Top critical review
Another Witcher novel to tide you over
Reviewed in the United States on May 9, 2019
From the little research I’ve done, it seems as though Baptism of Fire is fourth in the Witcher series of books, but I don’t know if that’s right or not because there are two canonical books of short stories that precede the novels. Baptism of Fire is the third series installment, set after Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt, and it makes more sense to call it that because it deals with the events surrounding Ciri, the Child of Destiny and focus of most of the events of Sapkowski’s universe. The true protagonist of these books is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher himself, and while the viewpoint is usually through his eyes, he is merely a player in events far larger. Ciri is the eye of those whirlwind plot points.
Baptism of Fire opens with Geralt wounded from a fight that occurred at the end of The Time of Contempt. He took on a wizard and lost horribly, which is the first time I’ve seen that happen to Geralt. In the video games, death is common, and there is always one monster or another who gets the upper-hand. In the books, Geralt is combat-flawless, at least up to his meeting with Vilgefortz. We can presume that in his younger days he took a licking or two, information we can read from the scars covering him. Vilgefortz almost kills him, and we find him in Baptism of Fire recuperating in Brokilon, the forest of the dryads where very few people are welcome. Geralt again shows his worldliness in his associations with these odd creatures.
The main thread of the novel has Geralt leaving Brokilon and traveling in search of Ciri (fans of the third game will appreciate this), who disappeared from the world’s view at the end of the previous book. Readers know exactly where she is, and indeed a decent amount of Baptism of Fire has her marauding about with the bandit group who dub themselves The Rats. Her motivations for doing this are never clear, but I believe it is hinted that she’s sick of being so damned important and wants to act out. This is an understandable reaction for a teenager; even one destined by prophecies.
I loved Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt. They opened up the Witcher universe in ways that The Last Wish, Sapkowski’s first book of short stories about Geralt, could never have done. They begin a saga, a real Game of Thrones style look at a world full of war, violence, political intrigue, and of course sex. It’s dark fantasy at its near-best. Those two books move well, delivering action and lore at a good pace and never feeling weighed down. Baptism of Fire does feel weighed down, and in fact has been the most difficult Sapkowski book to read due to its plodding nature. It reminds me, in a way, of The Fellowship of the Ring, which many have criticized as being a travel novel in its second half. Baptism of Fire does something similar, and has us follow Geralt and his merry band all over the lands of Angren and its surrounds. There are breaks in which we visit the various sorceresses integral to the story, and of course our Ciri moments, but most of the book feels like it’s just moving from point A to an eventual B.
However, it occurred to me as I was thinking about this style of writing how necessary it is; and ultimately, how rewarding. In The Fellowship of the Ring, things happen during the fellowship’s march to Moria that are important, if not all that interesting to read. Tolkien is able to describe the landscape of Middle Earth in a way that no other method of storytelling would allow. He is able to have his characters interact in a way that only people not in immediate danger could interact. Hobbits are taught swordplay, Boromir is tempted by the Ring, etc. Baptism of Fire is similar, in that it allows for meaningful moments between Geralt and his boon companions, and this might be particularly important as Geralt is about as lone-wolf as protagonists come. This long march through war-torn lands and dense forests humanizes Geralt the Witcher in a way that none of the novels have done yet, aside from the parts where he shows love for Yennefer. We see Geralt get drunk in this novel, see him quarrel endlessly with Dandelion, watch as he reveals and then befriends what anyone else might consider one of the most evil creatures in the lore. These things would not have happened had the novel been an action packed set piece from start to finish. Baptism of Fire manages to mix its action and lore and character interaction better than the other books, and is maybe a more memorable experience because of that. I’d be hard pressed to even tell you what happened in Blood of Elves or The Time of Contempt, outside of the big set piece events. The same might be said for Baptism of Fire, but I know I’ll not forget those smaller moments that made Geralt less of an invincible monster slayer and more of a human.
Regrettably, Baptism of Fire means the temporary end of the Witcher cycle for me, at least in a progressive sense. I have Sword of Destiny, only recently published, to read, and it will be refreshing to see the origins of the Ciri story, but the two books that follow Baptism of Fire in the saga aren’t published in the U.S., and won’t be for some time. I have two expansions of The Witcher 3 to play yet, and that’s exciting, and Sword of Destiny will likely satisfy me, so not all connection is lost. It’s been quite an experience, interacting with all of these Witcher mediums. It’s hard to see anything else being quite so engrossing. Then again, there’s always something else out there. Happy hunting!