The Time of Contempt picks up the story of Geralt of Rivia an unspecified, but not terribly long, time after the events of Blood of Elves. Sapkowski opens the novel by following a royal messenger through several errands, and he uses that device to deliver to readers a quick burst of exposition about the state of affairs in the northern kingdoms, a state that is, to say the least, unsettled. More monsters than usual are about in the lands, and the kings are mobilizing armies. The understanding between kings and sorcerers has broken down, with the former declining to trust the latter. All of these developments mean more work for messengers, who deliver secret verbal messages as well as the more usual diplomatic letters. The developments also mean more demand for the services of Geralt, a witcher — a fighter possessed of unnatural speed and no little magical ability.
Geralt claims neutrality in all of the machinations of the kingdoms around him, saying he fights monsters for anyone who will pay his fees. But of course the plotters have other ideas about his neutrality; further, his connections to sorcerers and other elements of history mean that he will have a very difficult time staying on the sidelines. As Trotsky did not quite say “You may not be interested in the war, but the war is interested in you.”
Geralt’s ties to politics also stem from his personal entanglement with the sorceress Yennefer, and the choice the two of them made to hide Ciri, heiress to a border kingdom and child of prophecy, at the witchers’ training citadel. Those events were related in Blood of Elves, but some of the consequences become apparent in this book.
Ciri may be a child of prophecy and destiny, but in this book she is mostly a willful adolescent who likes nothing more than to escape her minders for either child-like play or heartfelt romanticism. Ciri is learning who she is, but she has neither adult powers nor adult judgement, and that gets both her and the people around her into trouble.
I have been enjoying the Witcher series, though I haven’t played the video game which is apparently the main commercial driver, and I am glad that the fourth and fifth books are slated for English translation (publication scheduled for 2016 and 2017). The set pieces in The Time of Contempt are generally good — what happens to Ciri after she goes through a magical portal is particularly good, whereas the sorcerers’ conclave was not fully convincing — and the overarching story continues to develop at a pace that confounds expectations from English-language fantasy.
Sapkowski wrote The Time of Contempt in the mid-1990s, when the initial euphoria of overthrowing Communism in Poland had worn off, the Solidarity coalition had split into multiple feuding factions, economic difficulties were all around, and the larger goals such as membership in the European Union seemed terribly distant. Indeed, it was possible that for all of their rhetoric, the Western nations might not ever welcome Poland as a peer. It would not have been the first time that Poland had been left to muddle through a time of contempt. Indeed, Sapkowski was born just three years after the end of World War II, a war that was fought with greater savagery in Poland than practically anywhere else. The author would have grown up surrounded by visual reminders of the war, and he would have heard stories of the war, while experiencing the Stalinist regime that had been imposed on Poland afterward with great contempt for its own history and institutions.
The novel does not draw explicitly on either of these events, or on the other times of contempt that it is not hard to find in Polish history. But the overall background, the divisions, fears, and domineering neighbor, are all recognizable aspects of the Polish experience. On one level, Geralt’s stories are just fantastic, action-packed adventures. But they also reveal a different historical background for looking at fantasy adventures. That added depth, and the strangeness of a different tradition, make me look forward to the next three, knowing that they will be fun, exciting, and surprising.