The Time of Contempt is the second novel, fourth book, in Sapkowski’s Witcher series, and as with the previous novel, this one is full of political intrigue, war, and fighting. The overriding question for our main characters is whether, in a turbulent war-torn world, it is possible to maintain neutrality, and if not, is it possible to choose a side without becoming hateful and barbaric.
The Empire of Nilfgaard is trying to take over world and is enjoying quite a bit of success in this endeavor. The last novel Blood of Elves set up the various factions in play. Worldly kings, in a rare display, have united secretly (or so they think) and without the input of their sorcerers in order to fight back against Nilfgaard. Non-human populations (elves, dwarves and the like) are being subjected to persecution and pogroms, due to the fact that a sect of rebel elves known as Scoia’tael (squirrels) have joined with Nilfgaard and engage in guerilla action versus humans. Human kings and many of their people assume that “they’re all alike” even though there are many non-humans who see that Nilfgaard is using the squirrels and that they are better off trying to all get along. Mages are divided as well. Some serve kings loyally, while others plot against their kings. Some mages support Nilfgaard. When a conclave of sourcerers and enchantresses meets on the island Thanedd, intrigue is in the air, and the extent and severity of the division among mages is revealed in some thrilling and brutal battles. Meanwhile, Nilfgaardian Emperor Emhyr is after Ciri but it’s not clear why. He has spies and assassins in his employ, including Cahir, the man in black with the winged helmet who terrorized Ciri as Cintra burned, and who has one last chance to prove himself to Emhyr. Emhyr is an authoritarian despot; his people fear him because they all know that to fail Emhyr is to die. Even mages fear him, and he has put a number of them to death for their failures. I guess you don’t get a nickname like “The White Flame Dancing on the Barrows of his Enemies” for nothing.
Ciri, Geralt and Yennefer are, of course, at the center of all of this intrigue and violence. Everyone is looking for Ciri, but not for the same reasons. Some wish to eliminate her, others to exploit her power. Yennefer still has Ciri in her care as this novel begins, and her plan is to take Ciri to Thanedd and enroll her in the academy for enchantresses. Ciri is not in love with this idea, as the school seems much like a prison to her. Geralt, meanwhile, is trying to track down Rience, the mage/spy/assassin who has been tracking Ciri; his goal is to figure out who Rience works for and protect Ciri. On Thanedd, Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer will reunite, only to be torn apart in the violence that ensues from the chapter meeting.
The last part of the novel finds Ciri on her own, without protection, having to rely on the training she has received from both Yennefer and Geralt. Physically staying alive will be the object of her thoughts and actions, yet she will also find herself facing a moral quandary. She, like Geralt, does not wish to kill, but when you are pursued by killers, is it realistic to think you can continue living by the moral high road? Geralt often finds himself the object of ridicule for insisting that he will not choose a side. This gets back to the question of “the lesser evil” that Geralt had to confront in book one (the story of Renfri). When circumstances force a choice, does choosing a side mean you have to show contempt for others? When treated with contempt, people often will turn to hate and revenge. Is it naive to want to live without killing in a violent world? Can you choose a side and not become hateful and contemptuous?
As with the other books, Sapkowski keeps the reader on the edge of their seat with exciting chases and fights, subterfuge, and colorful characters whose allegiances are not always clear. Ciri really comes into her own in this novel, and her story arc promises to be full of thrilling battles and moral uncertainties. I’m still on the Witcher train. Woot woot!