Sunday, January 12, 2014

Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski


Fantasy Novel Review


When I initially read, novel, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, I wasn't overly impressed. I don't know if it was the translation, the short story format, or just the writer getting to the introduction parts of his world and characters but it struck me as rather mediocre. Unfortunately for me, I had already purchased the Blood of Elves in kindle format when it was on sale. I figured I'd already read the first book, might as well plow through the second.

It was the right call. Blood of Elves is a much better book than the Last Wish. I don't know what the author Andrzej Sapkowski did between the books, or if the company found a better translator or what, but it is head and shoulders above the previous book.

The book's title, Blood of Elves, is a bit of a play on words. I initially thought it would be something about the sacrifice of elves in that the world had passed them by and it was their time to move on. And in part, that element is there. But more than that, it's the bloodline of elves. In the Witcher's setting, many individuals have the blood of elves in their heritage. Many can claim lineage to the elves.

It uses a lot of the material set up in The Last Wish, but isn't overly reliant on the reader having read that book. Instead it does a lot of subtle world building by allowing various factions and personalities from different regions and races to air out their world points which provides the reader with a lot of background and detail as to what the current state of the world is.

In doing so, it provides the reader with clearer understandings of the various characters including Geralt, the Witcher, an albino who was raised from an orphan, as are all witchers, to be a slayer of monsters. There are other cast members we are introduced to, including Ciri, who is a 'Surprise Child' which has a faerie tale quality to it. A Surprise Child is one conceived of when a favor is granted and payment is allowed to be anything. Very similar to King Arthur's own tale in the movie Excalibur. 

Many members of the cast make appearances here including Dandelion, a poet, bard, performer who acts as part time spy for his country, as well as being a friend to the Witcher himself. In some ways, he reminds me of a 'Companion' style character popular in Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion series. He's useful, but can't compare to the main cast so to speak.

The only problem with the book, is that it knows it's part of a series. While you wouldn't have to read any books previous to it to enjoy it, it ends on an obvious cliffhanger. This isn't something I'm fond of because there have been books by Ryamond Feist that just ended when things were 'getting good' and I was furious because at that time, I was reading them as they were coming out.

For those interested in the works of Andrzej Sapkowski, we have the following:

Blood of Elves in Paperback for under $8.00.

Blood of Elves in kindle format for under $7.00. 

Below I'll be discussing some of the specifics of fantasy novel Blood of Elves and how it might work in your own games.

Witcher

Geralt is a Witcher. We find out more about these characters here. They were originally orphans taken in and trained at a citadel. They were subject to magic, training, and specific diet to augment their abilities. Some of this training is physical and martial related. Some of it is magical and spell related. All of it on the focus of destroying monsters.

Initially I thought that such a concept might be a prestige or paragon path, but after seeing that the changes are permanent and that the effects include things like reduced aging and augment physical abilites from the schooling, it would seem to be more of a core class or at least a rational for why a core class might have such abilities. Depending on the campaign, for example, in an OSR style game and designing your own classes, something done a bit in the Player's Companion to Adventurer Conqueror King, you might try to restrict players from taking a 'powerful' class by having very high requirements to get in. This in short was the method that the official Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game used to limit say the number of Paladins in a game.

The thing that shines through in the Witcher though, is that a specific class has specific elements to it. In this case, the witcher's training ground and home has been destroyed prior to the start of the novel. This limits any new witchers from being fully changed as those that were not there and did survive, do not have the knowledge base on how to craft the alchemical drugs needed to physically transform any students they do have. 

Despite their foundation being destroyed though, most of them shown here are loyal to the cause and the idea. They do not hold with the idea of working for a specific country or place. Geralt even talks about the world failing and in the ruins of that new world, fighting and killing monsters until one of them kills him. It's good character depth and motivation.

World Building

At the start of the novel, a group of various individuals ranging from merchants and wizards to kings and advisors, are listening to an entertainer. After the tale of the entertainer, they begin to speak about the things in the tale and assigning specific names to things only hinted at by the speaker.

In the modern era, there may be a certain assumption of knowledge. You can know what's happening in your town, your city, you state, your country, your hemisphere. Knowledge is deep and detailed. Things can be verified and cross checked. The request for information are instant.

In most fantasy settings, even those with wizards and other methods of circumventing the perils of long term travel, this is not true. The people on the next horizon might be completely unknown. Historically groups like the Mongols seemed to arise from nothing and nowhere because no one had really investigated and more importantly, made that knowledge widely known.

Throw red herrings into the campaign when you can because chances of everyone knowing everything? Slight to non-existent in those times characters find themselves part of. 

Character Knowledge

On the other hand, don't be afraid to give the players specific knowledge that is not common. Allow them to know things that even the so called professionals are wrong on. In the novel, Geralt is amused by a scholar who is speaking to him of certain types of creatures and how something Geralt is talking about, simply cannot exist. Of course when Geralt is proven correct, the scholar quickly changes his mind.

Giving players specific knowledge based on their profession or actual personal experiences gives them a reward beyond magic and gold. It is information that they might be able to trade with others of their profession or use to get into guilds or companies.

Miscellania

There are numerous other bits that show up in the Blood of Elves that make for some potential good gaming.

For example, on rivers, borders might be a bit difficult to detect and enforce. When certain trade goods are taxed or banned outright, will characters claim the law on their side if on a watery surface and claim the tariffs were unfairly enforced?

Factions within Factions: The 'wild' demihumans believe that they are fighting for their freedom. They have been roused to action by outside agencies. Those agencies aren't too concerned for their welfare. This leads the 'wild' races of elf, dwarf, and gnome, to fight against those living within and working within the human kingdoms, leading some of the human kingdoms to closely question, and set up tests of loyalty for those races. A situation in which there can be no clear winners. 

Blood of Elves is a strong fantasy novel and far ahead of The Last Wish. After I finish wadding through some of my other back log of books, I'll be sure to return to the next novel in the series. Hell, I might even pick up the computer game by that time.

If you enjoyed my ramblings, please +1, share, and ask questions or comments on your own enjoyment/dislike of the book.