Andrzej Sapkowski-The Last Wish

Synopsis: Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. And a cold-blooded killer. His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good… and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth. A collection of short stories introducing Geralt of Rivia. (Adapted from Goodreads)

Themes Explored: fantasy, assassin, sorcery, magic, monsters, fiction, European Fiction, Polish Fiction, fantasy fiction, short stories, anthologies, wizardry, femme fatale, sorceress, romance, paganism, mysticism, infertility, elves, high fantasy

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Review: While published after The Sword of Destiny, The Last Wish comes first chronologically. Most of the short stories were published beforehand, this is just the first time they are released together as a set. The Last Wish clocks in at a tight 359 page collection of six loosely-connected stories. This collection contains six short stories interspersed with a continuing frame story called The Voice of Reason where Geralt of Rivia, after being injured in battle, rests in a temple. During this time he experiences flashbacks to recent events in his life, each of which forms a separate story. The included stories are:

  • The Voice of Reason
  • The Witcher
  • A Grain of Truth
  • The Lesser Evil
  • A Question of Price
  • The Edge of the World
  • The Last Wish

Geralt is a Witcher, an altered human being with enhanced eyesight, quick healing/recovery, and is supposedly immune to most of the normal human emotions. However, some of his interactions with various characters belie this particular mutation. A Witcher’s job is to roam the countryside and off the beaten path towns, looking for and destroying monsters. Witchers rarely work for free and usually are recruited to come and banish monsters for a set price or reward. No monsters, no food. Given the general decline in monsters, Witchers are struggling to earn a decent living. 

In this series, a majority of the monsters come from Slavic mythology. While some of the monsters exist in European mythology, most of the creatures described do not have European counterparts.  These books could easily fall into the trap of coming off like a bad Dungeons and Dragons parody; however, Sapkowski displays a combination of sly wit and a unique subversive twist of common adventure tropes.

While Geralt makes his living as a trained killer and possess some impressive fighting skills, violence is surprisingly lacking from these stories. Instead, Sapkowski focuses on overcoming first impressions and that some of the scariest monsters might possess a comely appearance and be eloquent of speech. All six stories deal with Geralt confronting different creatures of varying degrees of monstrosity. After he is injured, he goes to recuperate in a temple to receive healing from a priestess friend.

As a fan of mythology, I greatly enjoyed the numerous references to Slavic mythology, though I had to look up some of the references. Having read a lot of fantasy, and I mean A LOT, this collection was a unique experience since the magical system and the monsters codes of behavior varies so greatly from what I normally read. Originally written in Polish, I suspect there several elements in the story that would be funny to a Polish or Eastern European-reading audience but which come across as more literal to readers used to Western European and Southern mythologies. Despite selling over two million copies in certain European countries, Sapkowski had to wait nearly twenty years for the first English-language publication.

Regardless of the mythology tradition you grew up on, Sapkowski borrows plots and devices from all the classic fairy tales and drops them into the story in unexpected places. This collection feels like a more modern version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, only it is told from the perspective of one protagonist.  In addition to a rather ingenious Beauty and the Beast riff, Sapkowski introduces tales of girls locked in towers, magical mirrors, seven nasty dwarves, evil stepmothers, poisoned apples, unicorn virgins, and a young woman who loses her slipper while running away from a ball. Finding familiar motifs in such a dark and rather twisted world was delightfully jarring.

If you have never heard of the books that would probably be because the video game adaptations kind of overshadowed the series.  Full disclosure, I have never played the video games or seen them played. I picked up the book because Henry Cavill is playing Geralt in the upcoming Netflix series. Keep in mind, neither the books nor the video games are intended for a young audience. I highly doubt the Netflix series is going to tame down the violence, sex, and general magical mischief, if anything, they will probably amplify everything. Anyways, the short story collection is a great introduction to a rather enigmatic character. I have not read anything quiet like The Last Wish in a long time. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series and, of course, seeing the Netflix show.

The Last Wish: Introducing the Witcher, 2008, Orbit, ISBN: 9780316029186

 

 

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