Welcome back to The Daily Fandom’s retrospective series on The Witcher Saga. The duo of Kyle and Claudia have reached the fourth book in the series, Time of Contempt. This is Kyle’s favorite book in The Witcher Saga for many reasons. Time of Contempt shatters the status quo. This includes the breaking of several key characters, malicious betrayals, and the unveiling of forces our characters will fight in later books. Needless to say, this will prove to be a fascinating analysis.
Yennefer gets much more development this book, and finally crystallizes into a likable character, as opposed to just a mildly interesting one. Yennefer is somehow warmer, friendlier, and more enigmatic here than she is through the entirely of her introduction in the short stories. Maybe it’s just the maturation of Sapkowski’s writing, but for once Yennefer’s femininity isn’t being flaunted like a cheap accessory. Certainly some characters aren’t as fully developed, but it starts to come across as funny. Especially in the face of a flustered but steadfastly loyal Geralt and venomously jealous Yen.
Yen also becomes significantly more powerful than in previous appearances. While Sapkowski spent a lot of time telling readers Yen was important, this book actually showed it. Her presence as a council member, and well regarded Sorceress in her own right, actually factors into the plot more than Geralt. Geralt basically spends the book unwittingly bouncing between warring political factions.
Most moving, this book however, is Geralt and Yen’s love confession. While it’s a small moment, it’s the first realistic portrayal of their love. And Yennefer’s attitude during the dinner, including how she makes sure everyone knows who Geralt is with, made her far more likable and warm.
Yennefer gets a larger focus this book, she’s even on the cover! However, it’s primarily through the eyes of Ciri that we get to see Yen’s arc. The bond that was forming between them in Blood of Elves fully cements here in a beautiful way. The final scene with Yen in it is quite literally Yen sacrificing herself to get Ciri to safety. She, much like Geralt, has been a bit resistant to the growing bond but finally admits it. She admits to Ciri herself that she is Ciri’s mother. Yen finally has the one thing she always wanted, a child. Only to lose it.
Her relationship with Geralt also takes a step forward. We find out through her conversations that she funds Geralt’s contracts. Geralt would be far more destitute if it wasn’t for her. She clearly loves him; she just has never said the actual words and neither has Geralt. Which is why their scenes together on Thanedd are beautiful because their admission of love is so down to earth. Their love affair started as a grand sweeping gesture and as time passed and they became accustomed to each other, that love grew stronger and more grounded in their interactions.
Yen still keeps people at arm’s length, but Geralt and Ciri are the exception. She clearly demonstrates this to everyone in multiple ways. From the way she treats Ciri in front of fellow sorceresses to her very public kiss with Geralt. She even tells Triss to back off because Geralt is hers and she will fight to keep her family together. Dipolomatically, of course.
The most important development for Geralt at this stage of the books is his turn from neutrality. I think it bears reflecting on exactly the things that drive him to this conclusion.
As a Witcher, Geralt has stubbornly maintained his neutral status. He has one job. His morals have nothing to do with the socio-political climate around him. Every short story and the first book demonstrate this stance, where it meets with derision from the other characters.
Geralt believes this neutrality be natural, and a way to protect himself and his loved ones. He’s wary of the consequences of a world currently on the brink of war. This complacency gets Geralt ping ponged around a dinner with some of the most powerful people in the world. They are so powerful, the lords have ostracized them out of fear. Even so, Geralt continuously denies he will take a side, either against the Nilfgaardians or not.
While I wholeheartedly agree with the philosophy behind this notion, it’s obvious from the start that Geralt is being warned. There will be no way to remain truly neutral if he intends to secure the safety of other people. It takes the disappearance of both Yennefer and Ciri to drive him to the point of admitting this.
As we saw at the end of Blood of Elves, Geralt has come to realize that his new makeshift family is the most important thing to him. Time of Contempt is effectively Geralt attempting to get the family back together and make it work. We even hear about how he wants to retire from the witcher life and live peacefully. He dreams of a house with Yen and Ciri. Very normal thinking for a very unusual person.
What is lovely is that at the beginning of the book Sapkowski re-establishes that Geralt is incredibly smart and can maneuver his way around people and politics. Then he throws Geralt into the politics and backstabbing of the mages, something Geralt hates. He is there for Yen’s benefit and that is all. But everyone wants to use him, because he protecting Ciri and thus through him they have access to Ciri. Geralt wants none of it and even seems tired of the entire event. However, he has scruples and gets involved in events far bigger than him.
Geralt’s neutral stance is starting to take on a more nuanced perspective. It’s becoming less of an “choose the lesser of two evils” situation and more of “how can I protect my family” situation. There is a recurring theme of powerlessness in this book and Geralt knows he can’t help everyone. But if he can help his new family, then maybe all will be right for him.
Ciri is my favorite character, as we’ve established. This book is therefore a little hard to read. Ciri isn’t weak, and she is by no means portrayed unfairly, but this book is all about breaking Ciri.
The beginning half is mostly a character study on Geralt and Yenn and their relationship. Ciri features only as much as any clever girl will. She gets into trouble, and generally makes a nuisance of herself. The real meat of her journey, however, is after the mages fall.
For the first time since escaping Cintra Ciri is alone. She struggles to survive in a desert, far from home. Forced to trek across it without hope or a sign of what will come. Her journey is physically painful, but it is only a beginning. The unicorn she meets on this journey is, perhaps, the highlight of the entire series of events to follow. Ciri is apprehended. And her torment during her capture is almost worse, if only because as a reader we all know what happens to people like Ciri in books like this. And finally, when it seems she might be rescued at last, she’s forced into sex by the very people who saved her.
This series of challenges and false hope spots are more damaging with each occurrence. By the end Ciri’s new name is not only fitting, but an almost sad reminder for the reader of the fact she is no longer as naive as she once was.
Time of Contempt can easily be described as the breaking of Ciri. She has been the chosen one for two short stories and an entire novel. Positive, brave, kind, and sure of her destiny. But now that veil is tearing away, which comes to a head when she is teleported to the Korath Desert.
Earlier in the book, Sapkowski establishes that Ciri truly is the sum of both Geralt and Yen. Her scenes at the market in Gors Velen show this clearly. She even states in that scene that she never loses her way. Then we parallel that when she is by herself, desperately trying to survive a horrible situation. She gets reckless, pulls magic from a fire source and gets overwhelmed by the energy. And she makes a choice, a choice that she will regret later, she forsakes magic. She has lost her way.
But as something ends, something always begins. A new road opens for her and she joins the rag tag group of thieves known as the Rats. But as she finds out, her saviours are not as good as they seem. This is where she loses all hope. She feels abandoned, alone, scared, and angry. To her, there is nothing left but contempt, for the world, for people, and for her destiny.
Overarching Plot of Time of Contempt
Time of Contempt reads infinitely better than its predecessor. Sapkowski has nailed a delightful, light hearted, and punchy pace. He certainly still prefers dialogue, but there’s a much stronger balance between narrative and dialogue in this book.
He’s also begun to understand how to make politics interesting. Instead of talking heads at a table, we spend the political meat of this book at a dinner party. It’s full of interesting sights and a love confession most readers have been waiting for. This keeps the reader engaged even when the names get long or the details get lost.
The driving force behind this book is, of course, the characters. The character writing in this story is stronger than almost any story Sapkowski has written yet. Yennefer, Ciri, and Geralt are all at their most likable and most distinct. This is partially because Sapkowski has started to take the characters in and out of their element more freely. Geralt at the sorcerer’s dinner party was far more relatable than he is most of the time. In the same way Ciri’s journey stirred more emotions than anything I’ve read from him yet.
Ultimately, however, Sapkowski shines most when playing with tropes and trying to be subversive. I hope in the next couple books to see some return to form there.
Time of Contempt is my favourite book in The Witcher Saga. I think it all boils down to the Thanedd Coup. Not only is there a big climatic moment that changes everything going forward, but it’s such a treat to read. Chaos is running rampant and we follow Geralt and Ciri as they attempt to navigate this icy situation. A situation that is far bigger than them and they really want nothing to do with it. And it ends with a nice inversion of a trope, which is the fight between the hero and the villain. Because it really isn’t a fight. Geralt stood no chance against Vilgefortz and he never will. Despite Vilgefortz protests, they are not equals in any respect.
The opening bit of this book is told from the perspective of a simple and innocent messenger, Aplegatt. What is lovely about this sequence is that Sapkowski draws in the reader by making the big situations small and mundane. This is something he has attempted before and will continue to do. And the fact that a large majority of the “shit hitting the fan” as it were could have been potentially stopped. But, of course, all wars start with one simple spark. And to make matters worse, this spark emanated from a bet.
Sapkowski continues to add layers to the story that won’t come up for quite some time. The Wild Hunt appears, after only a mention in A Shard of Ice. And Stefan Skellen shows up at the very end. Each are out to get Ciri for different reasons that will become clear in later books. But this adds fuel to the fire that this situation isn’t just double sided. There are many perspectives.
I chose heroism for my “theme” this book because I think, in the context of the Witcher world, it’s one of the more complex topics that starts to emerge. Currently in the book, attempts to address racism, violence, and monarchy have all fallen flat. There’s a real sense of two dimensionality to some of these encounters. The book lacks subtlety that can make it hard to take the plights of any one group seriously. The Witcher Saga is a schlocky action series and it’s attempts to tackle heavier topics suffer for it.
But something that emerges, almost without trying, is the idea of a hero. The series purposefully tries to toe the line of what’s acceptable. The Witcher Saga is blatantly edgy, it’s heroes are supposed to come across as morally dubious.
And yet all the same the series has to have a hero. Not because all stories must have heroes, but because Sapkowski has given us plenty of villains. It is human nature to assume the people opposed to those villains have the moral high ground. And right now, whether realizing it or not, Geralt and his family are ultimately playing the role of hero. The more villains that emerge, the more danger Ciri is in, the more Geralt emerges as a heroic figure, instead of the more ambiguous figure he seems to have been in the short stories.
Where those ideas go, and how it will interplay with the Chosen One trope currently being tossed around, has yet to be seen, but I think it’s something unique to the series.
The Witcher Saga is full of morally grey characters. Trying to define good and evil in a world like this is incredibly hard, as it’s not just a straight line. This is what the short story The Lesser Evil was all about. However, there are characters in The Witcher Saga that swing far closer to one side or the other. Vilgefortz, for instance, is unquestionably evil. Even though he endured horrible things, his actions are very clearly the work of someone who is morally bankrupt. Conversely, you have someone like Geralt.
Geralt is not a great man, it would be a stretch at times to even call him a good man. What he is ultimately concerned with is maintaining his sense of neutrality and keeping his family together. However, he has a heart, one few people in The Witcher Saga have. He sees the world around him is wrong but understands he probably can’t change it. In Time of Contempt, we saw his neutrality finally break. This leads him on the path to be a more traditional hero.
The world of The Witcher Saga is an unforgiving one. We have seen with Ciri that someone who is kind and sure of herself can be broken down into many pieces. Over the course of these books, many people will stand up to do the right thing, but more than likely it will get them killed. Heroism exists in the heart of a few, but the question becomes can they show that heroism openly?
Mage Arrogance and Complacency
The mages as an economic and political powerhouse is something that has come up time and time again since the short stories. Kyle warned me about some of the politics that would emerge as the books progressed. I’m still not a huge fan of the mages themselves. I’m not super familiar with the inner workings of any political bodies, unless you count student clubs and governments, but the inner workings of the mages conspiracies seems juvenile for the most part. Which lines up with the Witcher world building but loses my interest quickly.
That said, Geralt’s encounter with them reads delightfully like like a pulp adventure series of shenanigans and backstabbings. The mages’ assurance of their own importance plays out in a similar vein to Geralt’s opinion that he doesn’t have to pick sides. Anyone who’s anyone in this book, unfortunately, find out their ideas about how the world works are absolutely incorrect.
Something I would like to see would be a story that focuses a bit more on the economics of the mages’ place in society. We get hints of it in the short stories, but I would happily read the misadventures of the local mage accountant anytime.
This is the first book in The Witcher Saga to truly delve into the mages as a political and cultural entity. We have gotten hints of how they do things, but never got a good glimpse into their world. Through Yennefer, Visenna, Phillipa, and Tissaia we have gained an understanding of how magic works, their backing of certain political powers, and how they help the north win against Nilfgaard at the Battle of Sodden.
Now, we get to see inside Aretuza, the school for sorceress and get to witness a conclave between the Chapter and the Brotherhood. Everything has a way being that cannot change. Eating at the ball is a social faux pas, dressing a certain way is a social faux pas and so forth. Everything is orderly, unchanging, and is a complete display of power. Tissaia’s own obsession with order exemplifies this perfectly, which is why she commits suicide rather than let chaos destroy her perfect and orderly complacency. They are even expected to bring a guest on their arm to this conclave and display them like their own personal property. Geralt feels like a piece of meat thrown into a den of wolves for this exact reason.
The scene where Yen and Margarita Laux-Antille strip naked in the bathhouse to distract the soldier walking in only to find out that Rayla is a woman, demonstrates the main theme of the mages. They have become complacent, only caring about the power they wield whether it be physical, political, or material. To put it another way, they are drunk on their own sense of self-worth. And that arrogance causes their downfall. Phillipa plays into Vilgefortz hand, killing many of her number and letting Nilfgaard take them off the board. They needed a kick in their complacency.
The Witcher Saga: Conclusion
And there you have it, Kyle and Claudia’s analysis of the core arcs and themes of Time of Contempt. Tomorrow, the Q&A portion of this month’s retrospective will include the duo discussing various elements of this book and how it relates to the rest of The Witcher Saga.