The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
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Synopsis via Goodreads: Geralt is a witcher, a man whose magic powers, enhanced by long training and a mysterious elixir, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. Yet he is no ordinary murderer: his targets are the multifarious monsters and vile fiends that ravage the land and attack the innocent. He roams the country seeking assignments, but gradually comes to realise that while some of his quarry are unremittingly vile, vicious grotesques, others are the victims of sin, evil or simple naivety.
I had heard so many wonderful things about The Witcher video game series, so imagine my disappointment when I bought The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and my poor computer couldn’t run it properly. I played for about an hour, lagging through a low-poly world (that I imagine being absolutely stunning if you have the proper hardware) before deciding I would hold off playing until I upgraded my computer. The problem was that in this short hour I had opened up a can of worms. I felt so instantly drawn to the lore and worldbuilding that after I turned my computer off I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I looked up the series to see if I could run the first two games on my computer and realised to my absolute joy that I didn’t need a computer to immerse myself in this story at all because the games were based on a series of books.
The Witcher series currently spans across eight books, only translated into English from their original Polish within the last decade. According to a little Wikipedia research, two of the books (including The Last Wish) are short story collections, five are considered as part of The Witcher Saga, and one book is a standalone novel. So the natural question is: where do you begin reading? The Witcher Subreddit has a helpful post recommending new readers start with the short story collections (The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny) before beginning the five books in The Witcher Saga (Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt, Baptism of Fire, The Tower of Swallows, and Lady of the Lake). The newest standalone novel, Season of Storms takes place chronologically before the other books but is recommended to be read last.
So with all that in mind… on with my review!
The Last Wish, the first short story collection in the series, is a remarkable example of fantasy that is both familiar and refreshingly new. The synopsis from Goodreads, provided above, describing a monster killer in a fantasy world doesn’t do The Last Wish proper justice and makes it sound like a bland and generic fantasy novel, which it is everything but. Each story in the collection, tied together with a background narrative, follows protagonist Geralt as he travels across the lands in search of bounty in exchange for slaying troublesome monsters. But instead of dragons and minotaurs, the monsters in The Last Wish are figures of folklore and familiar fairy tales (there are nods to Snow White, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast for instance), some of which are simply misunderstood beings existing in a cruel world. Instead of a generic ‘kill all the monsters’ narrative, each story assists in developing Geralt as a character as well as fleshing out the world and the various types of creatures and people that live within it. The world of The Witcher is vast, beautiful, and terrifying. It’s described so vividly that I can’t wait to find out absolutely everything about it. It’s no wonder a video game series was based on these stories.
What sets the character of Geralt apart from the ‘monster hunter trope’ is that Geralt himself, while not entirely human, shows the very human qualities of compassion, understanding, and curiosity. He has a sense of humour, is best friends with a famous wacky bard named Dandelion, and on a couple rare occasions Geralt shows a hilarious amount of spontaneous sass. He’s a complete badass who is reserved and focused but also someone people can trust (though not everyone is willing to do so). And it’s Geralt that makes this book such a page turner since it’s less about the monsters he faces and more about how he goes about approaching each situation through conversation instead of simply barging in swinging his sword and spilling blood. He’s a complex character who is far more three-dimensional than I expected him to be.
The Last Wish is a beautifully written, enchanting, and original fantasy story with a protagonist that you can’t help but love. Once you start reading I promise that you’ll have a difficult time putting this book down. If you’ve played The Witcher video games, I can imagine The Last Wish would give you a ton of context that would likely enhance the playing experience. Even if you’ve never played or heard of The Witcher game series you absolutely must check out this book if you are a fan of fantasy and short story collections. If you can read Polish I envy you because these books must be even more incredible in their original language. The Last Wish was an easy book to award 5 stars and will likely mark the beginning of my new favourite fantasy series.