Throwback Thursday: The Time of Contempt, by Andrzej Sapkowski: Book 2 of the Witcher saga

In writing the Witcher saga of novels, Andrzej Sapkowski took on the task of transitioning the world and characters of the short stories to something more longform.  In retrospect, it seems obvious that the short stories set up the novels, but that was not always the case, despite there only being two years between the publication of Sword of Destiny and Blood of Elves.  Where Blood of Elves served as a reintroduction to the characters, world, and tone of the series, The Time of Contempt moves the plot forward at a rapid pace, setting the stage for a story spanning three more novels and three video games.  Do not think that The Time of Contempt is devoid of character growth, however.  The story of the Witcher is, and has always been, the story of Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri.

After splitting off from Ciri in the first novel, and after having not seen Yennefer since the events of the short stories roughly two years prior, The Time of Contempt finally reunites Geralt with his found family.  At the start of the novel, Ciri is continuing her magical training with Yennefer and the two have set off Aretuza, the sorceresses academy on the Isle of Thanedd, also home to the Tower of Gulls.  All become very important names before the novel has ended.  Meanwhile, Geralt continues his actions in the shadows to protect Ciri.  No closer to finding Rience or the master that set him on Ciri’s trail in the first novel, Geralt finally learns of Ciri’s heritage from an unscrupulous investigator.  We learn that Ciri is the ancestor of a union between elven and human royalty, carrying the magical Elder Blood in her veins.  This Elder Blood quickly becomes a major plot point of the series as a while.  At the same time, doubts are sewn into the identity of her father, Duny, from the short story A Question of Price.  Luckily, before too much time has passed, Geralt is finally allowed to reunite with Yennefer and Ciri, with the bard Dandelion not far behind.  For once, the characters are allowed to be happy.

In the shadows behind our main cast, various powers plot and scheme and work to manipulate the future of the world.  The Northern Kingdoms, tasting victory over Nilfgaard, their enemy from the south, are now struggling under an influx of cheap, well-crafted Nilfgaardian goods, sabotaging their own manufacturing.  On top of this, attacks by the Scoia’tael continue, targeting all humans as well as any nonhumans who choose to turn against their own kind.  Backed by Nilfgaard, the Scoia’tael allow them to sow chaos without getting their own hands dirty.  Tensions rise as both sides position themselves for an inevitable second war.  During this, the kings of the North cease consulting with mages for fear of their interference.  The mages enjoy newfound power after brokering peace, but have become splintered as various factions view for power over the council.  Everyone seems to have their own plans for Ciri as well, and we finally share a few scenes with Emhyr var Emreis, the emperor of Nilfgaard.  For some, unknown reason, locating Ciri is of personal important to this man.  And he will stop at nothing to get her.

The majority of the novel centers around the main characters journey to the Isle of Thanedd, and the ensuing events with the mages.  After a book and a half of tension and movements in the shadow, Thanedd turns the entire story on its head while catapulting the plot forward.  On Thanedd, during a feast and meeting of the mages, a coup breaks out.  Mages loyal to the Northern Kingdoms launch what they hope to be a bloodless coup against mages sympathetic to Nilfgaard.  While the coup progresses easily at first, at least one mage fights back and is killed in the process.  Geralt accidentally stumbles into the coup as it is underway, becoming swept up in its events and changing its course forever.  For the Nilfgaardian mages were not unprepared.  During the coup, they launch their own counter queue with Scoia’tael forces smuggled onto the island.  Fighting quickly breaks out as many are killed in the battle.  The Thanedd coup turns the world on its head as the mages’ unity is shattered, and Nilfgaard uses the coup as a sign to launch their renewed attack on the North, quickly conquering everything they can.

The Thanedd coup also serves to introduce a new character to the story, one who will end up playing a major part moving forward.  Vilgefortz or Rogeveen is one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world, although he doesn’t look it.  Where most sorcerers prefer to look like dignified, older men, Vilgefortz portrays himself as young.  In fact, he is young, compared to his compatriots.  As Geralt learns, Vilgefortz is so powerful in part because of his differences.  He did not grow up wealthy, and did not learn magic until he was an adult.  Mercenary, soldier, bandit, Vilgefortz lived a dark, wild life until he came to the sorcerers.  Now, famous for heading peace talks between North and South, it is well known that Vilgefortz in actuality controls the mages council from behind the scenes.  Vilgefortz also attempts to recruit Geralt to his side, repeatedly telling him not to “mistake stars reflected in the pond for the night sky.”  Once the coup breaks out, Vilgefortz reveals himself as the mastermind of the Nilfgaardian mages, even considering their emperor to be his puppet.  The most powerful mage in the world is able to handily defeat Geralt in martial combat, but not before Geralt delays him enough for Ciri to escape the fighting.

Although we spent time with Ciri in Blood of Elves, as Sapkowski enjoys changing point-of-view characters often, The Time of Contempt allows Ciri to grow into her own protagonist, separating her from her immediate support system.  Ciri will spend the majority of the following three novels away from Yennefer and Geralt.  Fleeing to the Tower of Gulls during the Thanedd coup, Ciri leaps into an unstable portal and is spat out in the middle of the Korath desert, known as the frying pan.  Beginning here, Sapkowski plunges Ciri into hell.  First, having to deal with dehydration and starvation while fending off the brutal monsters of the desert, then by becoming lost and unable to find a way out, and later by losing her connection to magic.  Seemingly out of nowhere, Ciri meets a young unicorn, also apparently lost in the desert, setting up a connection which will not reappear until book four.  During her time in the desert, Ciri becomes disillusioned with her training under Geralt and Yennefer as none of her skills can really be applied to her current situation.  In times like this, it easy to remember that Ciri is still a child and, in her eyes, she has just been abandoned by her adopted parents.

Once Ciri escapes the desert, her situation only becomes worse.  Narrowly escaping capture by forces loyal to Nilfgaard, she falls in with the Rats, a gang of young bandit who rob and kill for pure pleasure.  Initially not wanting to fight and blanching when having to kill someone, Ciri eventually embraces murder and even begins to revel in it.  However, the power imbalance between her and the Rats can never be forgotten, and the association is anything but healthy.  She only avoids being sexually assaulted by one due to another interrupting, only for the second to continue the assault, gentle thought it may be.  Ciri even enters a relationship with the other woman, devoid of love, due to her desire to not be abandoned again.

Overall, The Time of Contempt is the rare sequel that is actually better than the first, partly due to a change in English translators from book to book.  The plot seems to move forward and, while questions are raised, we also learn more about what is going on.  This is a novel with momentum.  While the novel ends with Ciri taken in by murderers and Yennefer missing, there is a note of hope.  Geralt and Dandelion set off on a new quest, a quest to save Ciri once more and give her the family she desires.

The Time of Contempt can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Next book in the series: Baptism of Fire, book 3 of the Witcher saga

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