Title: Baptism of Fire
Series: # 5 in The Witcher Saga
Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
Published: 1996 (English translation from 2014)
For more information about The Witcher Series, and my review of previous books, you can find my introductory post HERE.
And the tale of godawful blurbs continues… Wizards? Guardian of the innocent? So bad, so, so bad.
Baptism of Fire is the fifth book in the story about the Witcher Geralt and his child of destiny, Ciri. When we left them at the end of Time of Contempt, both found themselves in less than ideal situations.
After her escape from Thanedd Island, a traumatized and emotionally switched off Ciri has joined a gang of outlaws. And that’s where she stays.
Baptism of Fire is Geralt’s book; his story-line is the dominate one, and we spend most of it in his company.
Still recovering from the severe injuries his confrontation with Vilgefortz gave him, Geralt has left Brokilon forest where he’s been in the care of the dryads. He’s accompanied by Dandelion, and a woman named Milva.
Unaware of Ciri’s true location, and acting on rumors placing her in Nilfgaard, he’s set out to rescue her from the emperor who, according to those same rumors, plans to marry her.
Meanwhile, the chapter of mages lies in ruin. In this void, a group of sorceresses form a clandestine group intending to influence and manipulate the political landscape. Yennefer is thrown into this reality and has to choose between them and her love for Ciri.
In my review of Time of Contempt, I wrote that it marked the beginning of a new phase in the series. That it was the start of the main character’s individual journeys.
In Baptism of Fire, Geralt, Yennefer, and Ciri are separated from each other. Apart from their physical separation, the events on Thanedd Island have left them questioning each-others loyalties and motives.
They are on three separate paths that will pit them against individual obstacles, antagonists, and see them form alliances with old and new characters.
Baptism of Fire, like the previous books, continues to lean on political intrigue, several scheming fractions, and the consequences of war.
However, more than anything, Baptism of Fire is the literal equivalent of a road-trip movie. A dark, morally complex road-trip where lots of people get their bodies hacked to bits.
When Geralt and company set out from Brokilon Forest, their course set on Nilfgaard, they have a journey of roughly two-thousand five-hundred miles in front of them. A journey that will take them though a war-torn landscape forcing them off the main roads.
They’re trying to avoid being caught-up in the surrounding chaos. This leads to a character-focused storytelling where the “big plot” is set aside for minor, local events they encounter on the road.
There are big, world-changing events happening, the larger plot is still there in the background, and you as a reader get glimpse though chapters told from other characters POVs and interludes. But, this book is about Geralt, his development, growth, and his grudging abandonment of the political neutrality he’s been trying to live by.
It’s also a story about friendship, loyalty and Geralt facing the fact that, despite his best efforts, people follow him. His plans to go the distance alone and not involving others in his dangerous mission backfires. People are drawn to him and soon, Geralt, Dandelion, and Milva are joined by others.
Despite, or maybe because of, it’s slow pace and focus on more grounded, everyday events this book also packs a more emotional punch. As the group make their way across a land ravaged by war there are several heavy scenes.
Sapkowski is not a writer that glorifies medieval warfare, his descriptions are raw, and uncensored. There is no good side, just factions fighting each other.
Although the series this far has brought out emotional reactions from me, this is the first book where I actually cried while reading. There is one scene in particular, depicting soldiers raping a woman that is so gut-wrenching it’s painful to read.
It’s not a graphic or drawn out scene; it’s not rape as entertainment. What makes it so impactful is the restraint in the writing.
Sapkowski doesn’t make things easy for us. It’s brutally realistic and puts our characters face to face with the worst sides of humanity while, at the same time, not providing us with simple and easy answers like: they’re evil.
Sapkowski’s lengthy dialogue is filled with ethical and moral discussions. He forces his characters into complex situations without an obvious solution or a clear sense of right or wrong. The right choice is seldom heroic, instead it’s the one that ensures the company can keep moving.
It’s difficult to read but also what makes this series so good.
Despite this infinite grayscale of questionable choices and morality, this book is also full of humor, compassion, banter, and loyalty. The company that grows around Geralt is both entertaining and endearing. There’s great dialogue and some truly funny scenes.
Best of all, Geralt’s character growth in this book is incredible. It’s so good.
As for negatives, it’s the same things I’ve written about in previous reviews. If you went into this series expecting to see Geralt kick ass and “do a lot of witchering” you’ll be disappointed.
If you don’t like slow moving stories focused on dialogue and intrigue, or prefer characters, events, and choices that are easily divided into black or white, you’ll hate it.
As for this specific book, I think some readers might find it lacking in direction and/or plot. Baptism of Fire is a book focused on growing Geralt as character instead of the over-arching plot. As such, I think your opinion of this book will come down to if you’re a plot-driven or character-driven reader. I’m very character-driven, therefore I love it.
This is a series that continues to maintain a high and consistent standard. There’s no “middle book syndrome”, no installment feels like a filler or redundant.
Instead, Sapkowski’s storytelling constantly shifts focus, Blood of Elves centers around building character relationships, Time of Contempt leans on political intrigue, and Baptism of Fire, through it’s road trip format, shifts the story down to a grounded, human level.
It’s very effective.
If you’ve followed along in my witcher reviews, you’ll not be surprised that this is another top rating for me. Both Time of Contempt and the next book in the series, The Tower of Swallows are fantastic. But, if I had to choose a favorite, Baptism of Fire is the one.
My Rating: 10/10