Andrzej Sapkowski is apparently the biggest fantasy author in his native Poland, best-known for his character Geralt, a 'witcher' who tracks down and eliminates monsters for cash. Although his books have been translated into several other European languages, The Last Wish marks his debut in English, with a translation by Danusia Stok.
The Last Wish (published in Poland in 1992) is the first book featuring Geralt, preceding Sword of Destiny (1993) which has not been published in English yet. Presumably this is because the first three Geralt books are stand-alone volumes that do not require knowledge of the others. There is an additional Geralt story in another anthology, Something Ends, Something Begins (2000). There is also a five-novel sequence featuring Geralt entitled The Blood of the Elves (1994-99), which Gollancz will be publishing in English translation from August 2008 onwards.
Enough of the publishing context, what of the book? The Last Wish is a mosaic novel consisting of several short stories linked by a framing sequence. After Geralt is injured in battle, he recuperates in a temple and has flashbacks to recent events in his life. The stories themselves vary in tone but the quality is pretty consistent. There's an undercurrent of whimsical humour in the stories that is very reminiscent of Jack Vance. Like Vance, Sapkowski successfully creates a world where his characters feel totally at home. This world is a mix of the traditional D&D landscape of elves, dwarves and evil wizards, and of fairy tales. In this manner the stories' tone and atmosphere is very similar to that of Vance's superb Lyonesse Trilogy, although Sapkowski is not as continuously and unrelentingly funny as Vance; he also lacks Vance's gift for intricate wordplay. That said, when the book is funny it's very funny indeed. The comic highlight comes when Geralt and his sometimes travelling troubadour companion Dandillion are confronted by some kind of bizarre goat-man entity whose preferred method of combat is to pelt attackers with iron balls. Under strict instructions not to kill anything in the area, Geralt has to engage the goat-man in a particularly preposterous wrestling match. Sapkowski also employs Vance's melancholy aspect, such as Geralt's musings on a world where the fantastical is dying and the mundane is taking over. And, in a hint that this is our world in some remote epoch (shades of The Dying Earth), there are also hints in the book that changes in the Sun are causing many of the problems in the world.
The translation is first-rate, or as far as I can tell, neither being able to read or speak Polish. There's occasional awkward moments (the noble Hereward's rank changes from Prince to Duke at random; sometimes words are repeated very close together) but the stories come through feeling very fresh and energetic. Sapkowski is very good at creating interesting, imaginative characters with unusual levels of depth to them, not least Geralt, whom people are consistently underestimating. Early stories feel slightly repetitive, with Geralt unleashing bloody mayhem to win the day, but in the second half of the book there is a shift in tone with Geralt employing more imaginative methods to overcome the obstacles in his path. There is a great deal left unsaid in the stories in the book: we see the start of Geralt's relationship with the sorceress Yennefer but not its later development, and have to put together what happened with the help of Geralt's thought processes in the framing story. This helps give the book a feeling of greater immersiveness, although the knowledge that there are seven other books featuring these characters perhaps merely means that more events take place in the other volumes clearing up these questions.
The Last Wish (****) is an enjoyable book full of stories both melancholy and comic. The book will be published in the UK by Gollancz on 19 April 2007 in hardcover and trade paperback. No US version appears to be forthcoming at this time. Gollancz will publish Blood of the Elves, the first novel in the series of the same name in August 2008. In September 2007 a PC roleplaying game based on the character of Geralt will appear, entitled The Witcher. The developers have a website here.
EDIT: As I have been informed by several Polish commentators, my original story order was incorrect, so this has now been fixed. Thanks!
EDIT: Pat from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist has reviewed the US edition here and was somewhat cooler about it than I was. Check it out!