Top positive review
A rich fantasy series with a world full of moral and political ambiguities like in our own
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on September 27, 2013
There was a video game called "The Witcher" that was fun and thought provoking. I didn't play through "The Witcher 2," but I saw the trailer for "The Witcher 3" and my interest was rekindled. I decided to read the books that the video games were based on. They were great! They are about Geralt of Rivia, a witcher (mutant monster fighter) in a European folklore fantasy setting.
It was interesting reading the books after playing the video games. "The Last Wish" is a collection of short stories contained within a frame narrative, and the first story is about Geralt curing a striga's curse. This story was also shown at the start of the video game. The video game's representation of that event matches the short story play by play. Similarly, the quote from the "Witcher 3" trailer is taken, almost verbatim, from another short story. In general, the video game felt very faithful to the books. The setting, the tone, the character, and the philosophical issues were all similar to those seen in the books. The character of Geralt is wonderful, and the game does him justice. That is to say, if you liked the video games, I highly recommend the books.
The books, however, are better than the video games. The setting is analogous to our own. The moral dilemmas that the books raise are meaningful ones that people grapple with all the time. The protagonist is noble, if damaged, and the storytelling is great.
Before I extol the virtues of the books, however, I will say that the writing style is not my favorite. Sapkowski leaves a lot unsaid. It sometimes isn't clear when the book is transitioning from a short story to a frame narrative, for instance. This also means that dialogue also contains a lot of implicit actions. I am used to a writing style where dialogue has exposition interspersed, so I expect a conversation to happen in a mostly synchronous manner without much time passing between one person talking and another, but Sapkowski often has a significant passage of time. That's not to say that it's unclear -- I can usually figure out what was done based on the dialogue, but it does often take some rereading. Geralt also likes to leave things unsaid (while he does have long monologues, he just as often makes his point with no words or few words), so this could also be a perverse instance of the medium matching the message.
Now the virtues.
While the setting is European folklore inspired fantasy, I think that it matches our setting more closely than a lot of books set either in our world or a world very close to ours. In Sapkowski's world, humans invaded a continent inhabited by many other sentient species and conquered them (and most of those sentient species had done the same thing a few millenia past). Now, there are attempts at a tentative peace. Witchers themselves come from an older age when monsters were rampant and threatened survival. Now, more often than not, the threat is not some stark monster, but human greed with a benevolent mask. Cities provide protection from natural threats, but people don't know how to deal with the intercultural exchange that comes from living with many other different people or with the anonymity that comes from living with many other people in general. Centralized power has helped the sciences and arts flourish, but it has also led to corruption and war, and despite growing resources, many people still are poor. The world is bigger than most people know, and most people aren't experts in the world around them, so most people have a hard time separating myths from reality. A person has to work to make money to live, and a person also has to comport themselves so that they can sleep at night.
That's a pretty good description of Earth in the twenty first century. Europe exploited or colonized much of the world (and many of the people that it conquered were simply the conquerors on a more local scale), but the world is now attempting a tentative peace. We still carry the legacy of an age where we had to fight for mere survival (witness, for example, the popularity of guns) even though the struggles we face today are things like neocolonialism. A country that was founded on the notion of freedom and immigration has become nativist and struggles with pluralism. People, lost in the crowd, fall through the cracks, so children get left behind, and mentally ill people become homeless. Most people in the most prosperous nation on Earth don't think that the government is working well, and it has been at war for 214 years since 1776. With knowledge all around us, it's hard to tell myth from reality. And we have to make money to live and live so that we can sleep at night.
But how? Most of our age old wisdom is what got us into this mess! Who do we treat with compassion, how do we identify monsters, and what do we do when we find one?
One of the reasons that I like the books better than the video game is that the books feature moral dilemmas more strongly. One of the first short stories, "The Lesser Evil," features two parties trying to convince Geralt to help them against the other. His response to both: "Evil is evil... Lesser, greater, middling... Proportions are negotiated, boundaries blurred... if I'm to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all." While most of the time in the video games is spent killing monsters, most of the time in the books is spent musing about philosophy, politics, and why Geralt refuses to kill things that most see as monsters. People invent many monsters, according to Geralt, because then "they seem less monstrous themselves."
Some of the moral dilemmas are confusing. In one story, Geralt kills a group of people who are preparing to massacre a village, and he feels guilty about it because he might have been able to avoid anyone dying. In another story, Geralt kills a group of thugs (rather than disabling them, which would have been easy), but never indicates that he felt remorse. This isn't an issue of ambiguity, but rather a lack of attention to some issues. His stance on most issues, like pluralism, is fairly consistent at least.
Sapkowski also uses framed narratives to great effect. In framed stories, we often read of Geralt saying that he can't do something because of the Witchers' code, but in a framing story, he says, "I have at times hidden behind a code. People like that. Those who follow a code are often respected and held in high esteem. But no one's ever compiled a witcher's code. I invented mine. Just like that. And keep to it. Always -- Not always." Geralt is tormented, and framed narratives allow him introspection.
All in all, "The Last Wish" is great, and I'm happy to keep reading more books in the series! Note that "The Last Wish" is the first book, and the next book is "The Sword of Destiny," which is only available as a fan translation, and not "The Blood of Elves."