Tuesday, 8 October 2019

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Geralt is a witcher, a hunter of monsters in return for coin. He wanders the northern kingdoms with a trusty steed (always named Roach) and mingles with everyone from kings and generals to sorcerers and vagabonds. Several times Geralt's path crosses that of the powerful, from saving the daughter of King Foltest of Temeria who has been turned into a monstrous striga to resolving a delicate matter for Queen Calanthe of Cintra. But Geralt's destiny is changed when he demands a strange price from Queen Calanthe and makes the acquaintance of a powerful sorceress, Yennefer.


The Last Wish (1993, a re-edited version of The Witcher, 1990) is the first book in Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher series (which currently runs to eight volumes), although it is not a novel as such. Instead, it is a closely-linked series of short stories, related by Geralt as he recovers from a pitched battle with a striga. The stories work well as stand-alone adventures, but they are also useful in establishing Geralt's character and the tone and nature of the world he inhabits. There is also much scene-setting for the later books featuring the character.

Geralt's world is tough, cold and brutal, drawing more directly on European folklore, fairy tales and mythology than the norm. It's also a world of grudging honour, well-earned fellowship and occasional heroism. Geralt is an entertaining protagonist, being taciturn, cynical and world-weary but also has a wry sense of humour, an enjoyment of good ale and a well-hidden yearning for romance.

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 Dungeon & Dragons landscape of elves, dwarves and evil wizards, and of darker 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.

The translation appears to be adequate, although Polish commentators seem more dubious, and the general feeling is that David French (who translated the later books) does a better job than Danusia Stok (who translates The Last Wish and Blood of Elves, the first and third books in the series). 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 make the book more immersive and less reliant on exposition.

The Witcher series also consists of a trilogy of well-regarded and very high-selling video games. Players of the games will appreciate the background to the characters provided here (although Sapkowski does not consider the books to be canon).

The Last Wish (****) is an enjoyable book full of stories both melancholy and comic, establishing a world and cast of characters that is very intriguing. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. A Netflix TV series based on the books is expected to debut in November 2019.

Note: I originally reviewed The Last Wish back in 2007, before I played any of the video games or read the rest of the series.

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