The Witcher Saga: Introduction

The Witcher video game trilogy is one of my favorite storytelling experiences of all time. I’ve sunk hundreds, upon hundreds of hours into that world and Geralt of Rivia is more dear to me than most living men.

That’s why it’s so embarrassing to admit that although I’ve played all three games numerous times, and own more than one (or twenty) collectible item, I’ve not given the book series it’s based on the attention it deserves. With the disappointment that was my failed attempt at loving The Wheel of Time Series, I’ve decided it’s time I dive into this saga.

This post and the subsequent reviews will be about The Witcher books, not the video games. Although the games are inspired and heavily influenced by the books, there are major and significant differences; the games are not a word for word retelling of the novels, not even close.

THE BOOKS

The Witcher Saga is a fantasy series made up of several short stories and novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski mainly during the 1990’s, and translated to English from 2008 and onwards with the latest book released this year. The series has won several awards both in Poland and internationally and is consistently given high ratings.  

According to the author, the story reached its conclusion with the end of “The Saga” (see below), but he has since then revisited the world in one stand-alone novel and is said to be working on a new one.

Despite that, Spakowski has been adamant that any new books released will be set during the already established timeline, or they’ll follow different characters; he’ll not continue the story beyond the events of the last novel in the series. 

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THE WITCHER WORLD

The story takes place on the Continent; a world heavily influenced by Eastern European and Scandinavian culture, geography, mythology, and folklore. It was initially inhabited by dwarfs, then came the elves, finally, it was colonized by humans who after a devastating war with the non-humans are now the dominant race and an oppressive, racist one at that.

The Continent is technologically and politically (European) medieval, but like most fantasy worlds there are things, knowledge, ideas, and ideologies that are out of place were it to be a historically correct interpretation of a medieval world.

There are several competing fractions, Kingdoms, and Empires all fighting for power as well as religious sects, sorcerers and sorceresses who are major political players.

Fifteen-hundred years ago a cataclysm called the Conjunction of the Spheres occurred in which several parallel universes collided. This lead to creatures, sentient beings, and monsters being forced from their native world and trapped in this one.

This is a deep and complex world; it’s rich in history, cultures, mythology, and folklore and the beings that come with it: basilisk, vampires, trolls, dryads, werewolves and all manner of creatures. However, in this world, they are part of a lore that is entirely it’s own.

A Witcher is a monster slayer for hire; taken as children, these boys, often orphans or unwanted children (they’re always male), are put though rigorous training, alchemical treatments, and genetic mutation to become skilled and powerful killers. Their mutations give them superhuman abilities, including increased strength, speed and reflexes, regenerative powers, a prolonged lifespan, resistance to disease, and some magic skills.

However, like most things in this world, power comes with consequences; the training and treatments are arduous and dangerous, this leads to only a handful surviving to adulthood.

Their most striking and recognizable feature is that they have “cat eyes” giving them the ability to see in the dark. The Witchers, due to the abundance of monsters, are necessary and highly sought after, but regarded with mistrust and prejudice.

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READING ORDER

I strongly advise you to approach this series in its chronological order which is as follows:

Short Story Collections

  • The Last Wish
  • Sword of Destiny

In these collections, you get an understanding of the world and get to know a few of the recurring and/or central characters. Some events in these short stories will later weave into the following full-length novels, and you’ll understand the events better if you’ve read these.

The Witcher Saga

  • Blood of Elves
  • Time of Contempt
  • Baptism of Fire
  • The Tower of Swallows
  • Lady of the Lake

These five books are full-length novels that together form what is usually referred to as The Witcher Saga; they follow one cohesive story and need to be read in order.

Stand-alone novels 

  • Season of Storms

This book is set during the timeline of the first two short story collections, but as it was written after the completion of The Witcher Saga, it hints at, references and somewhat spoils the end of The Lady of the Lake, so read this one last.

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THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE READING

The Continent, although a fantasy world, is grounded in European medieval history; it’s countries, cultures, and geography are heavily influenced by the same. Even though the world is filled with magic, monsters, and fantastical creatures, the real conflict stems from human (and non-human) nature and all its flaws.

Geral of Rivia, the “hero” is a world-weary, tired old cynic; he’s sarcastic, grumpy, rough around the edges and although he has someone he genuinely loves their romance is complicated and Geralt often… interacts with other women. Likewise, the other character are all deeply flawed, they make mistakes, betray friends out of self-interest, make some very questionable moral choices, and at times they’re pretty awful; which is the very reason they’re so likable, they’re people, not heroes.

This is not a simple world where things are black or white, good or bad, right or wrong; it’s gray, gritty, and filthy. War is bloody and soldiers rape, murder, and pillage; people get tortured, persecuted and oppressed, and kings will order the execution of an entire village to make a point. Society is feudal, profoundly unjust, racist and misogynistic. Only the elite can read, only the rich have a voice, and only women with influence have a choice.

There are many well-written female characters in these books, especially in the full-length novels. However, they’re not flawless people with unbelievable abilities and no unflattering traits. They can be just as greedy, amoral, and repulsive as the men, and like for men, their actions have consequences. In a game of power, some will win and some will lose; losing in this world is very unpleasant.

The characters are not diverse in color, but throughout the books, questions about racism, gender equality, and social injustice are not only prevalent but major themes. Sapkowski writes about all forms of discrimination and inequality with a sharp tongue and raw social realism that is grounded in real-life injustice. For example, if you understand the legal, religious and social struggle surrounding abortion that’s been ongoing in Poland the last 30 years, you’ll be able to see Sapkowski personal stance on that debate in the story.

In conclusion, if you like your fantasy more fantastical, diverse and shiny, where everyone always survives, no matter how outnumbered, and less heavy on social realism this is not a book series for you.

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Style

The Witcher books are highly character-driven stories, the plot is important but it’s slow-moving and not the main focus. The short story collections are told from Geralts point of view, but the novels follow multiple POV’s. There are a few major players, but it’s not uncommon for minor characters, previously only mentioned in previous books, to suddenly get a few chapters worth of POV.  They can also change unexpectedly with time-jumps happening between them, especially during “The Saga.” I don’t find it distracting and can easily follow the shifts in POV or time, but others might find it frustrating.

It’s also not uncommon for the story to suddenly shift to short interludes, where, for example, a university professor is giving a history lecture or to a speech given by a general preparing for a battle. This is usually used to highlight certain significant events that impact the story but that the major characters are not part of.

This type of expository writing will not appeal to all readers, but if you enjoy getting immersed in a world it’s very effective.

The stories are filled with history, philosophy, social commentary and social realism that are most often portrayed though lengthy conversations between characters. The writing is wordy, and there is a particular style to Spakowsky use of language that won’t suit everyone; he’s not the type of writer who scales back or trims his dialogue to make it concise and to-the-point.

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Editions

Unfortunately,  for readers outside of Eastern Europe where this series has had a cult following since the 90s’, there’s not much to choose from; you’re limited to paperback and a handful of versions. I prefer the Gollancz editions (they can also be listed under Orion Publishing Group), simply because they don’t use imagery from the video games on the covers. Since the books and games are so different, I like them to be visually separate, but that’s me.

Unfortunately, the latest book, Season of Storms have so far been released in a format that doesn’t adhere to the formatting of the previous books, but it’s a relatively new release so it might still happen. The books are priced at roughly 8$ (US), but you can get a box set of the first seven books for around 30$.

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AUDIOBOOKS

The Audiobooks are, as usual, a lot more pricey and I suggest you use a subscription service (*cough*they’reonyoutube*cough*), I got mine though my Audible membership.

However, the narrator, Peter Kenney is excellent! He effortlessly switches between several accents, voices and the made-up languages in the book; he’s tremendously talented. I say this as someone who’s a little bit in love with the voice of Doug Cockle who voiced Geralt in the video games, I never thought I’d take to someone else’s version of Geralt, but I enjoyed this one immensely.

I recommend everyone to listen to the Audiobooks because the narrator does such a fantastic job bringing the characters to life.

One quick note for people who’s played the video games: they pronounce Dandelions name differently than in the games, initially it really bothered me, but after half a book I didn’t notice it anymore. 

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ONE LAST THING

It’s taken me a long time to write this, and once this introduction is posted, I’ll be either finished with the series or close to finished. I was planning to take my time with these, but the damn books always end on a cliffhanger, and they’re so good that I’ve just plowed though the last four during the past month. I will review each book separately and try to space them out with a few other books in-between.

Like many others before me, I found this series and this world utterly compelling. It’s very complex, and not for everyone. But, if you like your fantasy worlds adult, realistic, sarcastic, and rough around the edges, this is perfect.

REVIEWS

The Last Wish ~ Sword of Destiny ~ Blood of Elves ~ Time of Contempt ~ Baptism of Fire
The Tower of Swallows ~ Lady of the Lake ~ Season of Storms

 

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