Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 14, 2016
I help moderate a discussion board about fantasy books and some of the people there just raved about this series, so I decided to check it out.
I am kind of ambivalent about the book after having finished it. I think part of my problem is that I am just not into books of short stories. They can't seem to keep my attention. There is no hurrying through my evening tasks or shirking house cleaning to pick up the book again to see what happens next. I think I just prefer longer, more connected narratives. There are hints of something else going on in this book, but it sort of feels like a disjointed series of continuing adventures. If you are more of a fan of short stories than I am, you will probably not have this hang up. (Sometimes, the number of stars I give a book is reflective of how quickly or how slowly I finish it. I let this one sit for a couple of weeks halfway through.)
The other thing is, this reads a lot like other sword and sorcery novels and stories I've read (which is honestly not many, mostly some Elric of Melnibone books -- it doesn't help that the protagonists share certain characteristics of physical appearance). I appreciate the place of sword and sorcery in the overall scope of fantasy literature, but it is not really my cup of tea. It is not something I reach for often. The pace, the magic, the creatures, the battles, the sidekick (Geralt of Rivia's Dandilion and Elric's Moonglum are not exactly the same, but one immediately reminds me of the other due to their places next to the heroes) -- they are all present.
There were definitely some things I liked. It is interesting to see a voice in fantasy who is not from the Anglo-Saxon world. (It seems like most of the authors I read are from the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Australia, or New Zealand.) The author is still European and you get that sort of flavor running through the stories. This book is heavily influenced by European folk and fairy tails and mythology. (I would not call it a copy or even an adaptation. I just feel like some elements are borrowed and adapted to fit.) These influences make the reader assume things about the setting that help to fill in the details of the world without beating you over the head with them (and without infodumping). I do like that, and I think it is necessary, because you can't really develop a world deeply in a short story format. But by triggering the use of shortcuts in the reader (we've all read fantasy with small villages, sorcerers, bards, evil creatures, etc.), the setting is developed.
It is hard to assess the writing since this is translated into English. Certainly I could understand everything that was going on, so on that level, the translation worked. There was a quality to the writing in this book that reminded me of the few other translated works of fantasy fiction I've read (by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, for example). I don't know if that is a result of how translators work or because of the natural cadence of Slavic languages, but I find it really well-suited to telling a story with folk tale/fairy tale influences.
I am definitely going to continue the series though, and here's why. First, through dropped hints here and there, we are getting a tantalizing peek at what was done to make the protagonist of these stories, Geralt of Rivia, into a "witcher" (basically a non-sorcerer with some magical abilities and good fighting abilities who goes around freeing townspeople from disruptive magical creatures and the like). I love mysteries like this and they will draw me in every time. I will put up with short stories just so I can find those little clues about the past.
Second, I am curious to see how Geralt's adventures would translate to a full-length novel. I think the potential is definitely there.
Third, I really like the social undercurrents surrounding witchers. People can be quite prejudiced against Geralt -- until they need help from him. Geralt is not always treated nicely and yet he maintains a strong moral code throughout. He is loyal to his friends and does try to avoid trouble (though it sometimes finds him anyway). I am curious about how the social undercurrents contributed to the decline of witchers as a profession (it seems there are few or none left, aside from Geralt).
After writing this and thinking for awhile, I've decided to go with 3.5 stars (which I rounded up to 4 for my rating). I decided that although short stories and sword and sorcery are really not my things, I did like the author's approach to world building and structuring society, I love the mystery surrounding Geralt's past, and I thought the language worked well with the sort of story that was being told. Those are not things I often find myself remarking upon in other books, so the author clearly did several things right here, and those deserve to be acknowledged.