Throwback Thursday: Baptism of Fire, by Andrzej Sapkowski: Book 3 of the Witcher Saga

A “baptism of fire” can be defined in several different ways.  Classically, and for most of literary history, it referred to a specific passage from the Gospel according to Matthew in the Catholic Bible.  According to John the Baptist, who baptized Catholics with water, God would come after and baptize their followers with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  The phrase also appears in the Gospel according to Luke and Dante’s Inferno referring to a fiery trial of faith which would purify those who looked upon God.  It was not until the 19th century that “baptism of fire” finished its transformation and gained the meaning Andrzej Sapkowski hints at.  First used secularly to mean a soldier’s first time in battle, a baptism of fire is now any toil or hardship which strengthens you through the challenge.

Baptism of Fire, the third novel in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga, picks up not long after the events of the previous novel, Time of Contempt.  A bloody coup on the isle of Thanedd has all but destroyed the Brotherhood of Sorcerers and led to a renewed war between the kingdoms of the North and the empire of Nilfgaard to the south.  Unbeknownst to all, Ciri managed to escape through an unstable magical portal in Tor Lara, the Tower of Gulls.  Yennefer has likewise disappeared without a trace.  Geralt spent several months recovering in Brokilon forest after his defeat at the hands of the villainous Vilgefortz.  Our protagonists are not in a stable place at the start of this story, and events only conspire to become more chaotic as the pages pass.  As book three, the novel is middle group, firmly entrenched in the second act of an overarching plot.  The majority of the novel focuses on Geralt and his aimless quest to rescue Ciri, and the company he gathers along the way.

Setting out from Brokilon, the domain the dryads, Geralt is at first joined only by the bard, Dandelion.  The witcher’s companion through many adventures, what the poet lacks in practical skills he more than makes up for in his ability to keep Geralt focused.  Their unlikely pairing soon also draws in Maria Barring, known as Milva, a hunter and friend of the dryads who helped Geralt in the previous novel.  Her contentious relationship with Dandelion serves as a constant source of humor in an otherwise fairly bleak story.  Upon the road, the trio happen upon the bound form of the Black Rider, a figure from Ciri’s nightmares who stole her away from her home during the first war.  Revealed to be a young man in over his head, Geralt spares his life more than once.  On and off throughout the journey, they also travel with the dwarf, Zoltan Chivay, and his party.  A practical altruist, Zoltan quickly insists on becoming Geralt’s trusted friend.  Lastly, the company is joined by Regis, a mysterious barber-surgeon encountered in a graveyard who always reeks of herbs.

Of Geralt’s company, the most intrigue can be found in the Black Rider and Regis.  The Black Rider is finally introduced to the party as Cahir Mawr Dyffryn aep Ceallach, or Cahir for short.  Son of the seneschal to the emperor, he failed in his mission to find and deliver Ciri to Nilfgaard.  As he had worked with Vilgefortz, himself a traitor to all, Cahir is hunted by his own countrymen on the assumption that he also betrayed his home.  Seemingly uninterested in a Nilfgaardian victory, Cahir asserts that he only cares about Ciri’s safety, sharing the prophetic dreams Geralt sees every night.  Somehow, Cahir is also bound to the child of destiny.  Regis is mysterious for wholly different reasons.  Emiel Regis Rohellec Terzieff-Godefroy is an incredibly old, incredibly powerful, higher vampire.  One of the remaining few who originally traveled to the word of the Witcher, Regis is also a teetotaler.  After a self-destructive youth and a disastrous encounter with a well, Regis gave up drinking of blood, preferring to spend his time tending to those in need.  Over the course of the journey, these two become genuine friends with Geralt and decide to stay in his company and find Ciri.

While most of the novel is focused on Geralt, his companions, and their journey, Ciri is not gone.  Now a full-time member of the bandits known as the Rats, Ciri has undergone her own baptism of fire just as Geralt’s company are in the midst of theirs.  Having survived many ordeals and finding herself separated from those who love her, Ciri’s only chance at survival is to become someone else.  Embracing her alter-ego as Falka, word spreads that the Rats have added an additional member, something which has never happened before.  An ashen haired girl, no more than fourteen, seemingly in a committed same-sex relationship with another member by the name of Mistle, with childish impulses and murderous behavior.  Killing becomes an obsession with Ciri and her first impulse when confronted with an obstacle.  Cut off from her magic and her support system, Ciri’s path can only lead to death.  Unknown to her, an imposter Ciri has appeared in the empire and presented to the emperor.  Within his inner circle, however, the ruse if found out.  Agents are dispatched all over the world to find her and bring her back, while the conspirators hire bounty hunters to destroy the Rats, and her along with them.  Ciri’s story takes center stage in book four, The Tower of Swallows.

Yennefer is absent from the majority of Baptism of Fire, but appears in two scenes with major implications for the world created by Sapkowski.  After the Thanedd coup, any organization binding mages fractured.  They fled back to their kingdoms, and were either expelled by the kings they advised or further bound into royal servitude.  In Nilfgaard, magicians enjoy even greater restrictions by default as the government actually contains laws regulating their magic.  The novel introduces a new organization, a secret one, with the potential to shape the world.  The Lodge of Sorceresses proposes to be a female-only secret conclave with the sole purpose of protecting magic at all costs.  Not loyal to any government or political group, the Lodge will act in the best interest of the future of magic.  Invited by a northern sorceress, the Lodge brings together women from all nations, neutral kingdoms and Nilfgaard alike.  Yennefer is also invited to join, partly because of her great power and partly because of her connection to Ciri.  Like any other powerful group of people, it quickly becomes clear that the Lodge does not have Ciri’s best interests at heart.  Like Geralt, Yennefer does not care for decorum and steadfastly refuses to do what is expected of her by those in power.  Instead, she will do what is expected of her by those she loves.  Just as Geralt has set off to find his adopted daughter, so has Yennefer.

Baptism of Fire can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility.  Geralt’s quest appears aimless, Ciri is stuck in her own mire, and Yennefer is unable to fully stand up to powerful interests.  But the point is not the end so much as the journey itself.  Paraphrasing Regis, being in motion is all that matters.  Even if you are uncertain you will succeed, the only thing to do is try.  Sometimes trying is all anyone can ask for.  This novel also continues introducing a plot element which will become increasingly important in the form of a prophecy.  The emperor of Nilfgaard believes in it enough to wage multiple wars to find Ciri, and Vilgefortz believes in it enough to work with Nilfgaard.  With Geralt set off on his journey, and Yennefer rejoining the fray, The Tower of Swallows finally brings Ciri to the forefront and reminds us that the story has always been about her.

Baptism of Fire can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Next book in the series: The Tower of Swallows, book 4 of the Witcher saga

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