Author: Andrzej Sapkowski
It is no small secret among the staff in the video game department at Geeks Under Grace that I am incorrigible in my Witcher fandom. The first game alerted me into the franchise’s universe despite its jank; the second game utterly enthralled me; the third put to rest my vacillating when asked what is the greatest game of all time. As CD Projekt RED escalates its marketing for Cyberpunk 2077, so too have I scheduled my life in anticipation of its release. I invested 120 hours of blissful gameplay with Witcher 3, yet never played its two expansions, Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine, despite purchasing them, not wanting the excellence of the chronicles to end. Therefore, I decided to prolong my enjoyment by reading the Witcher novels first!
As usual with fans of fiction based upon a book series, they would claim the literature’s superiority. At the time that I learned of a Witcher novel series, they had yet to be translated from Polish to English. Still feeling the burn of reading through George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (pun intended) with no conclusion to that series in the foreseeable future, I waited for the entirety of the Witcher saga to be translated before reading. As of 2017, all seven of Andrzej Sapkowski’s books have been translated, and I have spent the second quarter of 2018 reading all but the newly-released Season of Storms. Thus, I am able to produce reviews in case there are others interested in reading these excellent manuscripts.
Readers sensitive to mature content should approach the literary Witcher series with caution equitable to how one would approach the video games. Whereas The Chronicles of Narnia is written with children in mind, the target audience for the Witcher series is adults. As each book in the series is over 300 pages, I will leave certain details undisclosed both intentionally and unintentionally; an exhaustive catalog of all content worth mentioning in every novel would warrant this guide extending to a full-page alone! To supplement potential gaps, I recommend reading the content guides of our reviews of The Witcher, The Witcher 2, and The Witcher 3 for additional insight concerning the mature nature of this franchise.
“Tell that to Hereward. No, not Hereward. Tell that to his wife, the noble Ermellia, adding that if she wants to continue receiving an uninterrupted supply of aphrodisiacs from my pharmacy, she’d better calm her duke down. Let her curb his humors and whims, which look ever more like symptoms of idiocy. ” (84)
Sexuality: “…with a light but decisive movement of her hips…” The Last Wish opens with a sex scene within its first four pages. Therefore, expect sex to be a topic far removed from taboo. It is so frequent, in fact, that every story includes a reference to sexuality, including incest (9), rape (60), one-night stands (2, 120), virgins “popping cherries” (185), and some casual, likely post-coital, nudity (257).
And as far as bed is concerned, well…Pox on it, virtue is rarer today than a rock dragon” (66).
Language and Crude Humor: To the credit of Sapkowski, the language in this book adapts according to the audience and speaker. This means that at a king’s court, one is admonished for using coarse language. But among commoners, uncouthness is the common tongue.
The full gamut of four-letter bombs can be experienced here, though they are placed strategically through the narrative so as to tread into excessive vulgarity. Euphemisms are also popular. For example, one character says that “I became a man,” to describe his first sexual encounter, which is a rape. “Pox on it,” as quoted above, is a popular curse from the Middle Ages.
Alcohol and Drug Use: Beer in the world of the unnamed continent is more plentiful than water on earth. Verily, I found myself googling how harmful diuretics could be, wondering if characters would perish from dehydration, for no one seems interested in any other beverage, with the exception of one who demands juice. Geralt himself consumes special elixirs to enhances his combat abilities. Though I would consider neither combat enhancers nor the ancient medicinal techniques practiced in the temple of Melitele a content concern, they are nevertheless worth mentioning here.
Spirituality: The world of the Witcher acknowledges pagan influences. Prominent here is the cult of Melitele (41), where “The Voice of Reason” takes place. Phrases such as “by the gods!” are popular. Note that when a character says “god d—n it!” they are not referencing any of the trinitarian godhead, but pagan ones. Earthly religions are completely absent here; fatalism, in fact, is more popular, peddled in the form of a “destiny” motif. Still, despite Geralt’s devout atheism, Sapkowski provides this dialogue as a punchline:
“Don’t you think”—he smiled—“that my lack of faith makes such a trance pointless?”
“No. I don’t. And do you know why?”
Nenneke leaned over and looked him in the eyes with a strange smile on her pale lips.
“Because it would be the first proof I’ve ever heard of that a lack of faith has any kind of power at all.” (44)
This text was written before “mic drops” became a thing.
Violence: Usually, violence is the first category in our content warnings here at GUG, but I am listing it here because though it is pervasive in the text, it is positioned as a necessity for survival rather than a means to an end—the natural end result of the character and plot mechanisms deployed up to that moment. Of course, this runs alongside Geralt’s vocation to slay monsters to make a living, he also acknowledges that some monsters are actually human (132). Expect descriptions of disembowelment, decapitations, and the like during finales as this is an adventure series. In the event that the blood is spilled, it will come in the form of a flood.
The Last Wish is the first of a long series of texts in the Witcher saga, a collection of seven short stories. The first, “The Voice of Reason,” functions as a Frame Story, whose chapters appear between each non-chronological short story as a lead-in. The first whole story, “The Witcher,” is the text that inspired the introductory cutscene to The Witcher video game. No other tale in the entire Witcher franchise is as cogent as this introduction of Geralt of Rivia as a deadly machine mutated via alchemy for the purpose of hunting monstrosities. As King Foltest accurately points out, he is capable of suppressing thuggery without lethal force (24), but he arguably does so as a demonstration of his lethal skill. Importantly, “The Witcher” reveals that Geralt is not invulnerable, and it is in fact, necessary that he heals faster than humans because frequent mortal injuries are an occupational hazard.
“This talking has made me tired, Geralt. Briefly: there were two after Primula, Ilka, and Venimira. Everything happened in the same way, to the point of boredom. First, a mixture of fear and reserve, then a thread of sympathy they reinforced by small but precious gifts, then ‘Bite me, eat me up,’ Daddy’s return, a tender farewell and an increasingly discernible depletion of the treasury.” (65)
The Last Wish returns to “The Voice of Reason” and Geralt during his stay at the Temple of Melitele, where he recovers from his wounds from battling the striga in “The Witcher.” He debates with, or rather entertains a lecture from, head priestess Nenneke on the grounds that his lack of faith in anything is a weakness. This makes sense after reading “A Grain of Truth,” a story where Sapkowski showcases his mastery of hospitality, decorum, and good conversation, but not before exhibiting Geralt’s forensic skills which set him on the path to encounter a creature that is monstrous, but does not transgress his code as to what qualifies to be slain. This narrative reveals some limitations in Geralt’s abilities as a monster hunter and tops things off with a Disney-like ending.
X-Men fans will remember the Friends of Humanity, and not for good reason. The Order of the White Rose is the Witcher saga’s equivalent, and two knights show up at the Temple of Melitele to give Geralt the boot from town in the next segment of “The Voice of Reason.” By this time, readers will have grown wise to the fact that Sapkowski likes to directly reference the titles to his stories; here Geralt explicitly requests that the knights listen to the voice of reason (83) and leave, but they only heed Nenneke’s threats. This frame story appropriately leads to “A Lesser Evil,” where Geralt is asked to choose between two evils: murder and murder. Geralt regretfully chooses murder; it is here where Geralt earns epic epithet, the Butcher of Blaviken, after where this story takes place.
“Evil is evil, Stregobor,” said the witcher seriously as he got up. “Lesser, greater, middling, it’s all the same. Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred. I am 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 to not choose at all.” (104)
In the next “Voice of Reason” segment, Geralt decides to speak to Iola, the girl who seduces him in The Last Wish’s introduction. While the entire book provides glimpses into Geralt and the lifestyle of a witcher, he lays things out plainly to the girl who has taken a vow of silence, particularly why he practices a code of neutrality in the matters of politics and everyday human life. This code is challenged in “A Question of Price,” the first short story in this collection that I found taxing to read. Admittedly, this might be attributed to the fact that the conflict here is resolved without violence even though Queen Calanthe of Cintra enlists Geralt as an enforcer to ensure that her daughter Pavetta chooses the correct suitor at a feast. Though this is my least favorite story in The Last Wish, it is arguably the most important in the entire Witcher saga, for it is here where Geralt evokes the Law of Surprise, where in six years he will return for a child who has yet to be born, setting in motion his perpetual struggle with destiny, a theme persistent all the way through even the Witcher games. I was only able to appreciate “A Question of Price” after several additional reads.
“I visited towns and fortresses. I looked for proclamations nailed to posts at the crossroads. I looked for the words ‘Witcher urgently needed.’ And then there’d be a sacred site, a dungeon, necropolis or ruins, forest ravine or grotto hidden in the mountains, full of bones and stinking carcasses. Some creature which lived to kill, out of hunger, for pleasure, or invoked by some sick will. A manticore, wyvern, fogler, aeschna, ilyocoris, chimera, leshy, vampire, ghoul, graveir, werewolf, giant scorpion, striga, black annis, kikimora, vypper…so many I’ve killed. There’d be a dance in the dark and a slash of the sword, and fear and distaste in the eyes of my employer afterward.” (133)
Sapkowski unleashes come comic relief through infamous poet and unfaltering friend Dandelion in the next segment in the fifth chapter of “The Voice of Reason.” He appears coincidentally, as many encounters take place in the Witcher saga; here, however, Dandelion arrives to the chagrin of Nenneke, but to the delight of Geralt. Lifting the spirits of the latter, who had been wrestling with the existential crisis of being a sterile mutant who hunts monsters for a living where if there are fewer monsters, he has less work, and thus his existence becomes unnecessary if not terminal. They recall how they became friends, and traveled together to the Valley of Flowers, where “At the Edge of the World” takes place. In this misadventure, Geralt is recruited to discourage a trickster sylvan from dwelling near a hovel, but he and Dandelion end up in a situation where they suddenly find their very lives at the mercy of a certain race on the brink of extinction.
“Coodcoodak, on his knees, was strangling Draig BonDhu’s bagpipes with his hands, while, with his head thrown back, he shouted over the monstrous sounds emerging from the bag, wailed and roared, cackled and croaked, bawled and squawked in a cacophony of sounds made by all known, unknown, domestic, wild, and mythical animals.” (171)
In the sixth chapter of “The Voice of Reason,” Geralt tries to leave the temple, but Nenneke calls his bluff and says that he need not try and avoid his lover, who had already visited earlier. She eventually asks how they met, which prompts the book’s titular short story, “The Last Wish.” This begins with another blunder where Dandelion and Geralt are fishing for lack of food and money—their everlasting poverty being a common theme. Rather than a fish, they catch a jar resembling an amphora, and within lives a djinn, who strikes down Dandelion and escapes after Geralt exclaims to it a certain “incantation.” Riding post-haste to the nearest town, Geralt demands to see the wizard living there so that he may heal his troubadour friend. The wizard turns out to be a sorceress named Yennefer of Vengerberg, who, after Geralt relays the story to her, formulates her own plans for the djinn. Things get out of hand, necessitating an unconventional solution, but one that will have a lasting impact throughout the Witcher saga.
“She leaned over him, touched him. He felt her hair, smelling of lilac and gooseberries, brush his face and he suddenly knew that he’d never forget that scent, that soft touch, knew that he’d never be able to compare it to any other scent or touch.” (306)
The Last Wish concludes with the seventh and final chapter of “A Voice of Reason.” As Geralt prepares to leave the temple, the knights of the Order of the White Rose await him, with the offended knight prepared for a duel. The caveat is that if Geralt defeats him, he will be arrested; if he refused the duel, he will be hanged. Well, this short story collection has by now taught the reader that conflict resolution in the Witcher series is often not what one will expect, and things are no different here.
I will confess that The Last Wish is my second-favorite text in the Witcher saga, but important to potential readers is how it molds its world filled with towns, kings, and even metaphysical properties that the priest Neville reluctantly but pridefully denotes in The Last Wish. Sapkowski avoids overburdening the reader with his worldbuilding; he devotes a whole chapter to Cintra while barely mentioning is geographical position compared to other important places in the northern kingdoms such as Vizima, Temeria, or Skellige, but there is enough to establish that these are important places to keep in mind for later texts.
There are no throw-away characters to be found in this book. Fans of the video games will recall Dandelion and Yennefer, of course. But even the members of Shrike’s band in “The Lesser Evil” can be remembered for their joke about Geralt’s maternity. Characters who play bigger roles, such as Neville or Nivellen, contribute substantially in ways that one will be able to recall for years. The parallel Sapkowski draws between the Aen Seidhe and Native Americans could hardly be more poignant.
I wish to remain objective in all media I consume—digital, or in this case, hard copy. However, it is nigh impossible to not descend completely into “fanboy mode” over this outstanding collection of short stories. Mark my words: by the time the Witcher series on HBO is done filming, Sapkowski will be a household name like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, or George R. R. Martin, and J. K. Rowling. The shows (plural because The Hexer was once a thing), the games, and everything else, however, all begins here with The Last Wish.
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+ Unique lore + Fascinating characters + Suspenseful action sequences + Non-linear narrative derives intrigue + Great humor and misadventure where appropriate
- "A Question of Price" is necessary, but its pacing is out of sync with the other stories.
The Bottom Line
The Last Wish is an outstanding sampling of literature—fiction, fantasy, or otherwise.