If you’re still tossing coins to your Witcher (sorry) and you can’t wait for the next season the the Netflix adaptation, you might be tempted to jump into the source material. That’s just what I did. Here is my review of the Last Wish, the short story collection that introduces the character of Geralt, the Witcher.
- Title: The Last Wish (English), Ostatnie życzenie (Polish)
- Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
- Genre: Fantasy
- Audio Book Reader: Peter Kenny
- Series: The Witcher (Book 0)
- Publisher: superNOWA, 1993 (Polish); Gollancz, 2007 (English)
Warning: Spoilers for the game and Season 1 of the Netflix production!
There are seven (more like six and a half) short stories in this collection. They serve as an introduction to the world of the Witcher and, of course, Geralt of Rivia. This is also the major source of the Netflix series’ first season. The stories are as follows:
- The Witcher
- A Grain of Truth
- The Lesser Evil
- A Question of Price
- The Edge of the World
- The Last Wish
- The Voice of Reason
The latter also acts as a framing story for the entire collection. Each story takes inspiration from European Folklore and the Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Sapkowski adds an element of Grim Dark to fairytales (which are pretty dark in their original forms anyway).
The stories establish the importance of Geralt and the world in which he lives in. This is a medieval world wherein monsters are an added danger (you know, besides the plague, squalid living conditions, and a despot or two). We are given a flavor of the world: it is dark, unforgiving, and full of tantalizing mysteries.
Here’s a brief rundown of each of the stories.
Foltest, the King of Temeria, has a few issues. He has no heirs, his sister is dead, and his town is terrorized by a monster. Only, it’s worse than that: the monster is his daughter, Adda. He would pay a hefty sum to anyone who could lift the curse.
Enter Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. He knows that a striga (for that is the kind of monster this is) cannot be harmed by silver (which is usually the best counter for any monster), but it can be killed. Geralt warns the king that even if the curse can be lifted, Adda would not be not be ‘normal’ after living a life as a monster.
But things are not as straight forward as they seem. Geralt is approached by Lord Ostrit of Novigrad – a man with no love for Foltest. He attempts to bribe the Witcher into letting the monster be, as she is proof of an incestuous relationship between the king and his late sister. Ostrit hopes to use the monster’s existence and true origin to claim that Foltest is unfit to rule.
But a Witcher does not take bribes. Geralt fights the monster, and eventually lifts the curse by preventing it from returning to it’s crypt. Adda is a human girl again and Geralt is rewarded for his efforts.
[The events of this story play out similarly to Season 1, Episode 3 of the Witcher TV series.]
A Grain of Truth
Geralt happens upon a deceased couple with strange wounds. This leads him to a house in the woods where a genteel monster named Nivellen makes his home. The mansion is enchanted and obeys his every command.
Over a meal, Nivellen reveals that he was once the leader of a group of bandits. He raped a priestess who cursed him to become the bear-like creature he is now. To lift the curse, he must receive ‘true love’s kiss’. To accomplish this, Nivellen invited women from the surrounding villages (often rewarding the respective families with the enchanted riches from the mansion’s treasury).
He enjoyed their company, but none of them managed to lift the curse. He was ready to give up on the matter until he met his latest match, Vereena. Now Nivellen worries that she only accepts him as a monster.
Geralt leaves, seeing Nivellen as no threat to anyone. His horse is disquiet as they leave. It is then that Geralt realizes the truth: Vereena is a bruxa (a kind of vampire who can influence minds). He races back to confront her, realizing that she has been feeding on Nivellen’s female suiters (hence the bodies). In the final confrontation, Nivellen ends up killing his beloved Vereena. As she dies, so telepathically confesses her true love for him, and so breaks the curse.
While the power of a ‘true love’s kiss’ is only a myth, it contains a grain of truth.
[This story clearly alludes to The Beauty and the Beast and is certain to be part of Season 2 of the series.]
The Lesser Evil
I’m not going to spend too much time on this one as it is pretty much the same as the first episode of the Witcher series.
Here, Geralt travels to Blaviken, meets a wizard called Stregobor, and is paid to kill Renfri and her gang. It plays out like it does in the series (give or take a detail). Renfri is a clear allegory of Snow White and her gang of bandits (a banditti, if you’re into collective nouns) are an allusion to the seven dwarves.
Geralt fails to convince Renfri not to slaughter the townsfolk in order to draw out the wizard. Doing so would prove Stregobor’s assessment of her as a being of evil correct. This failure forces Geralt to slay the bandits and Renfri, thereby earning the name of The Butcher of Blaviken.
A Question of Price
This is another story that was nicely adapted for the series (episode 4, ‘Of Banquets, Bastards and Burials’).
Geralt attends a betrothment feast in Cintra where he meets Queen Calanthe, Princess Pavetta, and Mousesack the Druid. All goes well until a cursed knight named Urcheon asks for the princess’s hand in accordance with the Law of Surprise. A battle ensued as those for and against the union duke it out. Eventually Pavetta is forced to reveal her magical powers (I guess this was her conduit moment) and nearly destroys the castle.
Geralt and Mousesack defuse the situation (with some difficulty) and eventually the court accepts the union. As payment for his aid, Geralt invokes the Law of Surprise. This is an act that will shape his destiny forever.
The Edge of the World
This story was nicely adapted as the second episode of the Witcher series.
Here Geralt and Dandelion (real name Julian Alfred Pankratz, Viscount de Lettenhove or Jaskier in Polish) travel through Posada where they are contracted to dispose of a ‘devil’ causing mischief in the fields. This ‘devil’ turns out to be a sylvan named Torque.
There are fights and name-calling. Eventually, the duo are kidnapped and taken to elves (who have fallen from grace in this world). They are eventually set free, with a promise from Filavandrel, the leader of the elves, that he and Geralt will meet on the battlefield.
This story felt a little incomplete – as if it was the prologue to something larger.
In the Netflix series, this story gave us this earworm:
The Last Wish
After a contentious fishing session, Geralt and Dandelion dredge up an ancient amphora. They release a genie which attacks the bard.
Again the events of this story were closely adapted in the series (episode 5). This story marks the first meeting of Geralt of Rivia and Yennefer of Vengerberg. He uses the titular last wish to bind his destiny with Yennefer’s – kicking off their tumultuous relationship.
The Voice of Reason
This is less of a short story and more of a framing device. Geralt is recovering from an injury and during his convalescence he tells the above stories. He is challenged to a fight by a pair of knights.
I got the sense that this story was an introduction to something I was yet to understand.
I enjoyed this book. Alright, I might have a strong bias towards these books as I love the game and the tv show. But, what I liked most here is the approach to folklore (both the familiar and the obscure). Each story has a clear link to a fairytale and – as far as I am concerned – develops it into a gritty and grim retelling.
It is somehow refreshing to have a fantasy monster that can be defeated by more than just sticking a sword into it. It’s ‘old school’ and fresh at the same time.
As long as you see these stories as introducing the world rather than developing the characters, you will enjoy it. Each story has enough of a turn (i.e. this is what is happening, this is what will happen, this is what actually happens) to keep you guessing. I like short stories to surprise me.
The stories can be a little wordy and flowery as far as descriptions are concerned. This density of description is what put me off big-name fantasy series such as the Wheel of Time. However, due to the fact that these are short stories, the slower parts are easier to get through. That sounds confusing, I know. You’ll see when you read it.
This is really the only draw back I could find. You could, perhaps, argue that Sapkowski should have expanded on certain things while omitting needless detail. For instance, some aspects of the lore and the details of Geralt’s past are not delved into. But, this would be an unfair criticism for a short story collection.
Perhaps the only story that felt lacking was The Edge of the World. It certainly tried to illustrate the dangers of othering, but I felt that there needed to be something else. Maybe it’s just me.
Potentially Offensive Content
The stories are littered with moments of gratuitous violence, descriptions of sexual acts, and instances of fantasy racism. This is pretty much on par with the games and the Netflix series. This is very much an adult fantasy and is certainly not suitable for a younger audience.
It’s on the same level as similar works, such as: A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law series, and The Gentleman Bastards. If you can stomach the sex and violence in those, you will have no issue with The Last Wish.
Sapkowski is great at atmosphere. The monsters are outlandish enough to instill a fear of the unknown. In these brief glimpses into the life of a witcher, we get to know Geralt. He is a likeable antihero who knows his business, yet is flawed enough to be human. I found myself caring for the man – even at his most barbarous.
By far the biggest standout achievement of this collection is the lack of straightforwardness. The stories have satisfying twists – not exactly blow-your-mind level, but enough to surprise you. We go in expecting a series of stories about hunting monsters – and we get that to some extent – but things are never that simple. Certain humans tend to be worse than the monsters.
This is a theme I’ve encountered in the works of Del Toro and King – it is something I am drawn to. This lends a moral greyness to the stories and Geralt’s actions which elevates it well beyond that of folktale or anecdote.
Final Review Score: 7/10
What do you think? Do you agree with my assessment and my final score?
Please let me know in the comments below.
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