The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
The Last Wish (1993 in Polish, 2007 in English) is the first book in the WITCHER series by best-selling Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. You might recognize the name from the popular video games based on the books. The series features a hero named Geralt of Rivia who, when he was an orphaned child, was transformed into something more than human through a process involving magic and drugs. Now he has white hair and some subtle superhuman powers — for example, he can see in the dark and he is stronger and faster than other men. He roams the world looking for odd thankless jobs that only a Witcher can do.
This first WITCHER book is a series of related stories in which we see Gerault stopping through various towns looking for work. Sometimes he kills monsters (that’s his primary skill) but sometimes he is hired to help with other nasty jobs, most which he finds beneath him but which he may accept because he needs money. (His success with monster-killing means that he’s gradually working himself out of a job.) During the course of the novel, we see Geralt attempt to reverse a curse on a princess who has turned into a monster, have dinner with a well-dressed monster who lives in a magical house and treats female visitors like princesses, fight a rusalka who turns out to be a vampire, protect a man from a vengeful princess, banter with a beautiful queen, try to catch a devil, find a genie in a bottle, meet the Lady of the Forest, and attempt to fight destiny.
Sapkowski borrows plots and devices from classic fairy tales and legends and drops them into his story in unexpected places, giving the reader the enchanting idea that his dark story is the real one and all those fairy tales are the versions cleaned up for children. In addition to the Beauty and the Beast tale mentioned above, we meet or hear tell of girls locked in towers, magical mirrors, seven nasty dwarves, evil stepmothers, poisoned apples, unicorn virgins, and a young woman who left her slipper when she ran away from a ball. Every time one of these allusions popped up, I found it jarring in a delightful way.
Always cool-headed and brave, Geralt is a man of action, but he is also contemplative. He reminds me of Elric, and not just because he looks like an albino. While his job mostly involves fighting and killing, he has plenty of down-time to spend thinking about the effects of his deeds on himself and others. He thinks about human nature and the nature of monsters, he has pity on those who are lonely or abused, and he worries about how to (and even whether to) choose the lesser evil. It’s this aspect of The Last Wish that makes Geralt stand out among his fellow dark fantasy heroes and his introspection gives Sapkowski plenty of opportunity for philosophizing.
Geralt tends to be morose, like Elric, but he has a dry sense of humor. So does Andrzej Sapkowski. There were many times that I chuckled and some action scenes that had me laughing and hoping someone would turn The Last Wish into a movie. (Oh, look!) Based on what I was expecting after seeing the book and game covers for years, I was surprised at how engaged I was by The Last Wish. I’m sincerely looking forward to reading more of Geralt’s adventures in the WITCHER novels.
Peter Kenny narrates the audio version of The Last Wish that was produced by Hachette Audio. It’s just over 10 hours long. I absolutely adore Peter Kenny’s voice and his way of delivering a story that requires some deadpanning. He is superb in the role of the Witcher and I’m certain that I enjoyed the story more because of his performance. I highly recommend the audio version. By the way, the WITCHER books were translated from the original Polish. I haven’t looked at the print version, but with the audio version I would not have suspected a translation if I hadn’t known. It’s excellently done.
The Last Wish seems from the outside like it shouldn’t work as well as it does. It’s a series of loosely connected short stories about the life of a wandering, magical swordsman (because we haven’t seen that before), in a war-torn fantasy world fraught with complex politics (ditto), where humans have marginalized artistic elves and bluff dwarves (ditto. Emphatically). The book should feel like a teetering jenga tower of overused tropes, but it manages to work anyway because the central character swoops in to the rescue.
That’s not to say that Geralt of Rivia is some kind of revolutionary send-up on the traditional fantasy hero. That’s what we expect nowadays, isn’t it? If something works better than usual, we’re quick to start postulating about how the author reinvented the wheel or at the very least approached it from some startling new direction. But Geralt works because author Andrzej Sapkowski wrote him as a good character. That’s it. It’s disarmingly simple, really.
Geralt doesn’t deviate far from most of the usual “wandering hero” tropes. In fact, speaking generally, he’s a bundle of old clichés: he’s a sardonic loner, a master swordsman who doesn’t like to get involved (but always ends up doing it anyway), ruggedly attractive and popular with women, and of course melancholy and brooding. He’s even got a cool nom-de-guerre, the White Wolf, which he shares at last count with not one, not two, but three other brooding fantasy swordsmen (brownie points for anyone who can name all three in the comments section).
But Sapkowski’s success comes in the finer details. In one story, the Witcher uses a bit of jargon purely because he wants to look smart in front of a sorceress he admires, and is quietly crestfallen when she instead laughs at him. In another, after being captured by elves, Geralt is enraged not by being beaten or humiliated, but instead when one of them breaks his minstrel friend’s lute for simple cruelty. It’s remarkable how much little asides like this elevate what could otherwise have been a bland Aragorn clone into something both relatable and endearing. Geralt really is a brooding swordsman with all of the usual associations, but he’s also kindly, sensitive, and occasionally ridiculous.
To make my point and be done with it, the Witcher stories are remarkable not because they take a fresh approach but because they find new life in a horse long thought beaten to death. Sapkowski writes a very traditional fantasy but doesn’t try to justify his choice by satire or clever reversal. He doesn’t reduce the elves/dwarves fantasy world to an object for intellectual games, but instead delves deep and finds a fresh and very human layer somehow still lurking underneath.
The stories do have their negative points, however. Sapkowski loves a good dialogue scene, so much so that characters have a marked tendency to ramble and beat around the bush. Dialogue is also used to cover exposition, which occasionally gets into the dreaded “As you know, Bob” territory. Also, while the translation into English is generally good, something is clearly lost now and then. Characters will sometimes react as if to a double entendre or a joke, when (in translation) the preceding line was something completely banal; while on other occasions, the language is clearly meant to be casual and conversational but instead ends up sounding rather wordy and declamatory. These issues are to be expected in a translation, but they are worth mentioning to a potential buyer.
Overall, though, this is a good collection of stories that takes a classic fantasy archetype and doubles down on it in the best possible way. Fans of Tolkien-style fantasy should find much to enjoy, and gamers fresh from the WITCHER video games will discover new layers to the character. Recommended.