August 15, 2020

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The Last Wish cover by Andrzej Sapkowski

Review of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, The Witcher Anthologies by Andrzej Sapkowski

Since the fall of last year I have become obsessed with The Witcher. The stories written by Andrzej Sapkowski revolve around the character Geralt of Rivia set in the medieval-styled fantasy world. On the face of it, it all sounds simple. Geralt has been enhanced through drugs and magic to become a monster slayer, which he even does from time to time. However, the author has created universe that has an intricate plots and themes. Unlike say A Song of Ice And Fire there is no small amount of humor, usually manifested as banter and off-beat remarks.

But like the stories of George R.R. Martin the world of The Witcher is filled with violence and gore. Unexpected deaths are never far away. As you may know there are a number of published books in The Witcher universe, besides the games by CD Projekt Red and the series on Netflix starring Henry Cavill. In fact, there are eight. Two books of short stories published in the early 90s, five books of the saga published between 1994 and 1999 and a standalone novel published in 2013.

The Last Wish cover by Andrzej Sapkowski

Where to start

This is a review of the two short story anthologies: The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. Note that The Last Wish was actually published after Sword of Destiny, but it takes place chronologically before the latter. This is because the stories of The Last Wish were published individually in the years before. As such any laymen regarding The Witcher should start with reading The Last Wish. The first anthology contains seven short stories. Each is told as a flashback as Geralt is recovering from injuries sustained in a battle. The stories are not strongly connected, but there are some story threads. One of the overall driving force for the character Geralt is his love for the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg. The title of the anthology is a reference to the three wishes provided by a genie. The last wish made by Geralt solidifies his relationship with Yennefer forever.

The Witcher – The Last Wish

Throughout most of the stories Geralt is accompanied by the bard Dandelion, also known as Jaskier in the Netflix series. Dandelion acts as a sidekick offering humorous passages but also a connection to the world. Geralt has for many decades already been a witcher, but remains notably aloof of etiquette and politics. The character Dandelion as such offers the reader a character they can easily relate to and he reminds me in no small amount of Gabrielle from the Xena Warrior Princess series.

That said, Geralt is not one to openly discuss the deeper meaning of events to which he is a witness. Those that accompany him do, notably Dandelion and Yennefer. One story in particular “A Question of Price” is remarkable for its multilayered plot. It deals with betrothal of Queen Calanthe’s daughter Pavetta. Its an evening nobody thought would go as it did, though Calanthe plays a deeper game. It introduces many characters that later play a role in the Saga, including the mysterious character Duny.

Wonderful lore

What amazes me by The Last Wish is just how different each of the stories is. Geralt may be a monster hunter but the world of The Witcher is complicated. The variety of settings, factions and monsters means the author Andrzej Sapkowski has created a large lore surrounding the character. At times it makes the story feel overwhelming as in short order we are introduced to a whole new set of people just for that particular story. That said, the establishment of this lore pays dividend with the saga novels that follow. No doubt they also gave impetus to the video game adaptations. Readers should be aware from my remarks in the opening paragraph that the stories are filled with violence.

Monster hunting is dangerous and the medieval setting is unkind to women – not unlike Game of Thrones. One story in particular “The Witcher” deals with how the incestuous offspring of King Foltest of Temeria turns into a monster called a Striga and terrorizes the kingdom. The story deals Geralt’s ethical choices, he can kill the monster or lift the curse and save the princess. Viewers of the series will no doubt remember that particular episode, but the short story is even better.

Sword of Destiny cover by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Witcher – Sword of Destiny

The second anthology series is Sword of Destiny with six short stories. Though the book is considerably longer. Some of the stories are chronologically set after those of The Last Wish. Others cannot be easily placed on a timeline, not in the least because magic users do not age like they do in the real world. The last story “Something More” is set during the fall of the kingdom of Cintra to the forces of Nilfgard.

It introduces the character of Ciri, the girl who is bound to Geralt through the Law of Surprise. Viewers of the series will remember these events and how they form a backdrop to most of season 1. In Sword of Destiny it becomes more obvious just how much the author borrowed from old European folklore, and I mean that as a compliment. Beings from popular folklore from the start of many of the story – a kernel from which spawns a completely new story.

Polish influences

One of the stories “Eternal Flame” is set in the metropolitan city of Novigrad and introduces the creature known as a Doppler which can transform and mimic humans perfectly. The story is notable for depicting a secret police that spies on its own people – something that is expanded on in The Witcher Saga. Obviously the author has included this as a reference to when his native country of Poland was under communists rule. This anthology was published in 1993, something that would have been impossible with this story just 4 years before. With Sword of Destiny the author is slowly solidifying the lore of his world. Considering the first book of the saga was published the year after the author was already writing towards a goal. As such the short stories are perhaps less divergent as with The Last Wish.

More of The Witcher

So after reading the two short story anthology books there is plenty more. Next there are the five books together known as The Witcher Saga starting with Blood Of Elves. They pick up right after the end of Sword of Destiny. The first book will form the core of the upcoming second season of The Witcher series. I have nearly finished reading the complete saga, but I will do a full review of those later. That said, not every short story is depicted in season 1. “A Grain of Truth” and “The voice of reason” are two stories on the top of my head that are not.

I hope future seasons will do so. For those like me who cannot get enough of The Witcher there is also the excellent game The Witcher 3. I am currently playing it on the Nintendo Switch and I will post a belated review in a few weeks time. If you liked this review please fill out the subscription widget on the right.