Book Review: Sword of Destiny (Witcher 2)

I have a confession to make: I love this series. If you’ve been paying attention, I don’t typically get around to the next book in a series on this blog, for better or worse. For myself, and for my audience, I’ve focused on variety. (I’ll get back to you one day, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne). Don’t worry, I’ll leave the discussion of the general series merits in the first installment. This week, for the sake of moving onwards and upwards, I want to focus on the deep and nuanced way The Witcher deals with conflict and morality.

I have thoroughly enjoyed many of the benchmark fantasy worlds where there is a bright neon line between good and evil – you know the ones. The Lord of the Rings. The Wheel of Time. The Shannara Chronicles. The courage and perseverance it takes to triumph over evil is a message fantasy as a genre is well-equipped to deliver. In my opinion, it needs to stop apologizing for this. Why, you may ask, is it apologizing? Partially because there has been an understandable reaction over the past twenty years or so towards moral ambiguity in fantasy. See Thrones: Game of. In that sense, the early-90’s Sapkowski books were ahead of their time. However, where A Song of Ice and Fire shows bad people doing bad things in the name of realism, The Witcher portrays conflicted characters doing their best in the face of challenging situations.

Cover art by artist XiLing

The Basics:

Title: The Sword of Destiny (Witcher Book 2)
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Genre: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Action
Published: 1993, superNOWA (Polish) / 2015, Orbit Books (English)

Spoiler-Free Summary:

This title, like The Last Wish, is a collection of short stories, many of which are re-imagined European fairy-tales, with a dark twist. There is a romantic thread that weaves through these stories, as the sorceress Yennefer flies in and out of Geralt’s life. They must each wrestle with the question of what it means to feel meant for one another when everything about their lives and circumstances seems designed to keep them apart. Fulfilling the promise of its name, the theme of wrestling with fate or destiny also recurs throughout.

All that philosophy and angst, however, is never more than a few pages away from the next adrenaline-fueled monster ambush, daring escape, or wizard duel. Come for the blood, stay for the feelings.

Why You’ll Love This Book:

As promised, we’ll leave general merits to the previous Witcher write-up. I want to focus on the mechanics of how Sapkowski accomplishes his characteristic moral tension. It’s more than gravely-voiced anti-heroes doing bad stuff for good reasons. He makes the reader genuinely ride the emotional see-saw with his characters. Let’s look at how.

(Savvy readers will note that this post walks the line between a reflection and a book review. We’ll keep the spoilers out, I promise.)

Each position receives equal time. Every short story features characters with diametrically opposed goals, backgrounds, and philosophies, but they each receive their moment with the microphone. They explain their outlook from their perspective in their own words. Often, two characters will describe the same event in shockingly different terms. That “in their own words” element is key. Often in life it is tempting to only listen to voices we agree with and to let those same likeminded voices explain the “other” to us. There lies the the path of confirmation bias. The eclectic masses who cross Geralt’s path have their say, and that’s a good thing.

Fan art by Lana Luu

Geralt isn’t always right. It would be one thing if the side characters had their say, then the witcher stepped in to set everybody straight, but that is not the case. The protagonist is far from a thinly veiled voice of the author. He has the best of intentions, clearly, and acts from his own experience with the information available, but at the end of the day, sometimes he’s wrong. Or at the very least, not unambiguously right. Speaking of ambiguity…

Sapkowski’s endings are often ambiguous. They are not open-ended in the sense that the reader can’t be certain of what just happened. Rather, the ultimate, long-term results of the protagonist’s decisions are always unknown to the reader. This mirror’s Geralt’s experience as a wandering knight-errant, rarely sleeping in the same place for a week straight. After hearing from both sides and experiencing Geralt’s conflict, we, like the hero, don’t get to know how it all turned out. This is both frustrating in that it denies the reader’s curiosity, and satisfying, in that it mirrors real life. Often, we roll the dice and hope for the best.

Where Can You Learn More?

I found this article about Sapkowski’s career and the series’ influence fascinating. Orbit hosts this handy reading guide so you don’t get lost in the loose continuity. You can find the series on Amazon or wherever books are sold. 

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