What with all the historical nonfiction I’ve been reading the past couple of months, I eventually decided it was time to take a break and pick up some good old-fashioned fantasy, one of my most preferred genres. And let me tell, this book reminded me how much I missed it.
It’s possible you haven’t heard of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, first published back in 1993. But you have probably heard of the multimedia franchise it launched, The Witcher. The “witcher” in question is Geralt of Rivia, a traveling monster hunter who, through some questionable science, was given supernatural mutations that help him fight a variety of nasty beasts. Forced to contend with human prejudice against those in his profession, as well as the increasing obsolescence of said profession, Geralt journeys through a variety of medieval fantasy kingdoms, stumbling into different incidents and intrigues along the way. It’s sort of like a Brothers Grimm anthology if the viewpoint character was one of the X-Men.
Although the franchise has been going strong since the 90s and is quite popular in its native Poland, it took a while to establish a foothold here in the West, probably since the books weren’t translated into English until the mid-2000s. The way most younger Americans have likely heard of it, and the way I first heard of it, was through the trilogy of critically-acclaimed video game adaptations by CD Projekt Red: the third game in particular has found its way on to a lot of recent “best video games of all time” lists. And the franchise’s popularity is currently getting an even bigger boost thanks to the recent premiere of a big-budget Netflix series starring Henry Cavill as Geralt. All in all, it’s a good time to start reading these books and to discuss them in detail.
While most of Sapkowski’s Witcher books are proper novels with an ongoing plot, the first few he did are collections of short stories set throughout Geralt’s life and travels. The Last Wish is chronologically the first of these collections, setting up the character of Geralt and some of the major players in his life. There are six stories in the book, plus a seventh that acts as a framing device, and what I’m going to do here is rank them all in ascending order. They’re all great, but some jump out at you more than others and really go the extra mile to make you think. Don’t take this as an objective ranking of quality or as the recommended reading order for the stories: this is just the ranking of which ones I personally found the most remarkable.
#7: “The Voice of Reason”
It feels like cheating a bit to put this one at the bottom of the list because it’s not really a singular story like the others in this collection. This is the framing device I mentioned: split up into a series of vignettes, it opens and closes the book and provides an introduction of sorts for each story. Set directly after the events of the first story in the book, it follows Geralt as he stays with some priestesses while recuperating from injuries sustained in a fight. The premise of the story and its purpose in the book overall mean that it goes at a much slower pace than the main stories and, for the most part, lacks a true ongoing narrative. But that’s no excuse to write it off completely, because it’s got a lot of great writing moments. Several of the character interactions are quite funny (particularly one between the head priestess and some soldiers coming to complain about Geralt’s presence in the area), and Part Six features a beautiful description of a cave filled with rare plants. Even though this isn’t one of the main six stories featured in the book, I wanted to include it in this list because it’s worth praising.
#6: “The Edge of the World”
This is the fifth story in the collection, focusing on Geralt and his occasional sidekick, a wisecracking bard called Dandelion. As the two of them are traveling past a small farming village on the fringe of the settled world — settled by humans, anyway — they are asked to come chase away a “devil” wreaking havoc in the fields. But what starts as an ordinary job for Geralt soon becomes much more complicated, evolving into the poignant story of a dying race and the inevitability of change.
The best part of this story by far is the banter between Geralt and Dandelion: they’re an unlikely pairing of old friends with a lot of history, and Sapkowski plays up the contrast between the former’s stoic demeanor and the latter’s bubbliness. The rest of the story isn’t bad, per se, but I didn’t find it quite as interesting or compelling as the other tales in the book. A lot of the stuff with the “devil” is funny, but it’s overtly goofy and slapsticky compared to the subtle humor in the other stories. The twist and the climax are well-written, but the concepts they’re based around are pretty overused in fantasy by this point: when I realized where the story was going, I was a bit disappointed and thought “Oh, not this again.” Look, I don’t really care for the whole “hippie nature elves” trope, especially when they come a bit too close to being the Na’vi from Avatar. For that reason, this one goes at the bottom of my personal list, but it’s still a pretty enjoyable story overall.
#5: “The Witcher”
This is the story that kicks off the book and also the first story that Sapkowski wrote about Geralt, and his first short story in general. As you would expect from an author’s early work and the initial appearance of a recurring character, this one is a bit rough around the edges and lacks the qualities that make Geralt and his world truly unique. In this story, Geralt travels to the kingdom of Temeria to undertake a special mission for its king, Foltest: saving his daughter, the princess, from a curse that has turned her into a man-eating monster. But there are some powerful figures in the kingdom who would rather not see the princess cured, and the princess herself isn’t going down without a long, bloody fight.
With this story, you get the basic essentials of what the Witcher franchise and the character of Geralt are all about: slaying monsters, but also the circumstances that create said monsters and the political machines whirring away in the background. The debate over whether to break the princess’s curse or to simply kill her becomes a debate about whether Foltest’s mistakes as a ruler should be forgiven or punished. Not only are his people suffering and dying at the hands of the monster, but the monster’s very existence is considered a sign of the king’s moral weakness: the princess, and her curse, are the product of an incestuous relationship between the king and his sister. Geralt, in true mercenary fashion, doesn’t care about any of this. He took the job from the king, and dammit, he’s going to finish the job no matter what anybody says.
While the narrative is simplistic, Sapkowski’s writing itself keeps you intrigued and on the edge of your seat, particularly during the climactic fight scene between Geralt and the princess. It’s also refreshing to see a badass action hero who gets as much pain as he gives, if not worse: Geralt wins the fight but gets injured quite badly and almost dies from the encounter, setting up his long rest period in “The Voice of Reason.” Geralt’s vulnerability despite his power is honestly one of the best things about this whole book. You know he’s going to make it out alive somehow, but the vivid descriptions of these fights make them a lot more suspenseful. I joked at one point that the show won’t be an accurate adaptation of the books if Geralt doesn’t get the snot beaten out of him at least once an episode. Overall, this is a fun story even if it’s not as deep as the stories that follow.
#4: “A Grain of Truth”
While the Witcher stories spend a lot of time exploring and unpacking the tropes of classic fairy tales, this story is one of the few that actually retells a recognizable story — in this case, “Beauty and the Beast.” While riding through a forest, Geralt stumbles across the mutilated corpse of a woman with a mysterious blue rose pinned to her dress. The source of the roses turns out to be a secluded, run-down manor deep within the woods. That’s where Geralt finds Nivellen, a nobleman-turned-bandit who was transformed into a beast after raping a priestess. Thinking that his curse could be broken if a woman falls in love with him, he’s spent years paying dozens of young women to live with him in the manor for a few months at a time. But things are different, he insists, between him and his latest guest: she’s staying because she wants to. Nivellen’s not a great dude, but Geralt believes he didn’t kill the woman with the rose — so what did?
If you enjoy fairy tale retellings, especially the ones that go dark, this story will be right up your alley. It’s right around here that we start to see Sapkowski’s talent for breaking down the mechanics and logic of these old stories. Nivellen is doing what he does because he’s trying to recreate the circumstances of legends that he himself has heard. He thinks he can use fairy tale logic to his own advantage, but what he and the readers find is that said logic can’t be manipulated so easily. You have to play by the rules of the spell, not the other way around.
“A Grain of Truth” is also a great mystery story, opening with a shocking discovery and building in suspense from there until the tension culminates in an action-packed battle with a very creepy creature — let’s just say the lines between beauty and beast aren’t quite as clear as you may expect. And like in “The Witcher,” you find yourself wondering just how Geralt is going to make it out of this one even though you know he will. While some readers will probably be turned off by the violence and sexual elements of this story, I found it to be a wonderfully weird and entertaining read with a satisfying resolution.
#3: “The Last Wish”
The final story in the collection and the one for which it is named, this story also introduces a major character in the Witcher mythos. While fishing in a river, Geralt and Dandelion drag up an ancient pot with a strange seal on the lid. Breaking the seal unleashes a terrible surprise: an angry djinn whose attack leaves Dandelion seriously injured. In order to help him, Geralt travels to the nearby city of Rinde to seek help from a mysterious sorceress, Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer agrees to help, but she has plans of her own for the djinn — and for Geralt who, as the holder of the djinn’s seal, is entitled to three wishes from the creature before it vanishes.
The Witcher stories have a pretty diverse and fascinating array of strong female characters, but Yennefer is one of the most prominent among them. At first you think you know what sort of box she fits into: the duplicitous femme fatale who’s not afraid to use every trick in her book — sex, violence, magic, etc. — to get what she wants out of people. But then you start to realize that there’s a lot of anger beneath that cold exterior, and where that anger comes from. Yennefer is a woman in a precarious situation: when we first meet her, diplomatic immunity is the only thing protecting her from being attacked by the prejudiced townsfolk. She’s had to fight and make some serious sacrifices to attain the level of power she has, and she isn’t about to let anyone stand in the way of her ambitions — not even a well-meaning witcher who’s just trying to save his friend. Because of her experiences and her place in the world, she’s able to connect with Geralt in the way only a fellow outcast could. It’s why Geralt finds himself drawn to her despite his better judgment, and why he ultimately uses his last wish from the djinn to…well, we still don’t know exactly what he wished for. I just know it might be the biggest mistake of that poor bastard’s life. Good luck and have fun, Geralt.
In addition to its exploration of a complex and turbulent relationship between two larger-than-life characters, “The Last Wish” is also the funniest of the stories in this collection. You’ve got Dandelion back doing his antics, but Sapkowski isn’t afraid to have Geralt make a fool out of himself either. At one point he gets enchanted by Yennefer and sent out to publicly humiliate her rivals in the town, which creates some wonderfully absurd chaos. Then there’s the matter of the “exorcism” he keeps using to try and banish the djinn, only to find out that the phrase has a…significantly less dignified meaning than he thought it did. While this story isn’t the very end of the book, it’s a great finale to the collection: action-packed, intriguing, emotional and quite literally explosive.
#2: “A Question of Price”
In this story inspired by a little-known Brothers Grimm tale, Geralt journeys to the kingdom of Cintra for an unusual assignment. The craft, formidable Queen Calanthe has requested his presence at the betrothal feast for her daughter Pavetta: she needs to make sure the princess ends up in a marriage that will benefit the kingdom, and Geralt’s job is to make sure nothing disrupts her plans. But why, asks Geralt, does she need a witcher to carry out the dirty business of politics for her? What could possibly stop her from choosing her own daughter’s husband? Her answer is simple: “Destiny.” Geralt doesn’t get it at first, but things start to make sense when a mysterious knight in spiky black armor crashes the feast with a shocking proclamation: Princess Pavetta is rightfully his, and has been from the moment she was born.
I mentioned how “A Grain of Truth” showed off Sapkowski’s skill at getting into the underlying mechanics and logic of classic fairy tales. This story continues that trend and becomes an even greater example of it. Rather than being a straightforward retelling of just one story, it decides to tackle a concept that we see in a lot of fairy tales: the idea of children as payment for good deeds. In the Witcher universe, it manifests as something called the Law of Surprise. If you help someone out, you can ask for your reward to be the first thing the person finds at home, or something they already have but don’t know about. Whatever the wording, the thing in question almost always ends up being a baby or child. But why, Sapkowski asks, is this practice done? How does it benefit the person who asks for the child? Is the mother of the child obligated to honor the promise when she isn’t the one who made it? And what say does the child themselves have in all this? These questions are explored and debated as the whole story of Calanthe, Pavetta and the knight in black armor is slowly unraveled, with more than a few twists along the way.
There’s a lot to love in this story, from the quirky side characters to the slow buildup to the presence of another wonderfully written female antagonist. It makes for a wild ride with a conclusion that will have you scrambling to find out what happens next.
#1: “The Lesser Evil”
Here we are, at the top.
When Geralt pays a visit to the town of Blaviken looking to sell the monster parts he’s just obtained, he is directed to the tower of the reclusive local wizard. Said wizard turns out to be an old acquaintance of his, Stregobor, who’s been in hiding for years. Stregobor is haunted by the threat of his greatest failure, a princess-turned-bandit named Renfri who wants him dead. Stregobor and Renfri’s stepmother had tried to kill her, believing her to be an evil mutant with the power to bring about the apocalypse, but she escaped their clutches and has been raising hell across the land ever since. Now she’s in Blaviken to finally get her revenge, and Stregobor begs Geralt to kill her before it’s too late. But when Geralt finds Renfri, she has a different tale to tell, one of betrayal and abuse and innocence brutally lost. Now Geralt must decide who to believe and what to do next, if he should do anything at all. Evil is evil, he says, and it doesn’t matter to him if one evil claims to be lesser or greater than another. He wants nothing to do with this bloody feud, but the actions of both Renfri and Stregobor may ultimate force his hand…
“The Lesser Evil” is, in my opinion, as close to perfect as any story in this collection gets. It’s intense. It’s gritty. It’s tragic. It’s thought-provoking. Most of all, it’s all about shades of gray. At its heart it’s a character study, not just of Geralt but of the two antagonists. When you get right down to it, Renfri and Stregobor are both pretty reprehensible people. She’s a ruthless, sadistic bandit who might be demonically influenced and is all too willing to slaughter innocent people to get at her target. He’s an arrogant, cowardly man who killed dozens of young women due to fear of an old legend, whose actions resulted in Renfri being raped and forced to flee her home. And for all his talk about wanting to protect innocent lives, he happily admits that he would let all of Blaviken die before he gives himself up to Renfri and her gang. Sapkowski makes the choice of not telling us which character is the one we’re meant to sympathize with. Instead, he lets both characters tell their stories and shows that while neither are completely right, they aren’t completely wrong, either. They both have understandable reasons for the horrible things they do.
And then there’s poor Geralt, who gets put to the test here in a way that no other story in the collection does. The way he reacts to the events unfolding around him serve to illuminate who he really is as a person underneath his gruff exterior. He’s outwardly quite cynical, not caring much about the grievances of either side. He won’t kill Renfri for Stregobor, but he won’t take Renfri’s side and even tries convincing her to abandon her quest for revenge. He’s determined to remain neutral, and he doesn’t believe in the idea of a lesser evil. But the second he realizes that the people of Blaviken are going to get caught in the crossfire, he springs into action. It doesn’t matter what his personal views on the nature of evil are: if preventing bloodshed means having to pick the lesser evil, he’ll pick it without hesitation. But which side really is the lesser evil? That’s the question we’re left with at the end. It’s not clear whether the true villain is the one who died or the one who got to go sauntering away, and the only reward Geralt receives for his deeds is the scorn of the townsfolk and a gruesome new nickname: “The Butcher of Blaviken.”
The Witcher on Netflix adapts most of the stories from The Last Wish in its first season, but it chooses “The Lesser Evil” as the focus of its first episode. And honestly, I couldn’t think of a better story to get viewers immersed into Geralt’s world. It’s a microcosm of everything that these stories excel at: dark fantasy, moral ambiguity, well-crafted characters, page-turning action and an engaging, tragic hero at the center of it all. I know I said that this list wasn’t meant to be taken as the order in which you should read these stories, but for some reason, if you have to choose only one story from The Last Wish to read, I say make it this one.
That’s all for this book, but I doubt that will be all for this series. I’m currently making my way through Season 1 of the Netflix series (which is awesome so far, FYI) and I’m also planning to get a copy of the second short story collection in the series, Sword of Destiny. Not to mention I have a Switch and a copy of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I suspect you’ll be seeing more about Geralt of Rivia on this blog sooner rather than later. But for now, thanks for reading.