Book Review: The Last Wish (Witcher 1)

If you’re a fantasy and sci-fi fan like this writer, it is hard to escape the influence of Polish author Andrezej Sapkowski’s Witcher series. From the 2015 video game (ok, also ‘09 and ‘11, but the first two did not make as much of a splash) to the 2019 streaming series, the White Wolf has his say – probably with Eastwood-esque brevity. But, did you know the foundation for this 21st-century success was laid in good-old print back in 1993? 

The Basics: 

Title: The Last Wish
Author: Andrezej Sapkowsk
Genre: Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Action
Publisher:  SuperNOWA 1993 (Poland), Orbit 2008 (USA)

Spoiler-Free Summary: 

Concept art by CD Projekt Red

Sapowski’s Witchers are a dying breed of wandering mutant monster-hunter in a fantasy analogue of medieval eastern Europe. Of these elite warriors, Geralt of Rivia may be the best. His reputation certainly precedes him everywhere he goes. Intertwined with the framing story of his recovery from a particularly harrowing hunt, we follow Geralt through several adventures. Interestingly, enough of these vignettes were grim fairy-tale retellings to make me wonder if I didn’t miss the reference in the few which did not seem to be. Maybe you can do better than I did. Write in if you catch them all without googling.

Where the world sees a monster made to hunt monsters – a fearful thing, to be summoned only in extreme desperation – we see Geralt’s undercurrent of humanity in his interactions with all things strange and wonderful. 

Why These Books May Be For You: 

Even allowing for the fact that this book is nearly thirty years old, The Witcher franchise isn’t breaking new ground with its setting. It’s monster-of-the-week sword-and-sorcery, with heroes and monsters and spells a-plenty…. But it hits the mark every time. There is a reason this series is a genre standard-bearer. 

Sapkowski is a master of quick characterization and action. When swords are drawn (and they always are, eventually), the action is crisp and visceral. You can hear the blades swing, feel the punches land. I place the Witcher’s fight choreography a step above Crier’s Knife and just a whisper below The Rage Of Dragons

Actual photo of Sapkowki’s notes. 😉

As for characters, this breakout novel is really a collection of short stories. Aside from Geralt, characters enter and exit quickly… yet we care about them. Sapowski sprinkles in just the right detail, or gives them the perfect dialogue, to transform scribbles and ink into fully realized characters.

I love what these books do with time and perspective. For fans of the Netflix series, sorry, but the screenwriters did not come up with the non-linear story on their own. The Last Wish shows glimpses of the future to pose questions about the past in a mobius-strip roller-coaster of a narrative. 

The Last Wish is not all action, action, action. Geralt moonlights as a philosopher. Discussions he holds various men and beasts suit a college campus or a coffee house more than the battlefield. The series also manages a tight tonal balance: gallows humor abounds, often from unexpected sources.

We do need to pause for a content warning – whether it’s gore or romance, these books hold little back. Use your best judgement. 

Where Can You Find More? 

I am tempted to say “literally anywhere,” but that isn’t helpful. I found this article about Sapkowski’s career and the series’ influence fascinating. Orbit hosts this handy reading guide so you don’t get lost in the loose continuity. You can find the series on Amazon or wherever books are sold. 

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