(for Part One, go here)
Piotrek: But before it gets so-so, it is great. I’d like to mention three areas where I believe Witcher shines.
First – elves. And dwarves, I guess. Also, gnomes and halflings, but in less detail. Some of the best versions of classic fantasy races. Not as otherworldly as various insect races of Czajkowski. Way more down to earth than Tolkien’s original versions. Grounded in deep history that we only glimpse at in the books. Very human, that’s true, in many ways, but distinct enough from their homo sapiens conquerors thanks to their old culture and longevity. Persecuted, diminished, morally as complex as everything in Sapkowski’s universe. Often cruel and vengeful, when given a chance. Psychologically much more realistic than elves of Middle-Earth (which does not make me feel less of Tolkien, of course, we are talking about books written in totally different cadence). Dwarves are shorter, even more cynical, expectedly coarse and just as complex.
Second – politics. Realpolitik, necessary sacrifices, ruthless negotiations, hard alliances, betrayals. With wizards. A world where everybody wants to be Machiavelli. And with mages and elves living for centuries, some of the schemes get really complicated. The decorations are deeply rooted in Europe of Middle Ages, with strong – and quite realistic – addition of magic, but the truths about politics are timeless. Everybody can be outplayed, few loyalties last, the most benevolent (if paternalistic) plans lead to disastrous consequences.
(Let me tell you, it was not easy not to kill Filippa when playing the game… when I play again, I probably will.)
Tywin Lannister would do great here. Or Underwood/Urquhart. And the continuation of politics by other means is…?
War. War never changes. There is a heroic struggle of free peoples against a totalitarian (much more than in the games) empire. Or so they claim. In reality… Persecuted nonhumans largely joined the invading forces and everyone schemes, from foot soldiers raping and robbing their way through each and every country they’re passing through, to kings, more interested in getting a few square miles of their neighbor’s territories than fight against common enemy. Actually, mercenaries seem to be the most honest of the lot. Enemy is even more ruthless and bloody, even if some might agree with typical imperialistic justifications of Nilfgaard’s expansion. But the blind brutality of war, that’s the impression left by the books.
Ola: Brutality and cruelty, and a very unflattering portrait of humanity – or, more precisely, all sapient species. Sapkowski is not so much a misogynist as a good old cynic. His world is a Hobbesian one, where the main relation between actors is conflict and rivalry, where trust or loyalty are a rarity – and for a reason, because emotions and values like those two usually lead straight to a prolonged and troubled suicide. His views are explicitly shown in the frequent depictions of war: its bloodiness, chaos and stupidity, the blind chance ruling our lives with more than a little irony, the inescapability of loss and pain, the irrelevance of an individual’s moral values or the démodé assumption that others are generally good. Sapkowski’s world is a prolonged, eternal internal fight of one against another. The crucible of war will either break you or turn you into a diamond, which, after all, is just a very shiny and very hard piece of coal. So it comes as no surprise that on this backdrop Geralt’s somewhat tarred morality shines like a supernova.
Piotrek: Anyway, to get back to larger picture, I’m a big Tolkien enthusiast since mid-primary school, but I believe Sapkowski was my introduction to modern fantasy. And I also believe he ages pretty well, recent re-read only renewed my appreciation of the Saga. I wish his popularity in wider (English-speaking) world started earlier, when his prose was not only very good, but also innovative. His reception among refined fantasy audience is surprisingly (for me) cold, and sometimes I read about… simplistic misogynistic sword&sorcery based on a computer game. Well, no. It’s a very sophisticated piece of literature toying with countless genre tropes and maybe too subtle for some modern readers. I mean, when you have to put modern liberalism in the speech by an uneducated knight to convince readers that you don’t support colonialism and religious wars (Kingdom of Heaven, possibly the worst pseudo-historical movie ever), maybe convictions not spelled out in capital letters are for losers.
But I digress. And maybe something was lost in translations. Despite our best intentions neither one of us read the English edition. Lack of time, and, Witcher is just so Polish… the games are the only franchise where I bother with the Polish language version. Actually, after Witcher re-read I kind of feel like checking if maybe anything good has been published in my small country in the last decade. I don’t really follow local news… but our rustling language with its impossible grammar has its delights.
(half an hour of tasting the samples of translated Wiedźmin later)
Hmm, not tragic, and I understand the choice of regular modern English, but it reads more like a regular genre of our times and lost some of its uniqueness. Still, read it, even if you don’t know any Slavic language.
Ola: Oh well. I doubt I will read the English translations. They would have to be truly inspired to get even close to Sapkowski’s richness of Polish :P. I’ve read the books for the first time when I was around Ciri’s age. I could write a lot about the lack of psychological realism in her character, but I don’t see much point in it. She behaves as someone much older, only to seem much younger than her real age in another scene. I realize that creating a teenage girl character when one is a middle-aged man without much exposure to teenage girls at all is a very difficult task 😛 And as I didn’t mind it so much then, too engrossed in the story to care, I mind it only slightly more now, upon re-reading the books.
What I really admire, still, is that Sapkowski is merciless to his leading characters. He doesn’t spare them one bit, and yet – he still cares about them. They are not plot vehicles, they are real human (or other) beings, with feelings and scars, doubts and hopes. He’s a bit like Cook in this aspect. But, and that’s a big BUT, he doesn’t do so well with the side characters. See Lady of the Lake. Oh, how I dislike this book, exactly for this reason. It feels rushed, and contrary to the previous books, ill-thought through, with flawed construction and resolution that left me with one dismayed thought: he just didn’t know what to do with the characters he so painstakingly created. Yes, I know it was supposed to be a twisted moral tale, a case study in geopolitical realism – but turning the final installment in a 7-books long saga into a political treatise was a grave mistake, both from the characters’ evolution and from purely literary perspective.
Piotrek: Maybe he was tired and eager to go somewhere else. At least he had the decency to finish and relatively quickly. Once he started the saga – a book a year, almost without a miss. Well, Lady of the Lake took him longer, and the results were… I agree absolutely. With the exception of how the main protagonists ended up (and here I know we again agree). Brilliant, tough, vogue enough to allow for the story to be picked up by the games’ creators.
Altogether, we believe the stories deserve a place in top-of-the-tops lists of the crowning achievements of our preferred genre, and like the saga a lot, despite the inferior ending.
Piotrek: Stories 9,5/10, Saga as a whole: 8/10
Ola: stories 10/10, saga as a whole 8/10, Lady of the Lake (the worst of the lot) 6/10
Piotrek: Favorite novel: hard choice, but possibly The Tower of Swallows, formally maybe the most interesting in the saga, and best written, with some great Dijsktra moments among other treasures that defined my plot choices in Witcher 3 – but more about that later.
Ola: Favorite book(s): the short stories, then The Tower of Swallows
Piotrek: Least favorite: Lady of the Lake, here I fully agree with Ola.