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Review of The Time of Contempt
Following the events of Blood of Elves, the Witcher, Geralt, is drawn into international machinations, arcane betrayals, and assassination attempts all while Ciri and Yennifer try to stay ahead of both Nilfgaardian man-hunters and spies from the disparate lords of the northern kingdoms.
All the major characters are brought together at a conference of wizards who, ostensibly are planning on setting a unified course of action to aid the northern kings and trade gossip. However, a faction of sorcerers stages a coup and attempts to kidnap Ciri to capitalize on a prophecy that may or may not relate to her. In the course of events, Geralt is injured and Yennifer and Ciri both vanish.
Sheltered in a mystic forest to recover, Geralt only learns about how deep the Niflgaardian incursion has crept north from the wandering bard, Dandelion. For her part, Ciri appears and regains consciousness in a foreign wasteland and nearly perishes before being rescued through her own resourcefulness and a unicorn. Bounty hunters briefly capture her before she escapes with group of nihilistic orphans who recruit her to the cause of disruptive attacks against the Nilfgaardians.
To Everything There is a Season
In an interesting bit of world building, Sapkowski shows the readers not only fantastical adventures but also more mundane aspects of the setting. Geralt visits lawyers (18). Yennifer goes to a bank run by Dwarves (55). Unfortunately, these developments also slow down the first half of the novel. Thankfully, Ciri manages to consistently cause trouble whether she’s in a city market, a congress of mages, or an outpost village.
There is a continuing theme neutrality. With all the scheming and double crosses that mount as the book progresses, Geralt and his unwillingness to takes sides in their disputes makes him appear the better for it, though he suffers. As the Witcher says, “my neutrality outrages everybody [...] it makes me subject to offers of pacts and agreements, offers of collaboration, lectures about the necessity to make choices and join the right side” (146). Geralt refuses to be drawn into a world of pure dualities, where everyone must have one loyalty or another because it only leads to the conflicts that dominate the second half of the novel and likely more novels to come.
This neutrality is an extension of Geralt’s professional and personal choices to put the needs of others before himself, especially Yennifer and Ciri. The novel does not present this view as a moral panacea, though. Geralt may use his neutrality to create a code of ethical action but others use it as a reason for inaction. Terrible crimes can be permitted when people use neutrality as a shield from responsibility, such as when Dandelion says, “Money has no fatherland [....] The merchants don’t care whose rule they make their money under [....] Dead merchants don’t make money or pay taxes” (215). Similarly, the Rats (the group Ciri joins) care for nothing but violence because they’ve been dispossessed of their families and homes: they can see no better future so why care (327)? As Ciri says, “They taught me how to kill, telling me that’s how I would save people. It was one big lie” (279). Her despair echoes through the later parts of the novel where scheming and warfare lead to ruining lives, not improving them.
Time of Troubles
The novel is slow until the mid-point where the scheming becomes action. These slow developing elements can be aggravating given that Geralt and Ciri are characters of action and consequence. The novel is better when they are acting and reacting to their circumstances rather than taking in the scenery. On a similar note, following Ciri in later parts can be difficult because, owing to her mental state, it is difficult to separate her hallucinations from the real events in the story. For instance, there may or may not be a unicorn for a portion of her story, but even she doubts the reality for it. Ambivalence like this can be irritating or thrilling depending on the reader’s mood and commitment to the characters and narrative. This will not be a problem for everyone, but the experience can be disorienting for some readers.
Continuing Tales of the Witcher
On the whole The Time of Contempt is worth a reader’s time, especially for anyone who enjoys heroic fantasy. Fans of the Witcher series will enjoy the novel, particularly its second half. The book is clearly part of a continuing story line, so it functions mostly as a bridge between other Witcher novels rather than a stand-alone book.
Sapkowski, Andrzej. The Time of Contempt. Trans. David French. New York: Orbit, 2013.
© 2013 Seth Tomko