly and tirelessly reference “destiny” to the detriment of the quality of Sapkowski’s writing.
The Church of the Eternal Fire, a cult, takes center stage in another short story. In this book, it is not stated precisely what this church worships beyond the Eternal Flame itself. Chappelle, the chapter’s scrupulous leader, conducts himself with reactionary zeal and his reputation for the severe castigation of heretics precedes him.
Lastly, characters still swear by the gods, in the lowercase. Also, where there are sorcerers and sorceresses, there is magic.
Racism and Bigotry
“Crafty Biberveldt, must be said,” Muskrat continued. “and you didn’t tell anybody anything, not even your friends. If you’d let on, we might both have made a profit, might even have set up a joint factory. But you preferred to act alone, softly-softly. Your choice; but don’t count on me any longer either. On the Eternal Fire, it’s true that every halfling is a selfish ******* and a *****son. Vimme Vivaldi never gives me a blacked bill; and you? On the spot. Because you’re’ one tribe, you d—ned inhumans, you poxy halflings and dwarves . D—n the lot of you!” (161).
An ongoing theme throughout the Witcher series is the conflict between humans and non-humans. Or to put things more accurately, humans take umbrage with the existence of non-humans despite them being the invaders, and continue to take measures to see to their destruction and discrimination. I consider this Sapkowski’s attempt at social commentary.
Three movements. Just three. His silver-studded forearm slammed into the side of the black-haired man’s head. Before he fell, the Witcher was standing between Junghans and the beady-eyed man, and his sword, hissing out of the scabbard, whined in the air, slashing open the temple of Brick, the giant in the brass-studded kaftan.
The beady-eyed man, who was drawing his sword, leaped, but was not fast enough. The Witcher slashed him across his chest, diagonally, downwards, and immediately, taking advantage of the blow’s momentum, upwards, from a kneeling position, cutting the mercenary open in a bloody “X” (306).
If the above does not provide an idea of what to expect, Geralt is a man who typically carries two swords: one for humans, one for monsters. This short story collection is the most conservative, with at least one decapitation and a character who gets devoured.
What I love most about the Witcher series in its entirety, and with this short story collection in particular, is how Andrzej Sapkowski refuses to dedicate a full story singularly focused on Geralt. “The Bounds of Reason” begins this way, describing the behavior and antics of a spectator crowd standing outside of a cave as Geralt slays a basilisk. Some na’er do-wells observe his opportunity to avail the hero of his belongings from his horse. An unarmed, and therefore, non-threatening man who would later introduce himself to Geralt as Three Jackdaws foils the rogues, but has his female Zerrikanian bodyguards handle his light work. Geralt emerges from the shadows and the mysterious man treats him to supper and a good time with his girls, while philosophying on a very important topic concerning the witcher’s code and what kind of creatures he does and does not kill—or at least Geralt’s, because as we discover in “The Voice of Reason,” witchers do not observe a universal code.
The topic of their conversation concerning Geralt’s code for killing becomes relevant when they travel along the road and find out that peasants from a local village have poisoned a creature on his protected species list. The possibility of slaying it in addition to finding its treasure has attracted all sorts of riff-raff, including a noble knight and opportunistic professionals who specialize in poaching such creatures for profit—typically competition for Geralt, but not in this instance. That is, until he discovers that Yennefer is part of the hunting party for reasons most personal. But another sorcerer named the Dorregaray is a naturalist who wants to preserve the dragon’s life.
With Dandelion present, “The Bounds of Reason” features many of the Witcher series’ most important characters. Readers will remember that The Last Wish ends with “The Last Wish,” where the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer is not only agreeable, but consummated. Yennefer prickling at Geralt’s presence in the opening shot story of The Sword of Destiny will come as a surprise, but as I mention in the introduction, the timeline of these stories is not linear. The proper chronology of the Witcher short stories is as follows (from Reddit):
1. The Grain of Truth
2. The Lesser Evil
3. The Edge of the World
4. The Last Wish– first meeting of Geralt and Yennefer; June 1250 Geralt and Yennefer break up.
5. Season of Storms– June-August 1251
6. A Matter of Price– autumn 252 – Pavetta is already pregnant.
7. The Witcher– Year 1253
8. The Voice of Reason– Year 1253
9. The Bounds of Reason– Year 1254
10. A Shard of Ice
11. The Eternal Fire
12. A Little Sacrifice
13. The Sword of Destiny– Spring / Summer 1262
14. Something More– year after the end of the first war with Nilfgaard – early autumn 1264
Of course, “The Bounds of Reason” ends spectacularly; an act of heroism and some duress melts Yennefer’s cold disposition toward Geralt. “A Shard of Ice” follows, opening with my favorite motif of Geralt on a job, this one even more humbling than the usual tasks. Yennefer is living with Geralt, but to his distress, he discovers that she has another lover who she has been seeing, and for a long time. The title of this short story not only refers to the elven name of the city in which it takes place, but also the cold, calculated way in which this love triangle achieves a resolution.
I appreciate Sapkowski and his subversion of gender roles. In “A Shard of Ice,” Yennefer is the playa with the men being left to figure out how to resolve the problem of them being in love with the same woman. Between “The Last Wish,” “The Bounds of Reason,” and “A Shard of Ice,” an attentive reader should come to understand that Yennefer is one who is always scheming, always trying to stay three steps ahead of everyone else on the page, and I love that about her. I believe that she is the strongest female character in fiction, and I am only two books into a review of the Witcher series. In fact, those who like to read about strong women should purchase these books at once.
That said, I believe that the “Eternal Flame” is the weakest of all stories in the Witcher saga. Sepkowski aims for a light-hearted adventure similar to “The Edge of the World” where the Sylvan taunts and plays games. However, that short story also showcases elves for the first time, along with a strong treatise on post-colonial melancholy. A minor goddess sighting emphatically punctuates the experience.
In contrast, even with subsequent readings of the “Eternal Flame,” I do not understand how it fits within the world building of the Witcher saga. We already know that the Order of the White Rose is racist; the order of the Eternal Fire can hardly top that in the area of scumbaggery. We also know from “A Grain of Truth” that Geralt does not harm sentient creatures. I wish the introduction of Dudu the doppelganger were better integrated. The way it is presented here, it is ineffectual in Sapkowski’s criticism of prejudice and xenophobia, which are more effective elsewhere. The twist offers a payoff that exceeds expectations considering the otherwise weak story.
“A Little Sacrifice” begins with Geralt commissioned on a mission of an unusual nature in the port city of Bremervoord. He translates to a mermaid in the Elder Speech the love of a local duke. She flakes upon the noble’s unwillingness to consummate their love with a little sacrifice: she wants the duke to become a merman and live in the sea with him. For his failure to seal the deal, Geralt goes unpaid. Vagrant and destitute, he and Dandelion miraculously encounter a local who hires a poet for his services at a wedding. Dandelion scoffs at having to share a purse with another troubadour. However, his dejection cools upon discovering that the other is an old friend, Essi Daven, or Little Eye.
“[Little Eye] stood before him and Geralt regretted it was her and not the fish-eyed creature with a sword who had been hidden beneath the water. He had stood a chance against that creature. But against her he had none (230).
The duke re-hires Geralt to investigate the disappearance of ships, which ruins the port’s profitability. Dandelion tags along on the quest, hoping to stumble upon a gift for Little Eye’s birthday. It is he who discovers among an alcove in a mountain, a stairwell that seemingly leads to an underground city. The duo lingers too long, and is emphatically bounced by some sea creatures. With Little Eye’s help, they report to the duke that he should leave well-enough alone. On the precipice of issuing punishment for the trio’s insolence, the story reveals that even when something desirable appears beyond the limits of possibility, a little sacrifice might be necessary to see things through.
“The Sword of Destiny” will be readers’ first encounter with the dryads of Brokilon Forest as well as Ciri. Gamers going back to read the books may have a specific version of her in mind; whatever that may be, they should prepare themselves for a snot-nosed brat. In other words, a princess. This story continues to weave the threads of “destiny,” and how Geralt seems to stumble upon certain characters with a frequency that would be foolish to consider mere coincidence.
“Geralt,” Eithné slowly turned her head. “Do not misunderstand me. I know and respect you. I know you have never harmed a dryad, rusalka, sylph, or nymph; quite the opposite, you have been known to act in their defense, to save their lives. But that changes nothing. Too much divides us. We belong to different worlds. I neither want nor am I able to make exceptions. For anybody. I shall not ask if you understand, for I know it is thus. I ask whether you accept it” (287).
Because they are in Brokilon Forest, the queen of the dryads, Eithné, demands that they grant her an audience. As is custom, young girls that the dryads take into custody are expected to become dryads themselves. Neither Geralt nor Ciri desire this. Eithné philosophies deeply with Geralt, and only refers to Ciri as “Child of the Elder Blood” (roll credits!). She says that destiny had already determined Ciri’s fate as she gives her the magical concoction that transforms girls into dryads….
The final short story in this collection, “Something More” reads as its title indicates. I know that Sapkowski is a fan of making characters restate the title of his works, often repeatedly, but here not only do characters recite the title, but the narrative itself offers more than what is to be expected. Once again the story begins with Geralt on the road, traveling omnidirectionally. He encounters a merchant, Yurga, having difficulty moving his cart from a bridge. It is dangerous here, given the warnings of the human skeletons below. Yurga tells Geralt he will “do anything” if he helps, and the latter cites the law of surprise as a reward. Geralt protects the merchant and his goods from the onslaught that the night creatures wrought. They are defeated, but Geralt loses consciousness from injuries suffered, just as he does in “The Witcher.” In gratitude, Yurga does not abandon him like what happens with many other witchers, but bandages Geralt the best he can.
Geralt falls in and out of consciousness, between reality and dream. In this state, he reconnoiters with a certain key character who rejects yet cannot resist him during Belleteyn, a serendipitous celebration of fertility; though sterile, Geralt and his partner go through the motions.
The young woman, looking at Geralt from under the leaves decorating her brow, came closer and pressed herself urgently against him, encircling him with her arms and panting. He grabbed her more roughly than he had intended and felt the hot dampness of her body, perceptible on his hands through the thin linen pressing against her back. She raised her head. Her eyes were closed and her teeth slashed from beneath her raised, twisted upper lip. She smelled of sweat and sweet grass, smoke, and lust (326).
Geralt’s next recollection concerns his return to Cintra to claim the prize he is promised from “A Question of Price” in The Last Wish. By the time Geralt arrives some four years later, Pavetta and Duny are claimed to have died in a tragedy at sea. After no small exchange of rhetorical one-upmanship, Geralt leaves without claiming the boy child who was supposed to become a witcher apprentice, because he discovers that his Child of Surprise is actually an ashen-haired little girl! Queen Calanthe, the girl’s guardian, wishes Geralt farewell, but hints that they may never see each other again.
She was not a peasant woman. Peasant women did not wear black velvet cloaks. Peasant women–carried or dragged into the bushes by men–screamed, giggled, squirmed and tensed their bodies like trout being pulled out of the water. None of them gave the impression that it was they who were leading their tall, fair-haired swains with gaping shirts into the gloom (327).
To his surprise, Geralt awakens from these flashbacks to find one whom he swore he would hate forever, yet he is unable to muster the energy, for this individual is a healer, the precise school of magic he needs during his infirmity. By the time he awakens again, Yurga is back on the roads. They encounter Dandelion at a military blockade, making for one too many coincidences, for the world is not that small. Geralt is still determined to get to Cintra for Ciri, but Dandelion regretfully tells him how Nilfgaard, a southern empire, has already ravished the country, with no survivors. Distraught as is unusual for a witcher, Geralt abandons his intention to visit Ciri. Pressing onward and to the surprise Yurga, with whom he was traveling, Destiny would demonstrate that it has other plans.
Between “The Bounds of Reason,” “The Sword of Destiny,” and “Something More,” one can begin to see how Sapkowski uses multi-phase short stories to transition into the novels. In fact, given what I have established in the introduction to this review, I wonder if he had originally planned on writing one short story before jumping into the novels, and his editor told him that one short story collection is not enough. Two books would be necessary to establish the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, and Geralt and the Child of Surprise, the Child of the Elder Blood, so the author had to go backward to establish all of his characters’ origins in The Last Wish.
For “The Bounds of Reason” and “Something More,” I find the writing to be the sandwiching of action sequences in between exposition an effective balance for pacing. “The Sword of Destiny” tries to account for the long narration by introducing Ciri along with a monster, but Eithné’s rambling about the Child of the Elder Blood and destiny bores me. Sapkowski tries to make amends with an excellent fight scene at the end, but by the time this takes place, I was already prepared to move on to the next short story. “A Shard of Ice” and “The Eternal Flame” are the most contained, conventional short stories, but as I have said earlier, the latter is simply out of place in this arrangement. The former, however, very much develops the love between Geralt and Yennefer. Minor spoilers, but I am disappointed that Istredd never appears again—not even in the video games.
These things considered, The Sword of Destiny remains one of the better Witcher books even if it is a small step back from The Last Wish in terms of consistency. It is apparent that Sapkowski wanted to fill in some gaps before fully developing the characters going forward in the novels, but along the way neglected to stay committed to the short story format.
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+ Yennefer + Every time Geralt fights is a treat + Banter between characters remains strong
- "Eternal Flame" feels out of place - Scope and pacing of short stories feel like chapters in a novel rather than self-contained stories
The Bottom Line
Despite a misstep in the middle, The Sword of Destiny begins and ends strong.