The Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski, is the second book in the adventure of Geralt the Witcher. Sapkowski is already a best-seller in Poland - his books are now being translated by Gollancz/Orion for the fantasy-starved British markets.
It isn't often that I pick up the second book in the series before I've even read the first, but there's nothing ordinary about The Blood of Elves.
Geralt, the title character, is a 'Witcher' - one of a semi-secret society of monster-killing specialists. Already born as mutants (a word bandied around anachronistically throughout the book), Witchers are then trained and chemically altered to become killing machines. All hopped-up on primitive combat drugs and armed with meteoric swords, Witchers travel the world killing nasty beasties. Preferably for money.
Although Witchers are scrupulously neutral in matters of politics, Geralt has broken the code by adopting an orphaned princess, Ciri. The heir to a conquered kingdom, Ciri is one of the most valuable people in the world. The forces of light and darkness are both competing to find her - and that's even before her potent magical powers begin to surface. Geralt and his network of friends (more acquaintances) are drawn reluctantly into the vortex of events surrounding Ciri and soon become irrevocably linked to the fate of the world.
Ciri, to give the author credit, is never just a passive object in her own destiny. In fact, she receives much more 'screen time' than anyone else in the book, including Geralt. Her education, training and rambunctious gallop towards maturity are the core of the book. Geralt, and the more conventional adventuring elements that surround him, only appears in alternate chapters - generally fighting off some sort of insidious plot that would otherwise threaten the young princess.
Geralt also takes a backseat to some of his companions - Yennefer and Triss, the witches, and Dandilion, the entertainer and spy. All are drawn to Ciri and the need to protect her - either from loyalty to Geralt or to the greater scheme of fate. They're all interesting characters (I'm partial to Dandilion), although Sapkowski spends more time than is comfortable having Triss muse about her youthful sexual explorations.
In fact, Geralt mostly appears through the eyes of others. Even Dandilion is less loyal to Geralt-the-person as he is to Geralt-the-excuse-for-an-adventure. The conflicting viewpoints keep Geralt mysterious, but also keep on the right side of the line when it comes to outright veneration. While Ciri worships Geralt, Yennefer sees the Witcher as an outright annoyance - an emotionally-stunted ex-boyfriend with a knack for doing the wrong thing.
The overall plot is pleasantly confusing. There's definitely a big prophecy out there, and the big evil empire is sufficiently big and evil. Our heroes, however, are more interested in saving their own skins. They encounter the creeping arms of evil, but only in tangential ways - local uprisings, the occasional assassin. The author occasionally takes the reader to someplace quite random - for example, the high conclave of Wizards, or a gathering of monarchs - to give the bigger picture. However, we learn very quickly that these important dignitaries know even less than the little guys. Whatever is actually happening, only Sapkowski knows.
The main flaw in the book is the translation. There's a strict avoidance of detail which, although presumably part of the original writing style, becomes irritating. In one scene, for example, various participants are described as having 'a hat' or 'red-haired'. Not much paint for the mental picture.
The occasionally anachronistic word choices - of which 'mutant' is the most annoying - leap out. As if to compensate, the translator also peppers the texts with obscure medieval terminology ('caparison'? 'cachalot'?).
Sapkowski has an unusual voice (when properly interpreted) and a grimly entertaining take on the traditions of fantasy. The Blood of Elves is an exercise in dramatic tension - complicated characters, coming of age stories and a careful unearthing of the overall plot - all building up to a third book that promises to be a hurricane of action.