The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
Goodreads Rating: ★★★★☆
My Rating: ★★★★☆
As someone who’s played a lot of video games, I knew I wanted to read The Witcher saga by Andrzej Sapkowski, which inspired the Witcher games by CD Projekt Red. While The Last Wish isn’t directly part of the saga, it is almost a required read to understand the events and characters within the later books. As a note, I approached this novel from a different perspective than I usually approach novels (essentially this was not a ‘read for fun’ book). I read this novel for an adaptation analysis I was working on of the video games versus the novels for a class I was in last semester.
The Last Wish serves as an introduction to the Witcher universe and contains a collection of short stories and “framing narratives”. While the short stories take place at different times, the framing narratives happen in the present. Many of the short stories are inspired by well-known fairytales. Despite the similarities, these stories are in no way unoriginal. The protagonist Geralt is tough and snarky, but surprisingly relatable. I personally hated the back cover description of the novel featured on the edition to the left. It painted Geralt to be a much darker character than he actually is–a one-dimensional assassin keen on destroying monsters. Instead, Geralt is surprisingly complex and that complexity shows even in the first short story (those familiar with the Witcher games will know this story already as it served for the prologue of the first game). Geralt lives by a strict code and while most people around him perceive him as a man who will do whatever it takes to get a job done (which is true), how he completes the job isn’t always obvious, much like the situations he finds himself in. Rather than going in swords and spells blazing, he often speaks with the “monsters”. In reading, I often felt that he was the sort of man who would rather talk out a problem and de-escalate it rather than fight. A refreshingly wise figure, he almost always researches before going into a situation and tries to maintain a neutrality throughout conflicts until tensions boil over beyond his control.
“Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I’m not a pious hermit, I haven’t done only good in my life. But if I’m to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.” –Geralt, The Last Wish
This quote defines who Geralt is. While more often than not he is forced to choose, there are a number of cases within the short stories where his lack of choosing has dire consequences, something he does reflect on in the framing narratives. This comes in some contrast with VideoGame!Geralt. In the games, Geralt is often forced to pick sides in conflicts, especially in the second game (the first game does offer a neutral(ish) path–and as a disclaimer, I am not familiar with the third game beyond the plot so I can’t say whether a similar neutral path is available within that one).
In terms of character, story, and creativity I absolutely loved this book. It is gritty without being grotesque, political without being dull, thoughtful in its questions about morality, and above all witty. It is also a very fun read if you’re interested in learning about some of the creatures in Polish folklore. Comparatively, it sits somewhere between J. R. R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Where the Lord of the Rings has a certain magical whimsy to it, even in the books darkest moments, A Song of Ice and Fire is brutal and unrelenting. The Last Wish stands in the middle, an adult fairy tale that is neither overly lighthearted nor severe. Whether due to the novel being a translation or the author’s own style, The Last Wish also departs from Tolkien and Martin in that it is a digestible read–to the point, while also still painting a beautifully complex world. Overall, a good read that I would highly recommend, especially to fans of the game series and if you haven’t played the games, this book is a great introduction to them (the games have a lot of easter eggs that harken back to the novels).