Book Review: The Last Wish
This week I will be talking about “The Last Wish” by Andrzej Sapkowski, the first book of the Witcher series.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for three things in the books that I read. Ever since I first read Asimov's Foundation I have loved fix-up novels, where short stories are combined to form a cohesive narrative. Ever since I first read Moorcock's Elric stories I have been smitten with heroic fantasy. Exploring an elaborate world through the perspective of a single character across the course of their lifetime. The last thing that I enjoy is a little more nebulous. To say that you like the books you read to be well researched seems almost silly when you are talking about a fantasy. Yet that is what I like, a story based in history and mythology that carefully sifts through the elements of both and combines them into a single coherent plot. The Witcher stories are quintessentially Polish. They draw directly on the history of Poland and the full breadth of Eastern European monster lore to create a story where the world is clearly much larger than the characters, with massive events happening in the background but the heroes clearly having an influence. Both in the form of direct interaction with events and the mythology that has built up around them.
There are other wonderful twists to the fantastical setting of the Witcher, what we would consider to be advanced science is considered to be just another area of study for magicians and there is a post-modern tendency to use contemporary language which makes the stories very easy to read rather than forcing the reader to wade through pseudo-medieval jargon. I keep rambling on about the setting of the Witcher stories as though that were the only appealing element and that is ridiculous, the stories are very much rooted in the immediacy of events, revolving mainly around Geralt of Rivia in his career as the titular Witcher. A skilled warrior deliberately trained and mutated from childhood to be capable of hunting and fighting the supernatural creatures that inhabit the world and prey on humanity for pay. All of which would be relatively bland if it were not for the fact that he is genuinely likeable, a strange balance of human vulnerability and the necessary bravado, exemplified in his relationship with the sorceress Yennefer. The love of his life who spends years at a time loathing him.
The final twist that made me fall in love with The Last Wish was the selection of stories used to make up its plot. All of these stories are retellings of fairy tales within the cynical and complex world of the Witcher from Beauty and the Beast to Snow White.
The Witcher books are one of the high points of the modern fantasy landscape and The Last Wish is the highlight of them. The only reason that I can imagine that it has not dominated the best sellers lists is the lack of translations for several years. A problem that has now been more than remedied.