The Witcher: Book 1
Everything has suddenly become much clearer. Boys and girls, don’t follow my example and start with the earliest date of publication in the Witcher series. The Last Wish is definitely the place to start and I now have answers to several of the questions that were troubling me at the end of Sword of Destiny. That’s not to say that everything will be laid out nice and neatly: The Last Wish, like Sword of Destiny, is a collection of six short stories and these dart around chronologically within the story of our hero Geralt. They are all bound together, however, by parts of a seventh story, taking place in the ‘present day’ – although the ‘present day’ sits somewhere between the timelines of the stories ‘Sword of Destiny’ and ‘Something More’ from the collection Sword of Destiny. It’s all a little bit confusing, but worth the effort: to my relief, one of the stories in The Last Wish even links in with the first episode of the Netflix TV series. And, while these stories aren’t as light-hearted as those in Sword of Destiny, Sapkowski still has a lot of irreverent fun undermining some of the most cherished fairy tales in the European canon.
Let’s start, as I did with Sword of Destiny, by running through the various stories in this volume to give you a taster of what to expect. The six stories mentioned below are tied together by ‘The Voice of Reason’, a tale which resumes after each of the ‘inset’ stories. In this overarching story, we find Geralt of Rivia at the Temple of Melitele, where his old friend Nenneke is the high priestess. Severely wounded, Geralt has come for healing, but Nenneke has deeper concerns about his psychological state. Their conversations, along with other episodes in the temple, set the scene for the other stories in this collection, which show us key parts of Geralt’s story, along with more swashbuckling adventures.
- ‘The Witcher’: the first full story in this volume takes us to the city of Wyzim, where King Foltest and his people are plagued by a striga. Unfortunately for the castellan Velerad, who has the unenviable task of trying to stop the striga, the monster is none other than the king’s daughter. Conceived incestuously between the king and his sister, the child was believed to have been born dead but, for the last seven years (starting seven years after her birth), she has been rising from her crypt and attacking the townspeople for their blood. According to Velerad, Foltest will not hear of the monster – his child – being killed; can Geralt find some other way to break the curse?
- ‘A Grain of Truth’: although the story starts with the discovery of a horrific murder, it turns out to be one of the wittier tales in the volume: a riff on the themes of Beauty and the Beast. Trying to solve the murder of two travellers found in the woods, Geralt finds his way to an isolated manor house where strange blue roses grow in the garden. Confronted by the manor’s monstrous owner, Nivellin, Geralt ends up having supper with the poor fellow, who may have been cursed with a terrifying bear-like head, but is still conscious of the duties of hospitality. Nivellin explains his plight – he has invited a series of maidens to stay with him, for a year at a time, in the hope of breaking the spell through love; but he’s had no luck and has almost given up hope. However, Geralt suddenly realises that Nivellin’s monstrous head might, at the moment, be the very least of his worries.
- ‘The Lesser Evil’: this is the story dramatised in the first episode of the Netflix Witcher series, in which Geralt goes to Blaviken. He visits the alderman Caldemeyn, hoping to be rewarded for killing a local monster, but instead is sent on to offer it to Master Irion, the local wizard. At this point we enter that tower, with the inexplicably naked women gathering fruit, which so confused me in the TV show. It turns out that Irion is actually the pseudonym of Stregobor, a magician who has crossed Geralt’s path before in less than happy circumstances, but who now needs his help. Someone is on Stregobor’s tail, seeking revenge, and the wizard believes that Geralt is the only person who can help him. Geralt is less sure, because the situation goes against all his principles, but unfortunately the decision is taken out of his hands.
- ‘A Question of Price’: we finally get a good look at the royal court of Cintra, which was familiar to me from Sword of Destiny. Geralt has been invited by Queen Calanthe to attend a great feast to celebrate the betrothal of her daughter Pavetta. The princess’s husband hasn’t yet been chosen, but all the leading candidates have come together for the banquet and the announcement is imminent. Obviously, queens aren’t in the habit of inviting witchers to dinner, so Geralt knows he must be there for some other purpose. But what? When an armed, masked figure enters the castle just before midnight, claiming a right to the princess, chaos erupts – but the indignant suitors are only the start of the drama. A helpful explanation of the background to Ciri’s birth and the reason her destiny is linked to Geralt’s.
- ‘The Edge of the World’: this is a flashback to a time shortly after Geralt and the irrepressible minstrel Dandelion first met each other. The two new friends have gone on an expedition to the Valley of Flowers, right at the edge of the world, where they’re astonished by the verdant landscape and abundant crops. Here too there are troublesome creatures to be dealt with, and Geralt is offered an usual commission to get rid of a ‘devil’ which is pestering one particular village. His encounter with the creature leads to an unexpected standoff, which brings both witcher and bard into uncomfortably close proximity with some of the other ancient inhabitants of this countryside.
- ‘The Last Wish’: the story of how Geralt and Yennefer’s ill-fated love affair began, all thanks to Dandelion, a genie in a bottle and a very ambitious sorceress. Captivated against his will by a very dangerous woman, Geralt must find a way to thwart her ambitions without allowing her to be harmed. Full of interesting information on why sorceresses are invariably beautiful (it’s a matter of professional pride to correct all your flaws, as soon as you have enough power), on how to preserve your dignity while having a bath in the same room as a strange man (make yourself invisible) and how to insult people (‘Make use of the opportunity to have a bath yourself. I can not only guess the age and breed of your horse, but also its colour, by the smell’).
This group of stories has been translated by Danusia Stok and, while she doesn’t have quite the same colloquial sprightliness as David French in Sword of Destiny, that’s partly because she’s dealing with much heavier themes. I wonder whether Sapkowski wrote Sword of Destiny with the intention of knocking out a few light-heard sword-and-sorcery stories, but produced The Last Wish with a clearer idea of wanting to create a darker, more troubled world to serve as background for the novels. There does seem to be a distinct difference in spirit between the two volumes, and I suppose this didn’t delight me quite as much as Sword of Destiny, hence the slightly lower rating. I also decked half a star because the structure of The Last Wish is confusing, with chronology leaping around all over the place. While it’s definitely the best place to start in terms of getting your information, I can imagine it’d be pretty challenging for a total beginner to piece together everything. However, I’m pleased to report that these stories have filled in a lot of gaps and ticked off most of the questions in my Sword of Destiny post. I’ve even found out that there is a kind of central school for witchers, which presumably we’ll hear more about at some point – either through flashbacks or because Geralt goes back there.
I’m still struck by Geralt as a character. We see his harder side a bit more in these stories, but he still comes across as remarkably compassionate and principled. Indeed, he has so many principles that you do wonder how he manages to make any money at all (a problem which is alluded to a couple of times, both here and in Sword of Destiny). I also wonder at his notable success with women: he isn’t particularly attractive, so we’re told, so I can only put it down to his gentleness and perhaps the knowledge gained over the course of an unnaturally long lifespan. I was pleased to see more of Dandelion, whose presence is always a sign that we’re about to have a bit of comedy, and intrigued by Nenneke, who clearly knows things about Geralt and his past that we haven’t yet been told – and, pleasingly, is a mature, sensible and powerful woman who seems to be fully dressed. Renfry is another more complex female character, a Snow White gone to the bad, although her dress sense does still seem to pander to a young male audience. But there are signs here that Sapkowski can write interesting, believable and dignified female characters and I’m looking forward to seeing how that develops in the novels.
So what shape will those novels take? Presumably we’ll see Yennefer again, and Dandelion. Ciri’s importance has been firmly flagged by both books of short stories, so I presume she’ll play a major role as well. And I suppose we’ll have lots more tales of fascinating monsters, daring fights and allusions to myths, fairy-tales and folk stories. I’m certainly intrigued by this world at the moment. It feels as if there’s a great deal of potential here, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Sapkowski makes the transition between short story and full-length novel.
I repeat: this is definitely the place to start with this series! First here; then Sword of Destiny. I assume that I’m now well-prepared to dive into the main flow of the novels, and at least I feel slightly more confident about being able to follow the TV series, whenever we next find the time to settle down to it.
Next in the series: Sword of Destiny