Tuesday, 3 April 2007

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

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!

22 comments:

magnidude said...

It's nice to see Sapkowski's works come at last to probably the most important fantasy market - the english-speaking one. Thank you for this review - being native to Sapkowski's books many years I wondered what impressions would have had a reader who was born and raised in a culture that invented fantasy. And concerning your remark comparing Sapkowski to Jack Vance - you are possibly very close to the truth about it, bu let me assure you - there have to be some flaws in the translation even if it is in fact as decent as you suppose it to be. Because the thing which made Sapkowski a bestselling author in Poland (not only concerning fantasy literature but overall) and in many other European countries is what you call very insightfully "a gift for intricate wordplay". I chanced on reading the first book of Vance's Lyonesse cycle a dozen or so years ago and as much as I liked it I could never call it as witty and funny as works od Sapkowski - especially the novellas. So, as it seems, Vance's translation into Polish was decent but not so good as original and the same problem we face today with "The Last Wish". Hopefully it will prove to be enough for a good start :).

Marcin said...

Yes, it's nice to see Sapkowski in English. I hope You will enjoy!
There can be problems with translation, becouse some words are know only in Polish.

PS: Sry for my poor english :P

HF, GL, CU

michal said...

I hope the English speaking part of the world will love Sapkowski just as well as we do in Poland. Belive me, he is a brilliant writer with great attitude. Although, I do belive that it will be most difficult to translate most of the jokes, as Sapkowski takes a lot from Slavic mythology and fairy tales, which are not well known for most British. Anyway, enjoy it! This is GENIUS stuff

PS. There is a mistake in the order of the books, here's the proper order of the so called "WITCHER SAGA":

***the novels (2 books)***
-"The Last Wish" - a collection of few short novels
-"The Sword of Destiny" - another few novels
***the SAGA (5 books)***
- "The Blood of the Elves"
- "The Time of Contempt"
- "Baptism of Fire"
- "The Tower of Swallow"
- "The Lady of the Lake"

Marcin said...

As for Hereward - the whole point is that he claims to be a prince, while in fact he is only a duke. It was very clearly explained in the polish version - Sapkowski even used the word "diuk" (duke) reffering to his real title, though traditionally in Poland duke and prince are known by the same name - "ksiaze". If this is unclear in the english version, then I'm afraid that it's because of the translation.

_M_J_ said...

Another mistake in the beginning of this post. Book "Something Ends, Something Begins" (2000) isn't from the "witcher" series. Inside this book readers will find eight very different stories (e.g. space-opera novel or intelligent parody of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland") and only two stories are from Wichers-World (first: a short story with Geralt's parents; second: a writer's joke about alternative ending of WitcherSaga).

Last word from me for the end. Read Mr Sapkowski books. I can promise you will not regret it! And I'm a little jelousy :) Because it's a big pleasure of reading before you :).

Piotr Konieczny said...

Thanks for the nice review. Perhaps you would like to add some of your text to Wikipedia's article about the book?

Anonymous said...

Personally, I was at Chapters the other day and saw The Last Wish sitting on the shelf. I thought the cover looked good so I bought it and read it. Truely remarkable work. I spent 2 days unable to put it down. My only regret is that I must wait to get more of the series in English.

Anonymous said...

Well, the bad thing may be that the publisher (as you say) wants to go with the "Blood of the Elves" next. the last two stories in "Sword of Destiny" collection could have been as well first chapters of the novel, introducing very important charachters as well as political situation witch is continued in the novels, and it might be a little tricky to figure out whats going on (or maybie not - it's hard to tell after you know everthing).
Also, IMO sword of Destiny contains some of the best stories of the series
But i hope, that they will publish everything after all

Anonymous said...

I don't think it will be that much of a problem. When I read Sapkowski I did exactly that, read "Last Wish", skipped "Sword of Destiny", which I didn't have back then and went on with "Blood of the Elves", and it didn't prove hard to follow. The first chapter of "Blood..." does a good job fleshing out the political situation and to some extent the story behind Geralt and Ciri, even if it's done through gossip there ;)

Dane Scaysbrook said...

Fantastic review, I first got hooked on the Witcher when I heard about it from some Polish friends, I eventually headed the fan-subtitling project of the TV series which I hope(d) would create more awareness about the novels and the PC RPG.

Ju said...

I am Polish and admirer of Sapkowski's books for many years already. And I assure you there's plenty of wordplay in the original version, and a highly amusing one. Also, there are plenty of allusions to various culture texts - very often Polish, and that's a shame that nobody apart from us can catch it - but sometimes also international ones (noticeable mainly in 5-volume saga, which parts you have slightly mixed up, but it's understandable - it was probably no too easy to get the proper information in English).

I have read the translation and I am slightly disappointed. Most of the wordplay is gone (untranslateable). The language of the original is strongly old-fashioned, sometimes even archaic, which gives an extremely funny result, especially when they talk about the devil threatening that he was going to fuck ;-)

I am really curious what English-speaking readers are going to think about this book. Still, it's a pity no one can get most of its real value apart from us Poles :-(

Anonymous said...

For Ju: ...and us, Czech :)
And I don't think Sapkowski is really that untranslatable.There must be English equivalents to the various styles of speech used by different characters - even in the written form there are some differences between , say, Scottish,common speech or Royal English, aren't there? And concerning the word-play, if T. Pratchett is translatable, then anyone. :) H.

Michal said...

well.., having skipped 'The sword of the destiny'stands for me an offence to the readers! This second compilation of stories about Geralt's deeds and events contains essential stories on Geralt and Ciri's beginings...! I think the publisher just wants to make more money on that genuine prose..It Sucks

Anonymous said...

If you want another Sapkowski novel in english
check this,beacuse there is also translation of one Sapkowski novel called “Maladie”(The malady)
http://www.polishwriting.net/index.php?id=35

it's better than this poor translation of Last wish

Anonymous said...

I have a proposition to all those, wjo know english and polish... How about we endeavor to make our own translation of 'The Last Wish'? Fan-edited and free of charge. Would that be a good thing? Would it... Uhm.. live? Would it be legal to do this? If anyone reads this, mail me at The242@vp.pl I'd be up to it. Translating is fun.

The Annaqi said...

Hi Adam, do you know Andrzej Sapkowski's email address? I'm looking everywhere but no one responded. His agent in France, from sapkowski.pl, etc, no one respond. Could you help me to find his emaill address? I need to ask him about translation. Thanx before.

Anonymous said...

I do have some doubts about the translation. My beloved joke from the very end story involving Torque was lost. Also, looking closely at the origins of the druids name (Myszowór in the original)one can find an interesting little animal (the phascogale tapoatafa). Most of the archaic words were lost in the translation. The language is lacking that 'feel' it has in the original.

Klaudyna said...

I'm writing my BA thesis on this translation... I am sorry to say, but I do think any the translation could be a lot better. There are some sloppy mistakes that could have been easily avoided. All the archaic words ceased to make it into the target text. Why is it so? Do not tell me there is no archaic verb for having intercourse...

The Annaqi said...

I am very enjoyed Gerald's PC Games, but trully dissapointed for the TV Serial and The English Translation. I was asking Poland Embassy in my country for translating the Last Wish into Indonesian language. But before that, i need mr Sapkowski's permission and this is the big matter for me, reminding it's very hard to find his email address and contact number. Thanx pal for the info, I will ask them to be more detail and careful

Adam Whitehead said...

I have to say I have no idea about where you could get his email address from. Your best bet would be sending a message to one of his publishers and asking them to forward it on (Gollancz in the UK, Orbit in the USA etc).

The Annaqi said...

Thank you so much Adam for your kind information. Btw, I like your blog so much and I'll add it to my blogger buzz. 1ce again thanx pal

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