Review: Baptism of Fire / Author: Andrzej Sapkowski / Publisher: Gollancz / Release Date: Out Now
Andrzej Sapkowski’s Baptism of Fire is hardly a recent title, having been originally published in 1996. With the critically acclaimed Witcher video games based on his extensive saga, and the demand for more literary fantasy, it’s a surprise it’s taken until 2014 to get an English translation.
The third in the Witcher saga is an incredibly nuanced, well-articulated novel, imbued with a self-assured command of description and brimming with Eastern European folklore. There’s enough re-cap snuck in to give first time readers the benefit of the doubt. Sapkowski has the discipline and styling of George R.R. Martin, and fans of Martin will appreciate the political espionage, characterisation and intelligence of Baptism of Fire, finding it familiar but refreshing.
Sapkowski makes you aware of the environment, cementing the reader in the political and geographic climates of the novel, meticulously describing the mechanics of the world and its inhabitants. The dialogue is commendable and expertly balances a believable fantasy aesthetic without being dull, comical or pretentious.
While Milva is a compelling figure — feminist at best, progressive at worst — it’s Geralt, the Witcher himself, who, unsurprisingly, demands and inspires the most attention. There’s an omnipresent quality to him, a sly mystery.
All the female characters exist purely on their own merits and are far from token. Sapkowski doesn’t patronise women by trying to pander them, nor are they written solely as titillation. Too often male writers struggle to articulate strong females, Sapkowski must be a keen observer as his characters aren’t propped up by weak writing. The book, and specifically the saga, explores gender and sexuality with objective integrity.
The book also explores the abhorrent abuse and fear of women throughout history, expressed by the witch hunts, and points the finger at religion. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the book takes a cynical stance on religion, especially given the strong presence of the Catholic Church in Poland.
Poland’s history is fraught with cruelty and violence and culturally they’re a people still making sense of their collective history through art, through music and through writing. The novel channels World War 2 specifically, tapping into the fear and paranoia surrounding the secret police and concentration camps, and indeed the novel is set against a backdrop of escalating warfare, captured in all its intensity and calamity.
Although Sapkowski doesn’t flinch away from the realities of violence and anatomy, he never dwells on it. This is an attitude that extends to sex and sexuality, a departure from eager, younger and hornier writers. Reading the book you realise the profound differences, stylistically and culturally, between Eastern Europe and American fiction.
There’s something theatrical about the novel; the sprawling, in-depth conversations would translate well to the stage and, noting its success as a video game, there’s something wonderfully transferable and expansive about the text. In novel form however, Sapkowski demonstrates great restraint and doesn’t get carried away with the word count, though there are a few too many adverbs and the occasional lazy plot device.
Spin-off novels from video games usually result in pot-boilers, with the occasional gem, but video games inspired by fiction, now that’s interesting. Storytelling is becoming increasingly more important in games, and drawing from stronger, more intelligent novels can only be a good thing. Maybe the future of popular fiction is cross-cultural and generational. In whatever case, the future for both mediums is bright, and hopefully Sapkowksi has more to contribute to both.