Book Review: The Sword of Destiny

The Sword of Destiny is the second collection of stories of the witcher Geralt of Rivia by Andrzej Sapkowski that predate the novels. The events of the stories are only losely connected, but there are frequent nods to previous stories that establish some degree of chronological order, that appears to cover a couple of weeks or months, several years after the stories from The Last Wish. This is quite similar to how Fritz Leiber often connected his Lankhmar stories. Unlike the previous book, this one does not have an overarching “meta-story” in which the other stories are inserted as kind of flashbacks. I thought it was a pretty clever device (and I believe added long after the individual stories were originally written), would have been fun to see something similar done with this one as well.

I am having a bit of a hard time reviewing this book in my usual format, because frankly my main impressions pretty much comes down to “The Last Wish was much better”. Giving away my final opinion of the book right here at the start, I don’t think it’s a bad book. But not as great as The Last Wish, that comes before it in the series, or Blood of Elves, which comes after it and I have been putting on a break after being about two thirds through it to read this one first. And having read the entire thing as a whole, I think it’s really worth reading for fans of the first book who want to continue with the series. But more on that later.

The Last Wish

The Last Wish

The Sword of Destiny consists of six stories, which in a similar fashion to the first book all have titles that sound corny and pretentious at first, but have a real meaning that only becomes apparent after you completed them. You can’t get any more cliched with a fantasy book title than “The Sword of Destiny”, but though the term comes up several times there isn’t any actual magic blade to be found anywhere. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. Overall, the book is a lot more introperspective than the other two books I’ve read so far, which I think is a major reason why it felt so odd, especially at first. For stories about a monster hunter in a brutal world, the Witcher always has remarkably few and often quite subdued action scenes, but here even more so than usual. Very little is done and the center of the book is really Geralts inner life. Which particularly in the first two stories is not very well done. Geralt is gloomy, talks almost nothing, and I can’t help to think of the word “moody” or maybe even “moping”. He’s always there, but all the talking and acting is done by other characters while the main hero stays in the background with a bleak mood. In the third story he seems to have gotten over it and from then on I enjoyed the book a lot more. But even then I never felt like “Fuck, yeah! Geralt is badass!” However, Dandelion appears in half the stories and he’s always having a blast.

Usually I am never a fan of funny bard characters in serious fantasy stories, but Dandelion just always works for me. And he’s actually a particularly irresponsible and outright irritating example of a bard but Sapkowski just makes it work. I think the main thing that helps making him both believable and likeable is that despite his careless general attitude and shameless womanizing, he does have a real awareness of what is going on around him, what people think of him, and when he’s getting into real danger. He does not care what most people think of him, of what he does, and of the people he’s with, and he’s not concerned about women yelling at him in public or husbands hating him. But he knows when things are getting out of hand and doesn’t fool around when it’s about life or death. And even though he’s regularly traveling with one of the meanest and most badass swordsmen in the region, he is not a fighter himself and always very concerned for his own safety and that of others. And that’s what makes him different from the standard funny fantasy bard. He’s not a liability to have around who almost certainly is going to get you killed sonner rather than later and then not grasping that he did anything bad. I love Dandelion. He’s fun.

Yennefer, the sorceress Geralt met in the story The Last Wish, also makes several appearances and the strange relationship between her and Geralt is an overarching theme of the book that connects many of the stories. To say “it’s complicated” is putting it mildly. Both Geralt and Yennefer are far from normal people and both odd in very different ways. Their love does not only seem unlikely, it’s also not the result of ordinary attraction and they both are well aware of it, which probably is the main reason why they both feel so uncomfortable being together. But at the same time they truly are in love and both unable to forget about each other. A big love story in a dark and often violent fantasy series about a monster hunter? Somehow Sapkowski makes it work, probably precisely because the relationship is such a strange on. It’s interesting to read and doesn’t feel tacked on at all.

Other names that might be familiar are Vessemir and Triss Merigold and we also meet Yarpen Zigrin and Ciri, as well as the druid Mousesack from the first book. Also, the whole business with the Nilfgardians is introduced, and the encounter with the elven warriors from The Last Wish gets expanded into the Scoia’tael. Both become hugely important in Blood of Elves and the recent videogames Assassins of Kings and The Wild Hunt.

As I mentioned above, the stories in The Sword of Destiny are relatively low in regard to action. Only three of them deal with fighting a monster. One is a relatively lighthearted fooling around with preconceptions, another one has the monster being only of secondary relevance. The third one is about a big dragon hunt. If you’ve read The Last Wish, it will come as absolutely no surprise that the story does not end with the heroic hunters proudly carrying home their trophy. The Witcher is not that kind of fantasy. One story is entirely about Geralt and Yeneffer. And the last two really serve as staging grounds for the novels. I like those two the best. Though I have to say the last one was also the strangest story of chapter I’ve read of the witcher so far. It’s quite good, but at times slightly surreal and for large parts literally delirious.

I am not really very happy with this review, but that matches my overall perception of the book. It’s weird. It feels really quite different from the one before and after it, and I don’t think that’s a result of the translation. It feels odd and at many points made me wonder what the writer’s intentions where when he wrote the stories. They feel a bit out of place between the other books on either side. And somehow I really don’t know how to put a finger on it. It’s not a terrible book. I’ve read much, much worse and for many long sections I really did enjoy reading it. But in the end it really comes all down to my initial impression. “The Last Wish was better.”

So, Yay or Nay? This one is difficult. To anyone who hasn’t read anything about the witcher yet, I think there really is no reason to start with this one. If you’re interested in the series start with The Last Wish. For people who read the first book and thought it was okay, I also can’t really recommend this one. But for people who read the first book and totally loved it and want to read the entire series, I think this one really needs to be read. It’s not a long book and it’s not terrible or a chore to read. But having read most of the novel that comes after it, there are several pieces of continuity that are not exactly important but I still believe very much worth having read in their original form. And getting ahead to my next book review, it gets so much better again after this one and for fans of The Last Wish it will be totally worth it!

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