First published on Fantasy Faction.
When I asked Twitter whether I should buy the first Witcher game, I got a unanimous YES. One gentleman informed me that the games were based on a series of novels by Polish author Sapkowski, which I’m sure most Fantasy-Faction readers already know. I didn’t and was therefore mighty curious. Standing in Waterstones, I had no idea which book to buy; the reading order seemed somewhat fluid. In the end I went by publishing date and settled on The Last Wish, only afterwards discovering it to be a book of short stories, beautifully arranged around a framing narrative.
This is the first time I’ve been introduced to a fantasy world through two mediums, as I read The Last Wish while playing through the game. If you’re into RPGs and haven’t read the books, I recommend picking up both, as the experience is just that bit more immersive. There’s also some delightful overlaps where a character references something in the book and you nod along sagely. (I’m thinking of Dandelion’s mention of the Valley of Flowers, detailed in the story called ‘The Edge of the World’).
So, Geralt of Rivia: other men fear him, women are intrigued by him. As a mutant, he’s shunned by society, tolerated only because of his skills. You could argue then that Geralt’s most meaningful relationships are with the monsters he’s been trained to slay. We meet many in The Last Wish, from men cursed into the bodies of beasts to vampires, horned sylvans and furious djinns. As the book’s blurb says, none are quite what they seem, and if Geralt’s learnt anything at all, it’s that men are more often the true monsters. The game holds to this tenet throughout, providing multiple instances where killing certain monsters may not be the right course of action. Besides the werewolf you encounter, there’s also a talking ghoul called Vetala, who assures Geralt that it only feeds on people once they’re dead. It was oddly charming, so I let it go.
The short stories in The Last Wish are interspersed between a framing narrative called ‘The Voice of Reason,’ which focuses on bringing Geralt’s inner world to life. The juxtaposition of this introspective narrative with Geralt’s short adventures results in one of the best introductions to character I’ve ever read. Sapkowski is a master of the short form and draws inspiration from a whole host of myths and famous fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, and some lesser known tales like Hans My Hedgehog. Instead of being trite, or tired, Sapkowski’s takes on these tales are full of a dark charm. After all, the Beauty who breaks the Beast’s spell is none other than a shrieking vampire. Sapkowski’s Snow White is a bloodthirsty murderess nicknamed ‘Shrike,’ who behaves as she does because of relentless persecution. In instances such as these, Geralt often finds himself having to choose the lesser evil, which is sometimes bloodier than the greater.
Written many years before the advent of grimdark, The Last Wish isn’t as gritty as you might think, considering its main character and subject matter. It chooses subtlety over sensationalism and Geralt is rather philosophical, wont to muse on the state of the world and his place within it. Despite his attempts to maintain a witcher’s neutrality, he inevitably finds himself in the middle of social and political struggles. Racism is alive and well between humans and nonhumans, and the game picks up on this, turning it into a questline where you and Geralt are faced with some difficult choices.
Sapkowski makes much of Geralt’s moral dilemma: despite killing monsters for money, he won’t be hired as an assassin. At home neither among humans, nor elves and dwarves, he has few true friends. The bard, Dandilion (cool name), is one of them: a poet and a rake, who sometimes accompanies Geralt on his adventures and invariably makes things worse. Other supporting characters include the priestess Nenneke, who serves to highlight Geralt’s atheism, and the mysterious Yennefer: though she only appears in the title story, I suspect she’s going to be cropping up in later books and games. Triss Merigold is another great female character (and another sorceress) who I only know so far from the game. Hopefully, I’ll get to meet her properly in Blood of Elves. As I’ve said, being introduced to the world of the Witcher through two mediums is a unique experience, and while some liberties have been taken, the game retains much of the feel of the book, staying remarkably true to Geralt’s character.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that The Last Wish is a translation, as the prose is so light and quick. What gives it away is the overall feel: Sapkowski’s writing has an elegance and otherness that sets it apart from the traditional ‘western’ style fantasy I grew up reading. You need a bestiary to remember all the monsters you encounter, documented rather scientifically into family and species. There are different types of vampire, ghoul and wraith, each with a unique name and behaviour. Monster becomes a generic term for anything that isn’t human, and, in some opinions, that includes Geralt himself.
With The Last Wish, I feel like I’m only standing in the shallows of Sapkowski’s world; there are depths yet to explore. Despite (or maybe because of) his weakness for wilful women, Geralt is easy to love. He takes his pleasures where he can, knowing, as a mutant, that he’s unable to have a family. His morals and badassery make for a unique combination, ensuring that he’s more than his profession.
I’ve just started the second game (what is going on with that combat system) and second book thanks to the strength of The Last Wish, which has opened a window on an intriguing world. Sapkowski uses familiar motifs to create something altogether new, while layering his monster-slaying narratives with humour and intellectual discussion. The Last Wishis truly a classic of fantasy literature and I’m so glad of that recommendation. Thank you, Twitter.