Review of The Tower of Swallows
With the help of a heretical, academic hermit named Vysogota, Ciri recovers from her injuries and eventually explains how she came to be in his swamp, the death of the Rats at the hands of the bounty hunter Bonhart, and the circumstances that led to her escape. Knowing she is still pursued, Ciri gathers her strength and her wits to take a measure of vengeance and make for the Tower of Swallows, an ancient ruin that may contain a teleporting device she can use to return home.
In the meantime, Geralt and Yennifer are still on separate paths trying to find Ciri before she can get trapped by either the treacherous sorcerer Vilgefortz or the Emperor of Nilfgaard. The Witcher Geralt is forced to deal with corrupt lawmen, ambushes, a fatalistic elf, and the good intentions of his companions while searching for druids who may have the means to locate Ciri. Yennifer, wanted as a traitor and outcast sorceress, arrives in Skellige not only to discover a means of finding Ciri but also to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths-at-sea of Ciri’s parents. She is also confronted with the questions of how much she’ll suffer and what she’ll sacrifice to help Ciri stay safe.
“I’m a Witcher. I Kill Monsters”
A significant amount of the novel centers on Ciri who really comes into her own as a character who suffers, grows, and makes choices about the kind of person she wants to be, culminating in her choices to set out to rescue the very people trying to rescue her and her attempt to live up to what she believes it means to be a witcher (362, 394). Even parts of the story that seem like digressions, such as Crach an Craite’s story about Ciri’s ice skating prowess, return to fill out her character in surprising ways (338-40, 427). She’s more dynamic than Geralt and Yennifer who have their resolve and convictions tested in their search for their surrogate daughter.
Rience and Vilgefortz stand out as villains as the scope of their goals and the fullness of their depravity become known. Vilgefortz has perhaps the creepiest line of dialogue in the whole Witcher series when, in making a pact with hired killers searching for Ciri, he says, “I only need her placenta. Her womb. Once I’ve removed it, you can take the rest” (374). Bonhart, the sadistic bounty hunter, is a vicious and shocking antagonist who becomes an obstacle worthy of conflict with the protagonists and worthy of a reader’s disgust. All these developments work in favor of the novel and the series.
On the whole, the Witcher series has been critical of institutions that take away peoples’ humanity to preserve oppression in the name of order, as is the case with Fulko Artevelde (168-9, 175-6). There haven’t been, however, many outright villains to stand as a direct challenge to the protagonists. Stefan Skellen, for instance, epitomizes this element from other Witcher novels. He’s trying to replace a monarchy with a democratic republic—an idea that draws laughter from everyone—but his methods for achieving this end involve putting together a posse to hunt down and kill a sixteen-year-old girl. In the name of an alleged greater good, he commits horrendous crimes. His willingness to track and kill one person in the name of an abstraction underlines this recurring theme of dehumanization in the series. Esterad of Kovir comes the closest to an outright explanation of this dehumanizing viewpoint, and his revulsion is clear:
In every country one may encounter people who are blind fanatics for the idea of social order [....] They don’t murder, they rescue order. They don’t torture, they don’t blackmail: they safeguard the national interest and fight for order. For such people, the life of an individual—should that individual violate the dogma of the established order—is not worth a farthing or a shrug. (281)
His criticism could be applied to just about anyone in authority in the Witcher series or anyone involved in the operation and maintenance of oppressive regimes in real life. This perspective can also be found in the stories of other contemporary fantasy authors like Joe Abercrombie and George Martin.
Silver for Monsters; Steel for Humans
Bonhart represents a grotesque reflection of Geralt; he hunts and kills people for money and pleasure whereas the witcher kills monsters only when they threaten other people. If nothing else, the contrast in their characters is revealed through their treatment of Ciri. While both Bonhart and Geralt are frightening and dangerous men, only one of them has any regard for Ciri as a person.
Avallac’h also represents a contrast with Geralt. He’s obsessed with prophecy and how Ciri’s genetic code represents destiny. He doesn’t see her as a person at all, which is the exact opposite of Geralt who has risked his life dozens of times in his attempt to find her and make sure she has a chance to live her own life. Avallac’h, much like the Sorceress Lodge from Baptism of Fire, comes across as vile and manipulative in his fixation with Ciri’s bloodline producing a messianic figure, and readers will notice how close this puts him to outright villains like Vilgefortz or the scheming Bene Gesserit from the Dune series. His lengthy monologue at Geralt boils down to the idea that individual people don’t matter, only some grand historical process (242-7). This, of course, is a perspective the witcher rejects. In a roundabout way, the novel comes to pass judgment on Avallac’h and his position through one of the odd digressions often found in the Witcher series. Readers are treated to the history of the small nation of Kovir when Dijkstra comes to visit and ask for political and economic assistance (269-77). The history serves as a rejection of everything Avallac’h says because it shows how bold individuals can choose to work together and change the world for the better as they transform a region thought of as worthless into a secure and vigorous home worth having. Yennifer, too, in her dismissive way scoffs at any sort of predestination when she says that destiny, “can be interpreted in many, many different ways” (310). In a related note, the fatalism of Avallac’h is ultimately rejected by the Witcher video games, too, as choices the player makes affect how the setting develops and the variety of ways in which the games can end.
I’ve Been to Moria, but not Through the Mines
From the start, readers know dates will be important, even as some characters lose track of time. The story is then told out of order, sometimes with jumps far into the future. Sometimes this technique creates tension or even propels characters to make certain choices, but it isn’t always clear to the reader why the story is told this way, as is the case with some scenes in Kovir and the visits of Yennifer and Triss to Skellige.
Angoulême is a fascinating character whose history is a cautionary tale for what happens to children left to fend for themselves in a world of abusive people out only for their own narrow interests (196-9). She serves as an interesting addition to Geralt’s crew, but her dialogue, thick with jargon and slang that even other characters cannot always decipher, can slow down some scenes.
The ending it rather abrupt, and it doesn’t answer nearly as many questions as it raises. This development is fairly standard for a Witcher book, but with only one more novel left, a reader would not be wrong in hoping for a little more closure at this junction.
All in all, The Tower of Swallows is certainly a worthwhile read and is likely the best of all the novels in the Witcher series. The pay off in this book justifies much of the slow build in the previous novels as well as showcasing what Sapkowski can accomplish with his setting and characters.
Sapkowski, Andrzej. The Tower of Swallows. French, David (tran). Orbit, 2016.
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© 2016 Seth Tomko