My advice for anyone who wants to read The Witcher saga is they should start with The Last Wish then read this then read The Blood of Elves. A large amount of set-up for the third book (as well as the saga). Not the least of these is the introduction of the Nilfgaardian Empire, Ciri, and the destruction of Cintra. If you've played the games then at least the first two are things which play an enormous role in the resulting epic. Ciri is, indeed, the co-protagonist of the novels.
So, what do I think of THE SWORD OF DESTINY? Well, while I respect the writing of my fellow reviewer, TS CHAN, I have to say that I disagree with her somewhat tepid response to this book and think it's some of the most evocative fantasy I've read in a very long time. The worlds just flow off the page and have a power to themselves. Here's a short bit from Dandelion when he describes his escape from the rampaging armies of Nilfgaard during their invasion of Cintra. It's stuck in my head since the first time I read it.
"Not this war, Geralt. After this war, no-one returns. There will be nothing to return to. Nilfgaard leaves behind it only rubble; its armies advance like lava from which no-one escapes. The roads are strewn, for miles, with gallows and pyres; the sky is cut with columns of smoke as long as the horizon. Since the beginning of the world, in fact, nothing of this sort has happened before. Since the world is our world... You must understand that the Nilfgaardians have descended from their mountains to destroy this world."
The book isn't perfect but the biggest flaws are actually Geralt in this. Geralt remains one of the great antiheroes of fantasy fiction, deliberately invoking Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name as the badass swordswinger who rides into town before getting involved in local trouble. It's hard to read about the fact he's just a really crappy boyfriend and constantly mooning over Yennefer of Vengerburg who is equally awful to him.
I will say that Ciri is one of the most singularly likable children in fantasy. This is, in part, due to the fact she reminds me a lot of Newt from Aliens. Also, Geralt doesn't tolerate any bratty behavior and swiftly shuts it down. It makes them work as a father/daughter couple that get separated during the events of both the books as well as the games.
"Limit of Possibility"
Like the original stories in The Witcher, Limits of Possibility is a parody of traditional fantasy. In this case, it's a story about a dragon slaying expedition being funded by a prince who wants to marry a neighboring ruler. The whole thing has a somewhat Prachett-esque comedy-of-errors feel to it with everyone being singularly unsuited to killing the dragon but Geralt. Geralt, however, wants nothing to do with it as dragons are sentient non-evil creatures in this world. Yennefer, by contrast, wants the dragon for her heart's desire (to have a child). It's entertaining but didn't exactly blow me away either.
"Splinter of Ice"
"Geralt gets cheated on by Yennefer and finds out she's sleeping with another man as regularly as she is him with parallels to The Snow Queen" is perhaps not the best story to sell to people who want a kind of ultimate badass audience insert. However, it does humanize Geralt that he knows Yennefer is bad for him but wants her anyway. We also know Yennefer is a woman who has had to survive in the misogynist culture of the North and while she's had the benefit of being a sorceress, that's something which doesn't provide complete protection. I actually feel bad for Istredd, too, and am sorry he never showed up in the games.
A story about racism using the metaphor of monsters. This is a somewhat well-trodden road in fantasy and while Andzej adds some interesting angles, it's probably my least favorite and the most forgettable of the stores in the volume. The character of Dudu shows up as a major supporting character in The Witcher 3 with the Church of the Eternal Fire becoming a minor antagonist. Basically, it says that even among the racist North that it's possible to be accepted if you look at least human-like and (I kid you not) something they'd like to have sex with. Ugly monsters have no such recourse.
"A Little Sacrifice"
The Little Mermaid is what gets parodied here as they discuss the nature of love as well as sacrifice. Geralt is still mooning over Yennefer in this story and ignoring the not-exactly-subtle come ons of Dandelion's friend Essie "Little Eye" Davin. The ending of that story is incredibly poignant and hits you like a gut punch. It's also a story which requires almost no participation from Geralt to actually resolve.
"Sword of Destiny"
A story which handles prejudice and generational racism much better than Eternal Fire. The Dryads have been fighting humans for decades but are composed of human girls abandoned in the woods. Ciri is introduced in this book as a character with Geralt determined to rescue the spirited young princess despite her lack of desire to be saved. It also sets up the nature of "fate" in The Witcher universe. Ciri is one of the rare child protagonists who is not a complete annoyance and plays off well against Geralt, the two of them being more cynical as well as more idealistic than the other expects. The ending provides no resolution for the Dryads but there is no resolution save a slow death. Deep.
The final story in the book is one of the most poignant and easily the best. The Nilfgaardian Empire has made their second invasion of the country and have destroyed the country of Cintra. Geralt has difficulty believing the Nilfgaardian atrocities are as bad as they are, ironically because he's so cynical. He knows nations kill, conquer, rape, and pillage but doesn't believe in systematic organized evil like the kind which the Nazis practiced. His argument with Dandelion is really poignant and helps foreshadow what is to come. This story destroys the lives of several minor characters and kills others in order to highlight the danger which Nilfgaard poses to the North. While Sapkowski doesn't make them a straight stand-in for the Nazis, he does highlight they're a modernized conquest-minded as well as thoroughly ruthless army--something the North has never faced before.
Sapkowski has an amazing gift with words as well as characters who take no B.S. The chief draw of this book and its sequels is how thoroughly done Geralt of Rivia is with all of the casual corruption as well as brutality of his Medieval world. The character of Dandelion (Jaskier in the Polish translation) is a nice contrast with his somewhat more romantic view of the world. I imagine the book reads better in Polish but it's still amazingly evocative in this book.
In conclusion, this is an excellent collection of stories that greatly expands on the characters of Geralt of Rivia as well as his allies. This is also the last of the straight fantasy stories done by Andrzej Sapkowski as the Nilfgaardian invasion triggers the shift from somewhat whimsical tales to grimdark. The roots of this darker storytelling is good in some places and needlessly dark in others.