The first time I heard of The Witcher books, it was through the video games. I had heard that the games had gotten rave reviews, and when I found out that they were based on books (and not the other way around, interestingly enough), I though it would be a good idea to go out and read the originals before I got down to finding myself copies of the game to play. However, I was stopped cold when I found out that the books were, in fact, in Polish, and at the time there was no available translation. If I had known there were fan translations I might have settled for those out of sheer desperate curiosity, but since I didn’t know about those either, I was able to wait until copies of the official translation finally surfaced on my side of the world.
As of the moment, there are only two officially translated books available: The Last Wish, which is a collection of short stories, and Blood of Elves, which is the first novel in the series proper. Since the stories in The Last Wish precede the events of Blood of Elves, it was obvious that I ought to begin with the short story collection. And, as far as introductions go, I find The Last Wish to be, in its way, more than adequate.
The Last Wish is, as mentioned earlier, a collection of short stories about the life and times of Geralt of Rivia, the (in)famous witcher after whom the entire series is named. There is one overarching “frame story” titled “The Voice of Reason,” which shows Geralt in the temple of the goddess Melitele, having escaped to it after some very unsavory events, the details for which are scattered throughout the other stories in the book.
The stories alternate between “The Voice of Reason” and the other tales, and in some ways there is an interesting point to this. In the other stories, Geralt is presented as his job describes him: a witcher, and one with a rather unsavory reputation, going about his job as best as he can even if, most of the time, he gets the short end of the stick when it comes to promised rewards, or finds himself manipulated for other purposes than taking out the monsters a witcher is trained to fight. Take, for instance, in the short story “The Witcher,” wherein Geralt combats a striga and breaks a curse along the way, but who gets half his neck chewed off in the process (and is therefore the main reason why he’s at the temple in the first place) and no real (monetary) reward for his services. Or “A Question of Price,” where Geralt is forced to choose between a greater or lesser evil, but winds up losing either way. “The Voice of Reason” presents him as more vulnerable, which grants the reader an opportunity to view him without the mantle of the witcher that he wears around himself in the other stories.
One of the first things that struck me while reading these stories is that Geralt feels a lot like Hellboy from Mike Mignola’s fantastic Hellboy graphic novels – well, mostly in that both Geralt and Hellboy share a dry sense of humor and are outsiders who have much more in common with the things they fight than humanity at large. The difference, though, is that everybody loves Hellboy, whereas, in The Last Wish, almost everybody hates Geralt. Nowhere is this made clearer than in A Question of Price, where Geralt loses a friend at the very end of the story – not to death, but to the fact that this friend has seen the darker side of what Geralt does, and because he cannot take it decides to end whatever friendship they have.
Another thing that struck me about these stories is how often they reference familiar fairytales. The story titled “A Grain of Truth,” for instance, is essentially a re-imagining of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale to fit into The Witcher universe. And it’s not the only one: “The Witcher” references Snow White. “A Question of Price” is a nod to the story of Gawain and his wife from Arthurian legend. “The Last Wish” has a genie at the center of the story. And “The Lesser Evil” references almost every other fairytale the other stories missed, from Rapunzel to The Princess and the Frog to Rumpelstiltskin. There is, of course, absolutely nothing wrong with all these references and re-imaginings – in fact, they are ridiculously fun. It only makes me raise my eyebrow slightly in that there seemed to be so much borrowing done that it made me wonder if The Witcher universe had any “original” lore of its own.
As for Geralt himself, I find him quite interesting. He rather reminds me of a vigilante gunman from an old Western, who goes from town to town delivering justice and doing the jobs only he can do (and a few he gets roped into against his will), but in the end, being chased out of town because nobody wants him to stay around for very long because of his reputation. He has very, very few friend, and loses a few more every once in a while, but those who have stuck around are, for the most part, wonderful people – like Nenneke, the head priestess of the temple of Melitele, who shelters and heals Geralt throughout the story arc of “The Voice of Reason,” or Dandilion (and yes, that is how his name is spelled), the bard who got into a whole lot of trouble with Geralt during the events of “The Edge of the World” and “The Last Wish” and who still considers Geralt a friend despite those events. And then there is the mysterious Yennefer, introduced in “The Last Wish” and whose hold on Geralt is greater than anyone truly comprehends. All of them are fascinating, to a one, and will hopefully put in appearances of their own in Blood of Elves – because truly, if Geralt doesn’t miss them, I think I will.
Overall, The Last Wish is an excellent lead-in to The Witcher universe. By settling into the world via short stories, not a novel, the reader is not pressured to quickly absorb everything about this world, as would normally be the case with a full-length novel. It also appears to have put less pressure on Sapkowski’s shoulders, as well, since each story develops in its own way while showcasing various facets of Geralt, his friends, his enemies, and his world. As for the individual stories themselves, they are largely enjoyable to read, though the sheer amount of fairytale references may have some readers raising their eyebrows on occasion. Otherwise, though, this is an enjoyable read, and will allow the reader to decide whether or not he or she actually likes The Witcher universe enough before committing to the novel. For my part, I like it enough to commit, and I will be getting to it as soon as I acquire a copy of Blood of Elves.