The Last Wish – Introducing the Witcher, by Andrzej Sapkowski
I’ve had Andrzej Sapkowski’s introduction to the Witcher epic fantasy saga laying idle in my Kindle library for quite some time. I had first heard of the character of Geralt of Rivia around 2007, in the buzz over a new video game being developed by Polish gaming company, CD Projekt Red. The advance trailers of the new game were gorgeous, and I was intrigued by both the look of Geralt – white-haired, powerful, focused -and the idea of witchers (beast hunters who develop supernatural abilities at a young age to battle wild beasts and monsters).
For various reasons, I never got into the Witcher video games although their popularity and acclaim grew with each new release. And for various reasons, I never looked into the series of books that had spawned the game, even though they, as well, had received popular and critical acclaim. It wasn’t until the hoopla started to grow with the announcement of Netflix’s series based on the novels (not the video games) that I decided to “dust off” the one Witcher volume I owned and find out what all the buzz was about.
Oh, my goodness.
What I found is a rich and invigorating high fantasy novel (actually a series of stories) that manages to both sink its teeth into tried and true fantasy tropes and yet transcend them. Set in an unnamed land dominated by humans – although with remnants of earlier elvish and dwarven influences – white-haired, muscled Geralt never settles, traveling the land to rid towns of troublesome, and sometimes menacing, monsters – some of which are not mere beasts. While Geralt has a strict moral code, it is not one built on pacifism and humility; rather, it is based on practicality and honed by a lifetime of being scapegoated, targeted, and misconstrued.
I can see why this tale – these tales – have lent themselves so handily to video gaming. The plethora of available monsters (many based on Polish folktales) along with the thread of magic and witchcraft that embroiders the character of the mighty yet scarred outsider, is perfect for a successful gaming environment. Yet to assume that the game, even with its visual acuity, is the culmination its source material, is doing the reader a grave disservice.
The single volume I have read, The Last Wish (chronologically the first of the series, although published after Sword of Destiny) is not only rich and entertaining but is also damned good writing. Yes, the damaged hero Geralt is a stellar character to build a fantasy world around, but author Sapkowski writes him with just enough insight, just enough tension, just enough foreboding, to allow us to view but not thoroughly understand him. This enigmatic aura is tough to pull off – readers thus subjected are often left feeling like they are either being led by the nose or kept in the dark punctuated by contrived eureka moments. Yet Sapkowski achieves this by matching the taciturn mien of Geralt to his literary treatment, allowing us to witness both Geralt’s brooding, calculating side as well as his unguarded, animated moments (skillfully fulfilled in his friendship with the troubadour Dandelion) without unnecessary explication or rumination. We learn of his skill through his deeds, but also we learn of his character through the complexity of those deeds – monsters are rarely what they seem.
And oh, those monsters, both of tooth and claw at face value, and those who hide behind illusion and subterfuge, those who are truly horrible and those who are simply an annoying aspect of their environment, are wonderful in and of themselves. Since they come from a folkloric pedigree, their reputations – even if mysterious – are already established: striga, leshy, vampire, spriggan, chimera, manticore, ghoul, wyvern, more. It’s a wonderful backdrop for Sapkowski to utilize, and he does so with skill and occasional dark humor and pathos (such as his take on the tale that we know as Snow White) transcending the treatment of an expected lore. I fully understand why this author bristles when his world is equated with a “mere” video game!
Oh, how I wish I had discovered this series earlier in my reading career! But there’s still plenty of time to rectify that. If you are an aficionado of epic fantasy and don’t know this series yet, I invite you to join me in this discovery. I can’t recommend it highly enough.