Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski (Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser)

Book Review: Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Order Blood of Elves as part of the new paperback edition Witcher Boxed Set HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Andrzej Sapkowski was born in 1948 in Poland. He studied economy and business, but the success of his fantasy cycle about the Witcher Geralt of Rivia turned him into a bestselling writer. His work has received Poland’s Janusz A. Zajdel prize five times, as well as Great Britain’s David Gemmell Award for Fantasy, in 2009. In 2016, he received the World Fantasy Award—Life Achievement. The Witcher has been adapted to a successful video-game franchise, and is now a series on Netflix.

OFFICIAL TRANSLATOR INFORMATION: Danusia Stok is a professional translator who was born and educated in England. After marrying in 1976, she spent five years in Poland and now lives in London. She is the editor of Kieslowski on Kieslowski. Her translated works include The Trilogy by K. Kieslowski and K. Piesiewicz, I Remember Nothing More by Alina Blady-Szwajger, The Journals of a White Sea Wolf, by Mariusz Wilk, "The Witcher" and Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski, and Death in Breslau, The End of the World in Breslau, Phantoms of Breslau and The Head of the Minotaur, by Marek Krajewski.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: For over a century, humans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have lived together in relative peace. But times have changed, the uneasy peace is over, and now the races are fighting once again. The only good elf, it seems, is a dead elf.

Geralt of Rivia, the cunning assassin known as The Witcher, has been waiting for the birth of a prophesied child. This child has the power to change the world – for good, or for evil.

As the threat of war hangs over the land and the child is hunted for her extraordinary powers, it will become Geralt’s responsibility to protect them all – and the Witcher never accepts defeat.

FORMAT/INFO: Blood of Elves is a novel originally published in 1994 in Polish as Krew elfów, and translated into English by Danusia Stok to be published in 2008 (UK, Victor Gollancz Ltd.) and in 2009 (USA, Orbit Books.) New US editions in hardcover (368 pp.; ISBN: 9780316453363) and trade paperback (432 pp.; ISBN: 9780316452663) were published in September 2022 by Orbit Books, individually and as part of attractively collectable boxed sets.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: A conundrum sometimes facing the new audience of an established series is what order to experience each of its entries. Does a viewer new to Star Wars start with The Phantom Menace or A New Hope. Does the Chronicles of Narnia start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or The Magician’s Nephew? For The Witcher, though Blood of Elves is the first novel, two collections of short stories, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny include material that occurs prior to the start of events in the novel. I wish I had chosen to start with the collections.
Last year, Orbit re-released the entire series of The Witcher in a beautiful collection of volumes. Though Robert previously reviewed The Last Wish for Fantasy Book Critic back in 2008, the only further coverage of the Witcher series here was just a short capsule review of Blood of Elves by Liviu the following year. Given the fancy new Orbit releases, I thought it was worth revisiting the series here, and taking it as an opportunity for me to dive into the popular series.
Unlike most Sapkowski fans, I haven’t played any of the video games set in the universe, nor have I watched any of the Netflix series. However, I have read – and absolutely adored – the start of his Hussite trilogy series, also put out by Orbit in English translation. I particularly enjoyed the blend of epic fantasy and historical fiction in that series; though I had heard The Witcher books were more lowbrow, I did enjoy Sapkowski’s writing style in The Tower of Fools, and looked forward to some lighter monster-hunting popcorn fantasy from the same pen.
Unfortunately, I found Blood of Elves extremely difficult to get into or enjoy. The action seemed very limited, and the chapter structure felt disconnected in time and in the focus of plot. I quickly felt lost in, and moreover ambivalent about, trying to learn the characters or their universe. The reading experience kept me as an outsider, as if I were missing vital context in appreciating the characters and their predicaments, lacking both details and a grander overview that wasn't being fostered by Sapkowski’s words or the novel’s structure. By its end I felt as if I had just attended a party and gotten introduced to several new seemingly interested people: Geralt, Ciri, Triss, and Yennefer. But, that quartet came from the future and spent the party in interactions that both featured back-story I was never involved in, and references of things yet to come.
By far the most interesting component of Blood of Elves lies in the way that Sapkowski includes traditional European fantasy races such as elves and dwarves. While others have used these non-human peoples as way to allude to human-human racism, Sapkowski frames these peoples in a multicultural society in ways that more directly and unabashedly shows some of the worst in the ways humans interact in our reality. I imagine much more might be done with this through the series, and I hope so. But, while being noteworthily intriguing in this novel, it isn’t fully developed in any satisfying way, just kept as side fare amid the focus on the main human characters.
CONCLUSION: I may be in a rarity of readers who have read Sapkowski’s Hussite novels and not any of The Witcher. It seems that enjoyment of one will not ensure appreciation of the other. I may have erred in starting with Blood of Elves, rather than the short stories, but even so, the characters of The Witcher just haven’t captivated me in any way. Those who have started the series already and enjoyed it so far would probably be pleased to check out the new Orbit additions, particularly for those wanting to collect matching personal copies that look brilliant together on the shelf. For brand new readers, Sapkowski’s The Witcher should appeal to most that like gritty epic fantasy with standard European conventions, but those looking for more depth might want to look to his Hussite novels.

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