In The Witcher III: Wild Hunt you can pick up a book called The Last Wish, I found a copy early in the game where you first meet Yennefer, which explains a little about the relationship between Geralt and the sorceress. This is also a bit of an easter-egg and nod to the first book in The Witcher series of novels, which acts as an introduction to the characters and world of the Saga, and is in fact a collection of short stories bridged by a fragmented framing narrative. Originally published in a polish fantasy magazine but later collected into this single volume, the short stories written by Andrzej Sapkowski have received high praise, various awards, been entered into the New York Times bestsellers list and a copy was even given to Barack Obama when he visited Poland! So, it’s well-respected to say the least. I’ve actually had a copy for years, ever since its original English release at the time of the first The Witcher videogame, and read through it ages ago but have revisited it this month as part of my ‘Witcher Month’, and to get me back into The Witcher Saga of books.
The translation into English by Danusia Stok is, in my opinion, very good and it’s very easy to fall into the rich world created by The Last Wish, where fairy tales are somewhat subverted and, despite being quite dark and medieval, there’s a jovial sort of dark-humour constantly charging the tone of the book. All the short stories centre around the protagonist Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous ‘witcher’ of the novels, as he slays monsters for coin or accidentally lands in the middle of a mini-adventure, often almost costing him his life. Indeed, the life of a witcher seems like a very dangerous profession and Geralt battles inhuman creatures, lifts curses and becomes entangled in political intrigue throughout the various short stories and interludes. This book also introduces several other important characters to The Witcher universe, including the travelling troubadour Dandelion and the sorceress Yennefer, which are well developed despite the brevity of the narratives.
What makes The Last Wish have a more unique flavour than the majority of fantasy novels is the eastern European feeling that comes through the text; especially with the creatures not being typical goblins, orcs, or other Tolkien-derivative nomenclature. Here, Geralt is often dealing with kikimoras, strigas and other mythological creatures rarely read about in the generic fantasy often released in the United Kingdom (and I’m guessing also the United States). The themes of the book also revolve around the idea of ‘monsters’, although they are not always in the guise of a snarling beast, and sometimes the most evil monsters are in fact the human beings in the stories, who will backstab and plot against each other for personal gain. It’s also a stroke of genius that the protagonist is considered “non-human” by the majority of people, yet is probably the most human in terms of a humanistic moral context. I’ve mentioned the dark humour, some of it is even laugh-out-loud funny (especially some of Dandelion’s ridiculous lines), but expect a lot of cursing and vulgar language all in good fun.
I don’t want to discuss the actual plot of the stories themselves, because it would spoil them, but suffice to say I enjoyed all of the stories in this collection and highly recommend it, especially to people playing The Witcher III: Wild Hunt who might want more backstory to enrich their gaming experience. The only major criticism with The Last Wish that I have is that sometimes the stories feel like they end quite abruptly, and this is likely due to their original format; printed in a magazine Andrzej Sapkowski probably worked within a word limit and this looks like it caused him to cut some stories short. Another more minor grievance to point out is that people sensitive to feminist representation might object to the treatment of women in the stories, which is similar to Game of Thrones, and indeed many books with a medieval fantasy setting. I’ve very much enjoyed reading this introductory novel though, and have now eagerly moved onto the next collection of short stories called Sword of Destiny, which acts more like a prelude to The Witcher Saga itself.