The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski is a fantasy novel series which inspired a very popular series of video games which I'm quite fond of. I never read the books, however, and have decided to do so as part of my continuing exploration of the fantasy genre (begun at age 4). The Last Wish is the first book which has been translated into English and is responsible for introducing the world to the series' titular Witcher.
Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, an alchemically mutated human being who hunts monsters for coin. Witchers are feared and despised across the North but also vitally necessary, due to the prevalence of monsters in the land. The world is becoming more civilized, however, and the Witchers are becoming less and less relevant. Geralt, thus, finds himself drawn into politics and struggles which have very little to do with his trade overall.
The Last Wish is a series of short stories starring Geralt as he deals with these various plots and counterparts. Each story is interspersed with tidbits from a present day linking tale that chronicles Geralt recovering from a grevious injury. The books have a surprising link to fairy tales, as well, with things like Snow White and Beauty and the Beast sent up in a delightfully adult way.
Geralt is a delightfully engaging character, reminding me of "The Man with No Name" from Spaghetti Westerns. He's a good man but not a particularly nice one. Geralt just wants to be paid for doing his honest days work of monster-slaying but everyone confuses him for a hired killer and the bodies he leaves behind do little to dissuade people from that opinion. The fact those individuals he manages to find a decent human connection with often conflict with his morality makes things even more trouble. It's melodrama at its finest.
And sometimes that's what you want from your books.
I also love the supporting cast of this book. Dandelion, Yennefer, and even Nenneke are all engaging characters who show off different aspect of Geralt's personality. Yennefer is a great love interest, coquettish and arrogant but also funny. Dandelion is idealistic and romantic but also a complete ass--but in a charmingly endearing way.
"The Voice of Reason"
The Voice of Reason is the overarching story mentioned above. Geralt is recovering from wounds sustained during The Witcher story and becomes lovers with a young priestess at an abbey. We follow him as he explains his past amongst the Witchers, how they're treated in the world, and what Geralt's peculiar form of morality is. It's full of a insight into his character even if it's more like seven super-short stories than a single actual story.
My favorite part of this story is its finale where Geralt finds himself trying to figure out a way out of an "honor" duel where the other parties have none whatsoever (but plenty of military strength as well as powerful friends).
The story which started it all. The Witcher chronicles Geralt investigating a notice put up for a Striga (a hellish cannibalistic beast). It turns out this Striga is the daughter of the King he had with his own sister, cursed by parties unknown after her birth. Geralt must choose between taking the impressive reward of 1000 coins for slaying the hellish monster or the much riskier 3000 coins for curing her--which may not be possible.
Our introduction of Geralt is that of a hardened mercenary who is not interested in doing the right thing. The fact everyone here is unsympathetic makes his purely greed-based decision understandable, though. It is a story on quality with the original Robert E. Howard Conan short stories.
"A Grain of Truth"
A retelling of Beauty and the Beast with confusion over which is which. Geralt of Rivia chances upon a cursed human prince who has the features of a monster. A hilarious conversation occurs when the Beast, initially, thinks that he'll be terrifying to Geralt only to become terrified once he realizes he's dealing with a professional monster slayer. Of course, Geralt doesn't kill humans and is not interested in harming the man. But that doesn't mean there isn't a Beast in his house.
This is a very-very funny story despite the fact the Beast stand-in is less sympathetic than the author perhaps assumes. Despite this, the ending is tragic and enjoyable at once. I also like the way the Fairy Tale is warped for the narrative.
"The Lesser Evil"
A great story about the merits of 'the lesser evil' as a concept. Geralt is stuck between two likable but horrible people who are bent on killing each other. The story is a kind of perverse re-telling of Snow White and the myth of Oedipus. A girl is sent out into the woods to be raped and murdered by a Huntsman due to a prophecy, survives, and then sets upon the individual who shared the prophecy. Renfi, the Snow White analogue, is a delightful character who Geralt swiftly bonds with but not so much he's unwilling to ignore she's willing to kill anyone standing in the way of her vengeance.
The ending of the story is powerful, unexpected, and works perfectly for explaining what sort of world this setting is.
"A Question of Price"
Geralt of Rivia is an unusual situation: he's being wined and dined by royalty who are showing him every courtesy instead of disdain. So, of course, it comes crashing down when he's told his mission is to thwart destiny itself.
This is a significantly more light-hearted tale than the previous ones with an ending more in line with traditional fairy tales than normal. I do love the Queen of Cintra, though, as she's quite an impressive character. Her and Geralt's banter is hilarious then dramatic then back to hilarious.
"The Edge of the World"
A story about a mischievous "Devil" (closer to a satyr), a village community on the borderlands, and a dying group of elves who prefer death to losing their sense of identity. Geralt struggles with the increasing irrelevance of the Witcher profession in a world which has forgotten monsters exist. He, likewise, sees that change is inevitable even as he fears it.
The story does a great job of showing those who cling to the past will often find themselves destroyed by the future. Dandelion co-stars in this one and is gut-bustingly funny throughout.
"The Last Wish"
A story which reconstructs that classic fantasy trope of the three wishes. Dandelion finds, of all things, a bottle containing a genie and discovers that it is not terribly subservient. Hideously wounded, Geralt seeks out the closest sorcerer who can heal him and finds Yennefer instead. The sexual chemistry and interaction between the two is electric and I loved her "revenge" on Geralt for his disrespect. The ending was romantic, troubling, and fascinating at once.
In conclusion, this is a really fantastic book which is enjoyable as escapist fantasy fun. The world of the Witcher is dark, adult, and mature fantasy but which doesn't take itself so seriously that it can't make fun of itself.
Who could say no to that?