Throwback Thursday: The Tower of the Swallow, by Andrzej Sapkowski: Book 4 of the Witcher Saga

Every chapter in a story has a responsibility to the overall narrative.  This is most evident in trilogies, where the first novel sets up the stakes and the characters, the second builds upon the threat, and the finale contains the climax of all that came before.  The saga of the Witcher is atypical in its structure and how each novel contributes to the narrative.  On top of that, the story began long before the novels were written, in the world crafted by the original series of short stories.  Despite its odd nature as a five-novel story, the fourth book, The Tower of the Swallow, still has a responsibility as the penultimate chapter in the tale of Ciri, Geralt, and Yennefer.  It must continue the adventure that has come before, while escalating the stakes.  Some characters begin the lead up to the finale, while others are brought to their lowest point in preparation for their eventual rise.

Also published as The Tower of Swallows in English, the fourth novel of the Witcher saga actually opens with Ciri, breaking from previous novels and stories.  This continues in the fifth book, The Lady of the Lake, representing the story’s slow realization that Ciri has been the main character all along.  Her tale thus far has been all about her brutal coming of age and rejection of her destiny.  From training with the witchers, to her aborted education at Thanedd, to her taking on the persona of Falka and becoming a killer, Ciri has been subjected to the wills of others this entire time.  Her story for most of the novel is told in a flashback, and she recovers from series injuries with a hermit philosopher in the middle of a swamp.  Her story begins with her deciding to reclaim her birthright, only for her to realize she cannot leave her comrades in the Rats.  Once more, her rejection of her destiny leads to tragedy as she is forced to watch a bounty hunter on her trail, Leo Bonhart, slaughter her friends and lover.  Bonhart captures her, fascinated with possible connection to the witchers, and morphs into the central antagonist of her story as he forces to kill even more for entertainment just as she began to reject Falka and return to being Ciri.

Meanwhile, Geralt and his company are still on their journey to locate Ciri.  Hearing rumors of a group of druids who may have a clue to her whereabouts, Geralt finally has direction.  Up until this point, the company travelled rather aimlessly south on the assumption that Ciri was being held in Nilfgaard.  Now, with a clear destination and mission, the stakes of their journey finally feel real.  Every obstacle, both large and small, carries the same weight as it keeps Geralt away from his one and only clue towards his adopted daughter’s whereabouts.  Multiple times, they learn the druids are not where they were originally told, and a further complication arises in a bounty on their heads.  The mysterious half-elf Schirrú, who actually appeared in previous novels, although he has never faced Geralt, is hunting the company, along with every bounty hunter and criminal in the region.  The abrupt appearance of a new ally, the criminal Angoulême, leads to an ill-fated ambush, forcing Geralt and an injured Cahir to flee.  Along the way, Geralt meets a mysterious elven sage who knows more than Ciri than anyone else thus far, and the company finally locates the druid.  Unfortunately, the druids have hardened in the war, and kill Schirrú before he can reveal any useful information.  The druids are similarly devoid of any useful information, leading Geralt and his company into a final dead end, their journey tragically for naught.

The Tower of the Swallow also takes time to bring Yennefer’s back to the forefront for a chapter, with her only making a small, but impactful appearance, in Baptism of Fire.  Freshly escaped from the Lodge of Sorceresses, Yennefer finds herself in the Skellige Isles, a region of the Witcher world inspired by the real-life Faroe Islands, mixing Norse and Celtic cultures into a unique blend.  While the Lodge is not a villainous group, they are motivated by power and magic and seek to use Ciri for their own purposes.  Yennefer finds herself in the difficult position of being seen as a traitor by some, seen as useful by others, and bound to Ciri through motherly love.  Like Geralt, she will not allow anyone to use the girl.  In Skellige, she finds new allies in the form of Ciri’s extended family, lead by Crach an Craite.  Crach an Craite was previously seen as a young man in the short story, A Question of Price, the very beginning of Ciri’s tale.  In tying Yennefer’s story to Crach, Sapkowski brings Ciri’s family closer together and shows just how many people genuinely hold her best interests at heart.  While Geralt believes Ciri to be in Nilfgaard, Yennefer believes her to be in the hands of Vilgefortz.  Working from that assumption, she, in a similar move to Geralt, attempts an ambush which goes horrible wrong.  Captured by the villainous sorcerer, she resists a spell to reveal Ciri’s whereabouts, but inadvertently reveals Geralt.  Her story ends with Vilgefortz sending Schirrú after the witcher, further tying our heroes’ stories together.

The Witcher saga is a about journeys and where they eventually lead.  Every character walks the path that Destiny has laid before them, but it is not a well-marked path.  There are twists and turns, coupled with plenty of false ends.  In order to reach your destination, you cannot just blindly walk forward.  You muse choose to follow the path Destiny has marked before you.  This is most evident in Geralt’s journey over the course of this novel.  He is tied by Destiny to both Ciri and Yennefer, and has been for many years.  Tied to Ciri before she was born by the sacred Law of Surprise, and bound to Yennefer by a wish made to a djinn.  He has spent the majority of his life rejecting destiny, and the last two books have been the first time he has willingly walked towards it.  However, Avallac’h, the elven sage he meets along the way, throws in a new complication.  He is bound by destiny to Ciri, but what if that destiny is not necessarily a good one?  If Avallac’h is to be believed, some destinies can only lead to tragedy.  Geralt is told that, if he finds Ciri, it will lead to tragedy for all.  But Geralt is bound to her by more than destiny now.  He is, for all intents and purposes, her father, just as Yennefer is her mother.  And, like Yennefer, he will not let anyone use the girl for their own ends.  Pity to any who get in these parents’ path to their daughter.

If Geralt’s story is about destiny, then Ciri’s is about agency.  Specifically, her agency.  From being told that Geralt was her destiny, to being a young girl at the mercy of the adults around her, Ciri has rarely been allowed to make her own choices in life.  Even while training with the witchers, where it appeared as if she basically ran their castle, they still controlled her life.  Even Yennefer expected complete obedience, despite her unconditional love towards the girl.  The Tower of the Swallows finds her now at the mercy of Leo Bonhart, and chased by Stefan Skellen, a spy from Nilfgaard who wants her dead.  Combined with these two, Rience reappears to carry out Vilgefortz’s will.  These three adult men all make choices for her and try to rewrite her destiny with her will.  But Ciri is finally able to take back some of her own agency, as well as some of her magic, and make her escape.  She originally tries to find her new life in revenge, but the taste quickly sours.  Despite her newfound agency, the destiny of her Elder Blood, the gene she carries supposedly containing untold power, drives her towards the titular Tower of the Swallow, Tor Zirael.  While Ciri is able to kill all pursuers except Bonhart, she is pulled once more towards a will greater than her.

The Tower of the Swallow fulfills every obligation for a penultimate novel.  It raises the stakes, it brings some heroes to their lowest points, while setting up others to finally fight back.  Yennefer is captured, Geralt left without a single lead, and Ciri has stepped through the magic portal at Tor Zirael, moving ever towards her eventual destiny.  The novel also ends on a cliffhanger, with Ciri entering another world, one filled with unicorns and someone who has been waiting for her.  As Ciri moves forward and begins making her own decisions, only time will tell which destiny is stronger; that of the Elder Blood, or the destiny which has tied Ciri to Geralt for all this time.

The Tower of the Swallow can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Next, and Final, book in the series: The Lady of the Lake, book 5 of the Witcher saga

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