Baptism of Fire is the fifth book in Andrzej Sapkowski’s WITCHER series. It starts up immediately after the events in The Time of Contempt, which you must read before picking up Baptism of Fire. This review will contain spoilers for previous books.
Previously, in The Time of Contempt, Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri got caught up in a coup on the island of Thanedd. The Chapter of Mages was destroyed as the sorcerers and sorceresses were either killed or otherwise dispersed. Geralt was defeated and severely wounded and Yennefer disappeared. The Emperor of Nilfgaard took advantage of the chaos and invaded the northern kingdoms, overrunning them one by one. Then all he needed was Ciri so he could get legitimate access to the throne of Cintra. But Ciri disappeared, too. She fled through a magic portal and ended up in a desert known as “the frying pan.” She barely survived with the help of a unicorn and then fell in with a gang of criminals known as the Rats. A bounty hunter has been sent to find her.
As Baptism of Fire opens, Geralt, who was nearly killed on Thanned, is recovering in Brokilon forest. He is eager to leave so he can find Ciri because he’s been dreaming that she’s in trouble. (The rumor is that Ciris is already in Nilfgaard, but the girl who was given to the emperor is not actually Ciri and the emperor knows it.) When Geralt leaves the forest, he is accompanied by a new character, a huntress named Milva, and his friend Dandelion the bard. The trip to Nilfgaard is slow… very slow… which is frustrating to Geralt, who begins feeling helpless. Along the way the little group meets and picks up various other characters such as a clan of dwarves, a vampire, a soldier who was earlier assumed to be an enemy, a queen, and some refugees. Meanwhile, we get occasional glimpses of what’s going on in the wider world. We see the remaining sorceresses plotting to influence future politics while trying to figure out how to preserve knowledge and training in magical skills so that the world doesn’t fall into a dark age. We see lots of political intrigue and we learn more about Ciri’s history and genealogy as well as the prophecies about her.
We see very little of Ciri in Baptism of Fire and the plot doesn’t progress much. Surprisingly, I was okay with that. Yeah, meetings and conversations go on too long and I would have preferred more action (of the non-roaming variety), but Sapkowski is a great storyteller who has a way of making even the most mundane activities entertaining. Here he describes the road they’re walking on:
Zoltan Chivay knew the reason for the road’s desperate state of disrepair. Following the last war with Nilfgaard, he explained, the need for building materials had increased tremendously. People had recalled that the Old Road was an almost inexhaustible source of dressed stone. And since the neglected road, built in the middle of nowhere and leading nowhere, had long ago lost its importance for transport and served few people, it was vandalized without mercy or restraint…
“But you don’t even know how to destroy things wisely,” Zoltan griped, ordering yet another attempt to pull a wheel out of a hole. “Why can’t you remove the stones gradually, from the edges of the road? You’re like children! Instead of eating a doughnut systematically, you gouge the jam out with a finger and then throw away the rest because it’s not sweet anymore.”
Geralt explained patiently that political geography was to blame for everything. The Old Road’s western end lay in Brugge, the eastern end in Temeria and the center in Sodden, so each kingdom destroyed its own section at its own discretion. In response, Zoltan obscenely stated where he’d happily shove all the kings and listed some imaginative indecencies he would commit regarding their politics, while Field Marshal Windbag added his own contributions to the subject of the kings’ mothers.
The further they went, the worse it became. Zoltan’s comparison with a jam doughnut turned out to be less than apt; the road was coming to resemble a suet pudding with all the raisins gouged out…
The Witcher’s comrades are engaging and interesting and it’s fun to listen to them cleverly banter with each other. I didn’t mind watching them wander through their chaotic landscape, traveling through war-torn or plague-ravaged villages, occasionally pausing to vanquish marauders, protect women and children, deal with greedy peasants, escape from captivity, discuss herb lore, philosophize about various topics (such as the symbolism of blood in vampire mythology), or debunk legends with mathematical proofs. There is even a moving discussion of abortion. A few scenes were hilarious such as when the group encounters some peasants who assume Milva’s behavior should conform to normal sex roles, or when they come upon a village where a woman is on trial for being a witch, or when one character is getting tortured with maple syrup.
Even though little of importance to the overarching plot happens in A Baptism of Fire, it’s definitely not boring. In that way, it’s similar to the first two WITCHER story collections, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, which I actually liked better than the two more “on-track” novels that followed. I think Sapkowski is at his best when showing us amusing little vignettes that happen as the Witcher and Dandelion travel through the kingdoms meeting a lot of different characters. It reminds me a bit of Jack Vance’s funny stories about Cugel the clever.
The audio versions of the WITCHER books, narrated by Peter Kenny, are especially entertaining. Kenny is a terrific actor who really brings this story to life. Baptism of Fire is 12 hours long and produced by Hachette Audio.