The first third or so of this book was excellent, and then it got weird and confusing and then got weirder and then briefly good and then what.
I think Sapkowski — and someone more familiar with his full canon might be able to tell me if this rings true, as I can’t read Polish — has struggled mightily with the transfer from writing vignettes and short stories to having to weave together a novel.
The very structure of the book speaks to that struggle. Despite being a full-length novel of about 350 pages, the story only has seven chapters, and there are often long time jumps in between them. Each is thematically self-contained, with a unique plot thread and character focus. While this was all fine in the short story collections, a novel has to be more coherent than this. Contempt was too disparate to be a true novel, but too interwoven to be a collection of standalone stories. It sits uncomfortably in the middle of the two, never really able to find its footing.
I also think in an effort to move the plot along as required in a continuous novel, a lot of themes and character conflicts got tossed by the wayside. I was profoundly irritated that Yennefer and Geralt’s resolution came offscreen, and that we go from their put-it-all-on-the-table fight to them apparently in a completely steady relationship. Presumably somewhere along the way both of their internal angst about things like sterility, emotional capability, and long-term viability got resolved, but we didn’t get to see it — we were just told it had happened.
I also thought a lot of things that had previously been implied about the situation were suddenly spelled out, to the detriment of the characters. I mentioned in my discussion of the earlier books that I loved how as Geralt and Yennefer struggled with not being able to have kids, they accidentally adopted this girl who was who their child would have been. But suddenly in this book with no fanfare Yennefer is calling Ciri “daughter.” This wasn’t the only instance of this, and it was a bad decision. It felt like a serious case of telling-not-showing. We’d been shown that Ciri was their daughter; all having Yennefer say it does is weaken the impact, because actions mean more than words. I’m not sure if Sapkowski thought he was being too subtle or what — and I wish I could remember the other examples I wanted to mention, this is what I get for waiting so long to write this — but it was a really weird decision.
The result was that the characters felt really flat. The strongest point of the previous books was the internal and interpersonal conflict, the implied things floating in the background of every interaction, and that was all pretty much gone. The scenes of Ciri lost in the desert were the best part of the second half of the book, because being forced back into the head of a character struggling with their own limitations brought things back to where they were strongest.
Then there’s the supporting cast. Throwing the entire population of the magic world at us and then asking us to keep track of who was on what side of an incredibly convoluted conflict all in the space of about 75 pages was a disaster. Keeping track of all the extra characters was a nightmare, and it made it impossible to get invested in the individual fights because I could never remember whose side someone was supposed to be on last we saw them. (I also found the conflict itself really opaque — I’m willing to accept that it happened, but not entirely sure why it happened.)
I also thought the end sequence with Ciri was really weird. Being introduced to these kind of unlikable characters right at the end of the book, having Ciri decide they’re great, and then having things abruptly end was jarring. I don’t care about these random kids and I don’t want to hear about them.
I actually like the idea of using the novels to shift the focus off Yennefer and Geralt and on to Ciri — I think this is an interesting way to go and not inherently bad, because I like Ciri. But I want the focus to actually be on Ciri if this happens, not an entirely different cast. The story of Ciri struggling home, learning about the politics, seeing the world from the perspective of a nobody, and returning to Geralt with a clear idea of what matters to her would be great. But I don’t want to deal with other random kids as thought I give a fuck about them. It’s Ciri I care about, and I’m concerned the story is losing sight of that.
Also, what the hell was up with the random attempted rape? This series has had a ton of sex, but nothing like the rape, and it came right at the very end, which was jarring and makes me worry the tone of the coming novels is going to veer off in a direction that doesn’t fit the story we have. This series hasn’t been grimdark. I don’t really want it to be grimdark, either, because I don’t think that tone fits the strengths Sapkowski seems to have.
There were flashes of really great things here — I loved the opening with Ciri in the city plotting her escape; I loved the parts of the wizard conference about social nuance; I loved the survival sequence; I always love Sapkowski’s descriptions of magic and what it feels like. I also think it’s a credit to the series’ strong characterization that when the fake Ciri was brought on I thought, “Weird, this isn’t how Ciri normally acts, is that really her?” But the more time went on the more I thought the story felt like it didn’t know what it was trying to do, and I genuinely have no idea where it’s trying to go or even who it wants me to root for, which is not a good place to be at the end of the second book in a five-book series.
I’m willing to go in a new direction. Even though I like Geralt and Yen, I’m alright with leaving them behind for Ciri’s adventures. But I’m not really looking to give up the book’s penchant for deep emotional consideration and character interaction, and I’m concerned a general flattening of everything is where this is headed.
(Also, while I’m not particularly annoyed by Dandelion, that he keeps showing up and is apparently the only bard in existence is pretty suspension-of-disbelief-breaking.)