It’s time for something different on the blog today, as I finally get round to my write up of the first Witcher anthology – the first book? Not sure, it seems like trying to work out when the books all take place is an industry all of its own. At any rate, The Last Wish is a collections of short stories from 1993 that serves to introduce us to the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia. There are seven stories, around which is entwined a continuing narrative that serves to bind everything together.
I was first introduced to the Witcher by my buddy Tony, who is a huge fan of the video games, and had read all of the books. We have played the boardgame, of course, but I never really made much of an effort to learn more about the whole thing. I then read Dave’s review over on his site, and I decided that the time was right – in fact, it was right now, because within a day or two I had got myself a copy of the book from the local library and was merrily reading away!
I was instantly hooked with this, and pretty much devoured it as quickly as I could. The premise is that Geralt, a Witcher by trade, was wounded by one of the monsters he is paid to hunt, and so is recuperating at a monastery. The subsequent stories are a bit like Geralt remembering his past deeds, each time coming back to the “present” as this frame story advances. I think the stories were originally published in magazines and stuff, so it’s a nice way to bind them all together in a book.
The first story, The Witcher, is one of my favourites, I think because it sets the tone for the world. There are elements from Slavic folklore interspersed here, which is both familiar and strange to me. Geralt is a man who hunts monsters, and as part of his training he had undergone a kind of super soldier transformation. In order to hunt these beasts, he takes a variety of potions that enhance his speed, or his reactions, or his strength; enhancing his already enhanced body (he has excellent night vision, like a cat). We see this when he is tasked with lifting a curse on a king’s daughter (the result of an incestuous relationship with the king’s sister). The girl was born a striga, but Geralt thinks he has what it takes. The tale is vaguely creepy, which I really liked, and there is a political element that I enjoyed – making these not merely generic sword-and-sorcery fantasy stories.
All of the stories seem to be leading to the last of the seven, the eponymous The Last Wish. This is the story that tells how Geralt meets Yennefer, a sorceress and his great love interest. Somehow, even knowing so very little of the whole world, I knew about these two. Geralt’s bard friend Dandelion is injured by a genie he discovers in a sealed bottle while fishing, so Geralt takes him to the nearest city and asks Yennefer for aid. She heals Dandelion, but uses her magic to avenge herself on her detractors in the city by bewitching Geralt into running rampant. Yennefer further attempts to harness the power of the genie for herself, causing untold destruction in the attempt.
While all of the stories are, to some extent, Geralt on an adventure, it really doesn’t feel like some kind of by the numbers thing, where we have Geralt on the hunt of some kind of monster of the week. While each story does to some degree showcase some particular kind of gribbly, they nevertheless seem to be more about the people, and less just a series of sword fights and the like. There are a few elements that did make me feel just a little bit lost, however, such as the geography of the stories, and stuff like the political landscape. I think, when reading this as an introduction to the whole Witcher phenomenon, however, it’s best to just sit back and enjoy the ride – Geralt making the sign of Aard is just a thing he does, you don’t need a massive two-page explanation of the lore and so on to understand its purpose right there in the story. I realise that some people might not like that, but I’m choosing to just go along with it, and I suppose I’m expecting a lot of these sorts of things to be more fully fleshed out in the novels, where space is more affordable.
There is a whole lot to enjoy here, though, and while I have no idea how important to the ongoing narrative some of the story elements are (one of my least favourite stories, A Question of Price, appears to loom large already by being a direct prequel to one of the stories in the second anthology), I was nevertheless thoroughly entertained by this book. The allusions to fairy tales, while providing original spins thereon, is quite nice, and despite being a fantasy series, it somehow feels quite modern in its outlook, without the characters seeming to overly subvert the established norms for such stories. I think the storytelling flows quite well, and there isn’t that kind of annoying effort to try and be something other than Tolkien that some fantasy writers often fall into. It genuinely feels like something new and fresh, but also it doesn’t need a lot of laborious exposition for us to “get” the kind of story that we’re reading. We get details filled in about the world-building as we go, rather than all up front – the penultimate story, Edge of the World, gives us a lot of background to the elves who originally populated the continent on which the action takes place, for example.
I really enjoyed this book, and I thought it was a really good introduction to the world and the characters, having a bunch of short stories to serve as short and punchy introductions. If you’ve been on the fence like me about this series, then it’s really about time that you got yourself a copy and gave it a read!
As I said at the start, I was inspired to actually pick this book up following Dave’s review, and while I’ve also now read the second book in the series, Sword of Destiny, we’re now poised to read the first novel, Blood of Elves, with Jenn from Eternal Bookcase (you can read Jenn’s review of The Last Wish here!) and Dave’s better half, Milou. So stay tuned as we all dive into these books together, with cross-pollination across the sphere of WordPress!