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Friday, May 9, 2008

"The Last Wish" by Andrzej Sapkowski

Official Andrzej Sapkowski Website
Order “The Last WishHERE
Read An Extract HERE
Read Reviews of “The Last Wish” via FantasyBookSpot, OF Blog of the Fallen + The Wertzone

If you’ve been following any science fiction/fantasy book blogs over the past year or so, you might have heard of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, creator of the extremely popular Witcher series which has thus far spawned a movie, a television series, a role-playing game, a comic book series, and The Witcher video game. Just last year, the first of these Witcher books—a short story collection titled “The Last Wish”—was translated into English and released by Gollancz for UK readers. Now thanks to Orbit Books, American readers can finally discover for themselves what all the hype is about…

As previously mentioned, “The Last Wish” is a collection of short stories—six to be exact—that feature Geralt, the white-haired witcher of Rivian. A witcher is apparently a special kind of monster hunter who undergoes mutations—through hormones, herbs, viral infections and the Trial of Grasses—to enhance their physical abilities, including unnatural recuperative properties; they can also perform sorcery and are extremely dangerous. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to say about a witcher, or Geralt in particular, because there’s very little information revealed, so let’s move on to the individual stories:

1)The Witcher”. In this opening short story we get to meet Geralt for the first time as he’s answering a proclamation to hunt down a monster, specifically a striga. But there’s a problem. You see the striga is actually the king’s daughter and he doesn’t want her dead, but the curse broken which is a significantly more difficult task. Complicating matters even further are a group of wise men who, for political matters, want the princess killed… Overall, “The Witcher” is a memorable introduction to Geralt, his profession, and the world he inhabits. A world that seems to be an amalgamation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, peopled by nobles, knights, peasantry, elves, dwarves, and every monster imaginable—basilisks, dragons, vodniks, kobolds, spriggans, vampires, werewolves, manticores, wyverns, foglers, aeschnas, ilyocoris, kikimoras, chimeras, ghouls, vyppers, et cetera.

2)A Grain of Truth”. Geralt stumbles upon a couple of corpses in the forest and decides to investigate. What he discovers is a manor house lorded over by a monster. Or is it? Like “The Witcher”, everything is not quite as it seems and the true monster is yet to be revealed… In this short, readers get a greater glimpse at the satirical humor that permeates much of Sapkowski’s work in this collection, including the author’s twisting of fairy tale conventions, which in this case seems to be Beauty and the Beast.

3)The Lesser Evil”. One of my favorites, “The Lesser Evil” finds Geralt meeting up with an old acquaintance—the wizard Stregobor—who is being hunted by a cursed mutant that is impervious to magic and kills for pleasure… What’s interesting about this short is its philosophical take on the nature of evil, but personally I just loved the darker vibe of the story, especially its grim ending…

4)A Question of Price”. Another standout, Geralt attends a banquet disguised as a noble. Why the need for subterfuge and what he’s being hired for is all part of the mystery, but it involves a princess, an alliance between two nations, and the Law of Surprise which states that a man who saves another can demand a seemingly impossible wish… Full of shocks and surprises, “A Question of Price” is clever and fun.

5)The Edge of the World”. Joining Geralt on this adventure is Dandelion, a poet and troubadour whose interactions with the witcher are comical to say the least. As a result, “The Edge of the World” is one of the more humorous stories in the collection :) The story meanwhile, follows the duo as they venture to ‘the edge of the world’ to take care of a goat-like doevel and in the process become embroiled in a conspiracy involving elves, a guide book about monsters, and a goddess…

6)The Last Wish”. Once again featuring the poet Dandelion, this last short is another amusing and entertaining tale of monsters, magic, and mayhem. This time, the poet is severely injured by a djinn and to save him, Geralt employs the services of a powerful, but dangerous sorceress named Yennefer whose reasons for helping the witcher are questionable. Fortunately for Geralt, the witcher has a trick or two up his sleeve…

Connecting together these six short stories is a seven-part framework that opens, closes and bridges the collection. Titled “The Voice of Reason”, this framework is set in one of Melitele’s temples where the witcher is recovering from a deadly wound that was acquired at the end of “The Witcher” short story. While this framework examines Geralt’s motivations and ethics a little bit, “The Voice of Reason” basically acts as a lead-in to the six different short stories.

As a whole, I liked Andrzej Sapkowski’sThe Last Wish”, but thought it was a little overrated. I mean the concept is great. A fairy tale world that both embraces and parodies the conventions of fables is a wonderful idea. It’s like Shrek/The Princess Bride meets the Brothers Grimm meets Castlevania. I especially enjoyed such references to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, the troll under the bridge, and the genie in the bottle and how the author changes things up. Unfortunately, like a fairy tale there is very little world-building or character development in “The Last Wish”. In fact, I’ve played a number of videogames with protagonists that possess more personality and depth than Geralt does, attributes that videogame characters are not exactly known for. Stylistically, I’m just not sure what Sapkowski is trying to accomplish. Are the short stories supposed to be fairy tales? Horror? Comedy? “The Last Wish” embraces a little bit of all three and the different styles don’t always mesh so well together. In particular, I thought the humor was a little dry, but according to other reviews I’ve read, some things were lost in the translation so I won’t hold it against the book too much. In the end, Andrzej Sapkowski’sThe Last Wish” didn’t astound me, but it was certainly entertaining enough that I’ll give the next Witcher novel—“The Blood of Elves”—a look when it’s released…


Mihai A. said...

Very good review once again Robert. I played the game and considering the reviews, I have to give a try. It was on my shopping list, but climbed that list because you made me more curious than I was :)

Anonymous said...

I'm unsure if I will pick this one up. I have read very similar reviews and none have inspired me to rush out and grab it.

In the end i might, just to read something non-American/Canadian/Britsh etc...One of the reasons i enjoy the Night Watch series is because of its Russian setting.

Anyway, another great review Robert.

Larry Nolen said...

I just re-read it yesterday, since I ordered the second collection (in Spanish), La espada del destino. What I believe is happening in those stories is that Sapkowski is playing off of expectations for what would constitute black/white fantasy characters, written during a time (the mid-80s) in which the Polish political climate wasn't exactly favorable for straightforward commentaries.

Also, from what I understand, these stories are just introductory short adventures that were later expanded into a five-volume novel series that goes much further in depth and that it is there where much of Sapkowski's popularity with Polish, Russian, Czech, and Spanish readers lies. From what I understand, the story arc that unfolds in Blood of the Elves depends upon stories that occur in La espada del destino (The Sword of Destiny), not to mention that Geralt's relationship with Yennefer will be expanded greatly in those stories and novels.

So perhaps it's like reading the first chapter and trying to grasp what it was about what follows it that grabbed the attention of others? :P

ThRiNiDiR said...

One of the best reviews of The Last Wish...and I've read quite a few of them; sadly haven't touched the book yet *sigh*

Harry Markov said...

OH! I wrote to Orbit about the book, but no answer. Hopefully they respond and I get a dream come true. Excellent review and you just captured my soul as I love Grimm's fairy tales and this mixed with Castlevania. The goodness! I have to tell you that there were cartoons on Grimm's tales and they showed the more sinister bloody version of the tales. Loved that!

Robert said...

Thanks Mihai :) What did you think of the game? I'm a big fan of RPGs, so I'm even more interested now in checking out The Witcher...

Reanimated, the book's not for everyone, but it is fairly short & cheap :) Thanks for reminding me about the Night Watch series! That's one I really need to get into :D

Larry, some very interesting observations :) Hopefully that is the case, because the book does show a lot of potential and I'd like to see the full-length novels deliver on that...

Uros, thanks! Hopefully you'll get to the book at some point.

Harry, I hope you hear back from Orbit. Yeah, I'm a fan of the darker side of Grimm's fairy tales :)

Mihai A. said...

Well I loved the game. I haven't had so much fun since "Icewind Dale" and "Baldur's Gate" games. I know that this games are old, but sometimes I can be very conservative. But fortunately that is only sometimes :)

Gav's Studio said...

I gotta admit that I put this down after reading a few stories and haven't managed to feel the need to pick it up again.

It was a nice setting and well written but lacked the punch needed to drive me from one story to the next.

So pleasant but not addictive.

RobB said...

I enjoyed the book, and as always, nice review Robert. I'll be posting mine in a few days.

Robert said...

Thanks Rob! I'll be looking out for your review :)

Jonathan said...

I have just now finished The Last Wish and maybe i missed something, becasuse i have no idea what happened at the very end. If any of you know of a seperate sight with a discussion board or something that culd explain please let me know.

Besides that i loved this book. the voice of reason chapters really pulled these short stories into a book for me and i really enjoyed the world and the characters.

Unknown said...

I want to say that I have read whole article very carefully and I agree with the summary, but you should know, that 'The Last Wish' was author's debut. It's a group of stories which was published by Polish fantasy magazine "Nowa Fantastyka" (New Fantasy). The main story is presented in 5 books cycle - Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt, Baptism of Fire, Swallow's Tower, Lady's Lake (it’s my own translation) and those inspired the game creator's. Sapkowski's books couldn't be fully understanded by foreigner as it has multiple connections to Polish politics and history, but the main setting was build on Arthurian's Legends and Polish pagan beliefs. I think that it's a masterpiece, because whole cycle from beginning to the end was filled with thousands of connotations to the further and former events. It's incredible, because when we read it second or third time we'll still find something new and information we already have gathered let us understand second or third bottom and lots of things that we missed are getting revealed showing us something new. Another positive is a large variety of characters, my favorite is a vampire Regis, who is very colorful personality. In addition there are shown many political intrigue's, funny coincidences and many others which made that book my favorite.

I want to apologize for many mistakes I've probably made, but I haven't completed my English language education yet. To avoid misunderstood I want to say that I've read those books in native (Polish) language.

Robert said...

Thanks for your comments Adrian :) I knew that "The Last Wish" was the author's debut, but didn't know the stories were first published in a magazine. I'm not surprised if much of what make the stories so good are lost during the translation. Hopefully, future translations will do a better job. Personally, I can't wait to read the main story, but the books have been taking a long time to get published. I have "Blood of Elves", but "Times of Contempt" keeps getting pushed back...

Anyway, thanks again, and I had no trouble understanding you at all :D

Anonymous said...

The problem with Sapkowski's Last wish is simple, the book is freaking old. It was realised in Poland back in 90's ! It is hard to expect the book to fully entertain modern people since we have been fed with many newer stories of that kind. The reviewr mentioned Shreck (which is waaay newer) to explain what feeling one may have while readin The Last Wish which kinde proves my point. Anyway, Last Wish is the very first book writen by Sapkowski, Sword of Destiny (onother compilation of short stories) is a little better and the Witcher Saga (Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt,Baptism of Fire, Tower of Swallow, Lady of the Lake) is a masterpiece willed with references to many more and less famous legends, fairy tales and RL history.


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