I first discovered Geralt the Witcher via the computer game The Witcher. Some of the mechanics of that game bothered me enough that I still haven’t played a lot of it, but I played enough to become intrigued by the main character.
I knew he was the creation of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski who was a bestselling author in his homeland, but it was only recently that I found this translation to English. As far as I can determine, this is his only work readily available in English, though a second volume (Blood of Elves) is on the way.
Anyway, to the book itself. Once again we have a selection of short stories woven into a novel; this seems to be a trend in my reading lately! In The Last Wish, this mechanism isn’t hidden though. Instead we have one ‘meta story’ that introduces and launches the various stories in a manner similar to The Canterbury Tales (I’m using that example to compare frameworks, not authors). This wasn’t immediately obvious to me; hopefully if you read this review before you read the book, I will have spared you a bit of confusion.
Geralt is a Witcher; an individual who has been mutated by magics and alchemy into something more than human, and who has been trained from a very young age to fight monsters. Geralt’s world is an interesting melange of magic and science, but not of technology. We never see machines at work, but scientific knowledge seems to be more advanced than what we normally see in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world. This gives Geralt’s world a unique feel.
It took me a while to realize that Geralt was traveling through familiar fairy tales with a dark, adult and slightly modernized twist. For example, we see Sleeping Beauty as a banished princess who becomes an outlaw during the struggle to reclaim her rightful place on the throne, while those who would oppose her spread rumors about the debauched lifestyle she shares with seven gnomes.
As a Witcher, Geralt lives a mercenary life. He kills monsters for money, not for glory or fame. He tries not to kill sentient monsters if he can avoid it (that description extends to people) but violence has a way of following him. Witchers tend to be reviled in this world (until such time as they are needed, when suddenly they are sought out with much enthusiasm), so his is a mostly solitary life, though later in the book we meet his unlikely friend, the troubadour Dandilion.
Reading the The Last Wish, I feel like I was peering at a fantasy world through a narrow slit. What I saw was wonderful, but there’s the sense that the world is much, much bigger than what we see through Geralt’s eyes in this one volume.
A final note; if you pick up the book and open it to page one, the first thing you’ll read is a sex scene. It isn’t exactly explicit, but it’s reasonably steamy, and it is not indicative of the book as a whole. Geralt does have his fair share of intimate encounters, but they’re not the focus of the book and I think in some ways that first two page chapter sets an inaccurate tone for what’s to come.