This third book in the Witcher series is the first Witcher novel, and its focus, now that Geralt has owned up to his destiny, is on a prophecy about the end of the world. This prophecy involves war among the peoples of earth (human, elven, and other) and the unleashing of some type of very powerful magic. There is the occasional bit of monster fighting, but mostly this story deals in geo-political maneuvering and espionage as Geralt and Yennefer try to keep Ciri safe while honing her extraordinary magical power.
The novel opens with fan favorite Dandelion (Jaskier from the Netflix series) entertaining a diverse crowd with his songs. Everyone knows that his ballads are about the turbulent love affair between Geralt and Yennefer even though he denies it, and the audience is begging for more (and arguing politics) when Dandelion decides to quietly take off with his earnings. He does not leave unnoticed though; a murderous magician named Rience has questions for Dandelion about the Witcher and the girl who is said to travel with him. It is not clear who Rience works for, but he is prepared to go to any ends to get this information from Dandelion.
Meanwhile, Geralt and Ciri are on their way to the Witcher castle known as Kaer Morhen. It is a ruin thanks to human fear and violence against Witchers many years ago, but a handful of Witchers are still there, including the one who trained Geralt — Vesemir. These men take in Geralt and Ciri and begin to train her as a Witcher, but she exhibits some troubling and dangerous magical behavior, and so they call in sorceress Triss Merigold for help. When Triss arrives, she immediately understands something the Witchers don’t: Ciri is undergoing puberty and having periods. Triss is furious at the men and in one of the best scenes in the book, she lets them have it for being so stupid and blind to Ciri’s womanly issues. The awkwardness and embarrassment they feel is pretty funny. But Triss also senses the unique magic that Ciri possesses as a “Source,” i.e., a conduit for magical energy. A source who cannot control her power is a danger to everyone, and Triss understands quickly that she is not the one who can help Ciri; only Yennefer has the skills for that. And so Geralt, awkwardly, must reach out to Yennefer for help (her response to his letter appears later in the book and is also quite funny).
While Yennefer works with Ciri at the Temple of Melitele, a safe place where they might not be found, Geralt is off trying to find Rience and figure out who is after Ciri and why. Sapkowski outlines a complex series of relationships among human and non-human populations as well as between human and magical people, and among kingdoms. What the reader comes to understand is that all those with power want to find Ciri and either use her or neutralize her, but they understand that they will have to get through Geralt and Yennefer to do that. Alliances are formed and fall apart as various actors try to achieve their ends, and it’s often not clear whose side people are on, which makes for some fun reading.
The idea of taking sides and whether or not one ought to pick a side in these conflicts runs throughout the novel. The Nilfgaard Empire has been overrunning other kingdoms, including Cintra (Ciri’s home), and so all other kings and queens see Nilfgaard and its ruler as the enemy, but they also hate non-humans (elves, dwarves, etc) because Nilfgaard has effectively used non-humans to undercut them. Amongst non-humans there is division; some support the rebel cause (called Scoia’tael or “the squirrels”) in this quest to regain land lost to humans and restore the old order, while others align themselves with humans, accepting that you cannot turn back time and must look forward. The problem is that some humans see all non-humans as the same, as untrustworthy, and as deserving to be massacred. In other words, Sapkowski’s world is very much like our own — lots of violence toward minorities, political gray areas and moral ambiguity.
I suspect that some of what happens in this volume will be in the next Witcher TV series. While Geralt gets less face time in this story, the reader learns more about Ciri, Yennefer and the troubled history between humans and non-humans. I think Sapkowski does a pretty good job setting up political intrigue and introducing new characters who will clearly play an important role moving forward (Vilgefortz and the dark knight of Ciri’s nightmares, for example). I’m still on board the Witcher train.