Sapkowski is managing to keep my interest very high with this the fifth Witcher book (3rd novel). The stories of Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer continue to develop along very interesting lines, with plenty of fighting, intrigue and double crosses. The truth about Ciri’s power is slowing being unraveled while Yennefer’s role in the problems at hand is only hinted at, and Geralt finds himself part of an unlikely band of people who decide, against reason and any thought of personal safety, to help Geralt find Ciri. While some explanations for motives can get a little convoluted, Sapkowski keeps his readers hanging on and even injects some humor into a grim and violent tale. His characters, despite their unique powers, can be quite relatable: they make mistakes, change their minds, and behave in sometimes exasperating ways. As I read, I just want to know more about them, why they act as they do and whether or not they will stay alive and succeed in their quest.
Our three main characters, separated during the rumble at Thanedd during the sorcerers’ conclave in The Time of Contempt, remain apart in Baptism of Fire. Ciri and Yennefer’s stories are only developed a little further in this novel. Ciri is now a full fledged member of “the Rats,” a gang of teens alone in the world thanks to war and violence who now resort to violence and theft to survive. They are known to authorities who cannot seem to catch them and are feared by locals. The Rats can be generous, rather like Robin Hood and his band, but they do not hesitate to kill those who get in the way or betray them. Ciri, now known as Falka, has gotten very good at killing thanks in part to her time training with the Witchers at Kaer Mohren. Ciri has also gotten involved in a relationship with fellow Rat Mistle, and the two young women attract negative attention for it. Ciri seems to think little of her past and revels in her freedom, but at night her nightmares return and make her both uneasy and an object of concern for her mates. While the Rats know that civil authorities are constantly on the hunt for them, what they don’t know is that Ciri is being hunted down by all sides in the current war being waged among worldly kingdoms and mages.
Toward the end of Baptism of Fire, Yennefer is re-introduced to the story. Thanks to the elven sorceress Francesca Findabair, Yennefer survived the catastrophic events of the Thanedd conclave, but the only people who now know where Yennefer is are the female sorceresses who have come together to form a secret “lodge” which will try to fix what’s wrong with the world. These mages do not see eye to eye on many matters and do not completely trust one another, but they are going to try to work together. Yennefer is brought into the lodge unwillingly, and at its first meeting, which includes two sorceresses from Nilfgaard, Yennefer is visibly uncomfortable and upset by the discussion, which revolves around Ciri. This is at least in part because of the lodge’s plans for Ciri, but her discomfort also has to do with whatever it was she did on Thanedd and in her past. Whatever it was that Yennefer did, she knows that Geralt will be angry if/when he finds out. I expect that the next novel will shed more light on Yennefer’s past.
Most of this novel is focused on Geralt and his mission to find Ciri, and it’s pretty darn riveting. After Thanedd, a gravely injured Geralt was taken to the dryads of Brokilon Forest, who are able to repair most of the damage. One of the clan, a human woman named Milva (Maria Barring) uses her skills as a tracker and archer to find what has happened to Ciri. Rumor has it that she was captured and taken to Nilfgaard, where Emperor Emhyr plans to wed her. Geralt’s plan is to make his way there alone and rescue her, but Milva and Dandelion won’t hear of it. As they slowly wend their way through war-torn territories, the three manage to latch on to a group of dwarves who are also trying to avoid the armies. The dwarves are an interesting lot — tough, earthy, and brave but also kind. In their party are some women and children refugees whom they are protecting. But that’s not all! Geralt’s party also comes to include an old enemy of his as well as a wonderful new character named Regis. The group encounters Regis in a cemetery and discovers that he is an herbalist/healer/brewer. An evening of mass consumption of moonshine ensues, with everyone delighted to have made Regis’ acquaintance. Regis, however, is more than he seems, which will be revealed in a few episodes after the drunken revels. If Regis is not featured in the Netflix series, I will be furious.
As usual, Sapkowski treats his readers to a wild ride, with plenty of danger, fighting, and near death experiences. Yet, he also, as usual, has some worthwhile things to say about mundane topics such as friendship and the need for reliable people in our lives, women’s reproductive rights, and the perils of addiction. I do appreciate that Sapkowski has created a number of complicated characters, and that the “heroes” of the story are frequently quite stupid. I didn’t feel like this came through in the TV show, but Geralt’s friends don’t let him get away with trying to be a tragic loner and a moody, brooding pain in the butt. They call him out on his stupidity, often in kind of funny ways. Baptism of Fire might be my favorite Witcher book so far. I’m hurrying to get this review done so I can move on to the next book!