Sunday, June 23, 2013

Review of The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Andrzej Sapkowski is a name well-known in Polish fantasy circles.  Seeking to capitalize on his local success, in 2007 Gollancz bought the rights to his Witcher series and began translating and publishing the works for the English speaking world.  The book they chose to release first is a collection of short stories called The Last Wish.  A test to determine whether the morally ambiguous Witcher is a character English readers can relate to, the collection presents a variety of facets to Sapkowski’s world and character, and sold well enough for Gollancz to go on and release the first two full novels in the series.  

Before reviewing the stories, a brief introduction to the Witcher is needed.  The main character is Geralt, a witcher (sorcerer/warrior) with special powers gained by imbibing strange brews and concoctions that aid him in locating and fighting all manner of monsters, demons, and spirits.  Not a super-hero (rather an itinerant bounty hunter), his moral decisions are rarely clear-cut as he adventures through the strangely haunted forests and Medieval cities of Sapkowski’s fantasy world.  Unfamiliar to most Western readers, Slavic mythology is most utilized toward detailing this world.  Some elements hint at Arthurian legend, Norse myth, etc., but by in large strigas, rusalkas, bruxas, kikimores, etc. are strictly of Eastern European origin, not to mention the Slavic mind which is the creative force behind the writing.  Taking this into consideration, the following is a brief rundown of the seven stories in the collection.

“The Voice of Reason” – A semi-framing device, this “story” sets the collection in motion and appears, in interlude fashion, amongst Geralt’s various other adventures and escapades.  Picked up briefly between each of the individual stories, it is obviously something Sapkowski (or publishers?) added at a later date to give the book continuity.  It is arguable whether this ploy drastically hurts or helps the collection, but it exists nonetheless.

“The Witcher” – The first true story in the collection and the one that started it all, Geralt finds himself in Vizima.  Quickly getting into trouble with the law, he is set before the magistrate and asked to rid the evil striga haunting the city.  The striga in fact the daughter of the magistrate transformed, Geralt is loathe to harm her, but is compelled to facing punishment.  A midnight-evil mood overhanging the story, it sets the tone for the collection: Geralt is not your average fantasy hero in an average fantasy world.

“A Grain of Truth” – While traveling in a strange forest one day, Geralt comes across the remains of a couple who appear to have been torn apart by wolves.  Intrigued by a blue flower pinned to the woman’s dress, he heads in the direction they came from to discover an abandoned mansion guarded by a sentient beast.  What he finds haunting the inside of the mansion may be more than the flower was worth.

“The Lesser Evil” – Having killed an evil kikimore, Geralt heads to the local town to try to collect a bounty.  Finding few interested, Geralt is directed to the house of its magician, Master Irion.  More to his appearance than meets the eye, Master Irion’s expectations for Geralt soon extend far beyond the dead creature carried.

“A Question of Price” – Geralt is a guest of honor at the side of Queen Calanthe on the night they choose the beau for her fifteen year old daughter.  Geralt, though unsure why he’s been invited, enjoys the evening in philosophical discussion until a helmeted knight interrupts festivities to claim the daughter’s hand.  Mystery ensuing, Geralt must use all of his powers of wit to get to the bottom of the knight’s claim.

“The Edge of the World” – Geralt and his erstwhile companion, Dandelion, stop in a town to look for work.  Greeted only by superstition (interesting, it being a fantasy world), the pair head to the “edge of the world’ to continue looking for monsters to kill.  Literally encountering another culture, the story is anti-climactic and better serves as an introduction to the first novel in the series, Blood of Elves, than as a stand-alone story. 

“The Last Wish” – After an encounter with a genie, Dandelion requires medical attention for which Geralt brings the wounded man to Rinde.  Appearances deceiving in the city, Geralt soon discovers only his intelligence can be relied on, everyone out for blood or power.

As it is a pervasive characteristic, I’ve chosen to address the following concern separately, rather than in each story.  By placing emphasis on the ethical as much as epic or justice issues, Sapkowski has ambitions for Geralt to be more than the average fantasy hero.  On several occasions discussions on deeper views into his work, the situations he encounters, and life in general can be heard.  Simply by including this motif does not mean that the stories become more complex and meaningful, however.  Perhaps it’s just the translation, but at times the discussions seem to be presented in overly-simplistic fashion that detract from the depths Sapkowski was attempting to plumb.  Geralt’s decision how to handle the stiga in “The Witcher”, for example, is related in direct, straightforward terms, nothing to give the situation nuance, and therefore a blanketing sense of reality.  Given the shortage of such ambition in fantasy today, however, I should not complain too much about a writer trying to make their protagonist multi-dimensional.  I’m also guessing something was lost in the translation.

In the end, The Last Wish is a representative sample of modern Slavic fantasy and introduction of Geralt the Witcher to the English speaking world.  Though the longer form seems to better suit Sapkowski’s fantasy aspirations (Blood of Elves is a better book), the collection nevertheless gives readers a solid taste of what they can expect from Geralt and his life as a monster hunter.  Curses, witches, hexes, and all manner of creatures of the night filling the pages, his life is not an easy one, an aspect highlighted by the moral albeit overt conscience Sapkowski applies to his hero.  Given that magic is generally systematized, particularly the vials of bubbling liquids Geralt ingests to enhance his powers, readers of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series may find something to like about The Witcher, as will lovers of video games in general.

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