Okay, starting at the beginning. This is the first (sort of) in a series of fantasy novels about a monster-slayer for hire known as a “Witcher.” They’re apparently a bit of a big deal back in their native Poland, having won a handful of awards when they first game out back in the mid-nineties. Thanks to increased interest due to the mostly fantastic series of role-playing games by CDProjekt Red, they’ve finally been translated into English. And I done read it.
The Last Wish, one should know, is quite a bit different from what one might expect from something billed as the opening to an epic fantasy saga. This is a collection of short stories very loosely linked by an over-arching tale which exists mostly to move us from one story to the next. There’s no chosen one nor grand prophecies, and no epic plots nor clashing armies. This is very tightly focused and controlled fantasy, with none of the sprawl or bloat which one traditionally associates with the genre. So, what did I think of it? Read on!
Alright, let’s think here. What is the most important component of any fantasy saga? That’s right, tone! What fantasy needs in order to work is a nice strong tone. That could be the poetic majesty of Tolkien, the gritty soap opera of George R.R. Martin or anything in between. The Last Wish has an excellent – if strange – tone. It’s earthy and dirty and raw, but somehow otherworldly and fantastical at the same time.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of the book at first, something about it seemed off somehow, it just didn’t quite click. But then I got it: these story are, by and large, remixes of classical fairy tales. Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, etc. There more going on here than just a re-branding or a “gritty remake,” Sapkowski approaches each of these archetypal stories in a truly clever and unique manner. I don’t want to go into this too much, since a great deal of the charm of the book comes from reaching those ah-ha moments when you realize what tropes are being subverted and what cliches are being broken. So, from that point of view, I’d very much recommend this collection.
I rather enjoyed the characters of the book. Many of them were familiar to me from the video game, and I was happy to find them all quite recognizable and as fun as ever. The stories definitely start to pick up steam in the back half of the collection, with some of the earlier ones coming across just a touch dry.
One should be aware going in, that this is not exactly the swashbuckling adventure that might expect. Most of the stories are largely build around conversations. One story in particular (not my favorite) actually consisted almost entirely of a single extended dialogue. There’s more wordplay here than swordplay, which I thought was actually rather a pleasant surprise. I don’t have the tolerance I did as a teenager for pages and pages of duels and space-ship fights.
And now down to the nuts and bolts. Let’s talk about the writing. I’m a bit hesitant to do so, because it’s rather hard to judge the merits of a translated work. I don’t envy the translator caught between having to fashion quality prose while still attempting to remain true to the original text. The Last Wish, I would say, comes off pretty well. There aren’t any horrible clunkers, and the occasional odd turn of phrase is pretty excusable.
Overall, I liked this book rather a lot. It defied my expectations at every turn, while still satisfying me as a fan of the world and characters. If you like Game of Thrones style grim fantasy, you should give this a read. If you enjoy revised and twisted takes on classical fairy-tales, you should give this a read. Finally, if you like the games, you should definitely check out the source material. Not a masterpiece by any means, but a pleasant morsel by all accounts. I’m quite looking forward to reading more.