The following is the sixth in a series of eight reviews of the Witcher books. Because this review assumes reader familiarity with previous entries, there may be spoilers for the preceding texts.
After a brief break with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, our review of the book saga continues.
Who in all the realms would have thought that Geralt of Rivia, world-renowned witcher, would entertain a genuine vampire accompanying him on his quest to rescue his Child of Destiny? Where has Yennefer teleported off to during her daring escape from the newly-formed Lodge of Sorceresses? Is this Leo Bonnart character skillful enough with a sword such that he would be able to subdue a band of rogues, including one with witcher’s training? After the thrilling adventure that was Baptism of Fire, The Tower of Swallows mellows pacing for suspense.
Readers sensitive to mature content should approach the literary Witcher series with caution equitable to the video games. This is literature for adults. As each book in the series is over 400 pages, an exhaustive content guide detailing what Christians might find offensive would be a novel itself. In this space, I will adhere to The Tower of Swallows. To supplement potential gaps, I recommend reading the content guides of our reviews of The Last Wish, The Sword of Destiny, Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt, Baptism of Fire, The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3 for additional insight concerning the mature nature of this franchise.
I do not believe that there is anything I could indicate here that would be dramatically out of scope from what one should come to expect from a Sapkowski novel. At any rate, for the sake of posterity:
- During an all-out sword fight, the losers die with their own urine and deification soaking into their wounds. They are then decapitated. The lone surviving female fencer is publicly stripped and flogged.
- A man dies with his saliva cooling on the naked breast of a maiden. This act is performed coercively. In fact, sexual assault in the form of breast-fondling is relatively common.
- A sadistic woman masturbates and achieves climax as combatants suffer injury during a battle royale.
The Tower of Swallows shifts from Geralt to Ciri as the narrative centerpiece, consequently reinforcing my bias toward the video games. Admittedly, because of this partiality, I view the short stories online along with Baptism of Fire as the best books in the Witcher saga, specifically because of their focus on Geralt. Inversely, those who have played The Witcher 3 and desire more Ciri might be pleased.
I still enjoy how Sapkowski introduces a new character as a medium for immersing readers into the story. Ciri recalls memories of her abuse and imprisonment while her benevolent host, Vysogota, listens intently. But she does not, cannot hide indefinitely—her dreams spurn her into action while the hermit continues to hide in cowardice.
Meanwhile, Geralt and Yennefer independently make progress in their search for Ciri. The latter falls from the sky into the sea near the Skellige islands, and the local fishwives retrieve her. After an encounter with her old flame (!!!) Crach an Craite, urging him to “let bygones be bygones,” she convinces him to assist her in her search. Geralt, on the other hand, comes to terms with the fact that Ciri is not in Nilfgaard, and turns first toward Caed Dhu, and eventually Caed Myrkvid to seek the guidance of druids. Along the way, Geralt saves from a gang of bandits a girl who reminds him of Ciri named Angoulême, whose singular crudeness puts entire clans of dwarves to shame. Later, he meets a certain elf who will make Witcher 3 fans gasp in remembrance; this character who explains the significance of Ciri and her role in Ithlinne’s Prophecy.
Sapkowski’s writing skills do not atrophy, but even a skillful writer cannot overcome a narrative that serves primarily as anticipatory for the final novel. Baptism of Fire prominently elevates the second Nilfgaardian War as a backdrop for all other plot concerns. Beginning with this novel, Sapkowski reintroduces minor characters from as far back as The Last Wish in order to illustrate more intimately the mechanisms of war. These digressions are long, and I question their necessity. Certainly, three books worth of novels—five if including the Witcher saga short stories—readers will want to know more about Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer, not some randoms from the Temple of Melitele and how the war has impacted them. If Sapkowski wanted to bore readers with the fine minutia of quinary characters, I would have preferred to read a moment-by-moment account of the Battle of Sodden Hill, when fourteen of the twenty-two mages of the Northern Kingdoms lost their lives in the defense against the invader aggressor Nilfgaard (of course, we know now that Triss Merigold was supposed to be the fourteenth, so the legend is imprecise).
For four-fifths of the novel, Ciri makes for a poor protagonist. The texts place her in her teens, so I can only nod my head in nonconsent, too bothered to do the math from when Ciri was first introduced in “The Sword of Destiny,” to when she arrived at Kaer Morhen to receive her witcher’s training, to her departure therewith and her interactions with Yennefer before the journey toward Aretuza. I do not believe that she had enough time to train in any advanced skill, especially as an unprecedented witcher girl without the Trial of the Grasses, yet Sapkowski sets up her swordplay to indicate otherwise.
The Tower of Swallows is the low-point in the Witcher saga, which is unfortunate as it is the penultimate novel. Its saving grace is that it ends with a satisfying climax, but the scene that I speak of makes me wonder how much better the novel would have been with had it featured more sequences with heroes rather than zeroes. Those who wish to complete the series will have to endure this novel; if someone asked me which book in the Witcher series could be skipped to save time, it would be this one.
Bonus: The US translation of Wieża Jaskółki is the most explicit example of what many fans consider a bad translation. I do not speak Polish, but even I know that The Tower of Swallows does not make sense given all the context that we have been provided over the years. The UK translation, The Tower of the Swallow, makes more sense. This novel is about Ciri, after all.
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+ Half a Century of Poetry
+ Tawny Owl's commentary on democracy
+ Yennefer is the baddest woman on the planet
+ Angoulême's vagrancy contrasting with Ciri's regal upbringing
- Ciri as protagonist
- More prophecy posturing
- Too many unimportant characters
The Bottom Line
The Tower of Swallows is a necessary entry in the Witcher series, which is a low bar considering the previous novels.