Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Last Wish by: Andrzej Sapkowski translated by: Danusia Stok

Many gamers are familiar with CD Projekt Red’s trilogy of The Witcher video games which were critically successful, being rereleased for several systems including the Nintendo Switch.  It is odd that there are still those unfamiliar with the series of novels the games are based upon by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and published in the original Polish between 1992 and 2013, and translated into English between 2007 (in conjunction with the first video game) and 2018.  Ostatnie życzenie or The Last Wish, as it is translated is the first book in the series (though published second) and collects seven short stories told outside of chronological order of adventures in the life of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, and the series main protagonist.  A Witcher in this world is someone who since childhood has undergone many mutations to their body to aid them in fighting monsters, leaving their hair white and eyes yellow.  The series is also being adapted into a Netflix Original Series starring Henry Cavill in the title role, and it is my intention to have the series reviewed before the web series is released on December 20.  The Last Wish is notable for being one of two of the books to be translated by Danusia Stok into English apart from the series’ usual translator David French.

The Last Wish is framed through a frame story called “The Voice of Reason” which can be quickly summarized as worldbuilding and a simple device to bring the reader from one story to the next, as Geralt reflects on several moments in his life after the events of the first story in the collection.  It’s not really a story in it’s own right, but as a framing story it is enjoyable and keeps things moving and more memorable than just presenting the stories.  7/10.

The first story in the collection is “The Witcher” which serves as the first proper introduction to the character of Geralt and what exactly he does.  The plot is simple, Geralt is contracted by the king of Vizima to cure his daughter who has become a vampire like striga who has been terrorizing the land for several years.  Geralt spends the night in the girl’s tomb using tricks of his trade to keep the striga out of her coffin for one night which should cure her.  Sapkowski then uses this time to throw in one little twist as to why the girl has been stuck in this form for years, a lord has been using this situation for his own selfish gain, wishing the king to be deposed.  Exposing the darker sides of humanity is a common theme throughout the series and introducing it up front like this immediately sets the tone for the rest of the stories.  This is not some happy story about monster hunting but something more.  What “The Witcher” also does is introduce the stoic nature of Geralt of Rivia.  As it’s a short story there isn’t much backstory to the details of who Geralt is, just the basic outline of what a Witcher is and why they are often hated by society at large.  Its excellence is in its simplicity which introduces readers to Sapkowski’s world, magic system, and main character in telling a solid yet incredibly human tale.  8/10.

Sapkowski’s series is heavily inspired by Eastern European mythology and fairy tales and the second story of the collection, “A Grain of Truth”, is one such fairy tale retelling.  The story is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of the Beast with a subverted ending.  A man named Nivellan has been transformed into a bear-like creature after his father forced him to overtake a priestess and can only be freed by a true love.  Nivellan has attempted to fall in love with several women, but many of them are only attracted to the magical power that come with his curse.  Sapkowski once again employs a twist in this tale as the beauty whom breaks the curse at the end of the story is a bruxa, another vampire like creature responsible for a trail of corpses which leads Geralt to the castle.  Of course Geralt must slay the monster as that is what Witchers do and the creature does have malicious intent to all those except its love.  This story is the first appearance of Geralt’s horse Roach whom he often speaks to, and Sapkowski gives Geralt a much more fleshed out personality.  There is this very subtle dry wit added to the character which suits the more dialogue driven story that “A Grain of Truth” tells and while “The Witcher” was a good introduction, this is the story which began to make me fall in love with the character.  9/10.

The morality play is another type of story which Sapkowski employs in these collections as he deconstructs specific concepts.  “The Lesser Evil” takes its title from the idea that of two evil actions, one is inherently less evil and that is the action which should be taken.  Geralt as a character is opposed to this idea, evil is evil, there are no degrees to it.  This is a story meant to shake the character’s moral viewpoint of the world, as the climax involves the town of Blaviken being massacred with an illusion making it look as Geralt is the one responsible.  In actuality he was killing a band of assassins sent to kill a wizard friend of Geralt’s.  “The Lesser Evil” is one that seems to be wholly original and deals with Geralt’s eventually futile attempts to save everyone involved, which obviously fails by the end of the story.  While this is a good story, it is the weakest thus far.  I believe this may be down to translation issues as there is very little characterization to the supporting characters involved in this story.  There’s also a lack of tension as the story does attempt to go to a thrilling climax and conclusion, but for whatever reason just doesn’t pick up as much steam.  7/10.

The fourth story in the collection is one of the first to have major connections to the story arc of the series.  “A Question of Price” is also an interesting story as it opens as a story not about Geralt attempting to slay a monster, but disguising himself as a nobleman and present at a party where the princess of Cintra must choose a suitor for a husband.  This is a story inspired primarily by laws of chivalry and interestingly Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as a monstrous intruder enters claiming that long ago the King promised him whatever he wishes.  Of course he wishes the King’s daughter in marriage which causes an uproar at the dinner and a brawl breaks out, but this causes Pavetta to reveal some force within her, a force of magic as this creature is her lover.  The story ends with everything revealed to be a miscommunication and almost a comedy of errors, hinting that the child Pavetta will bare shall become a Witcher.  That is the titular question of price and this hint is that the child will be bound by destiny. As a story it is excellent, but one of two halves.  The first half is much of Geralt discussing with the queen what exactly she wishes for him at a dinner table.  This is oddly a tense section of the story as Sapkowski draws you in as a suspicious Geralt looks around at the suitors and the idea is planted that any one of them could be listening on their conversations for an edge.  The second half of the story is also such an enjoyable free for all, building to an excellent final line which seals this as one of the best of the collection.  10/10.

It is followed by the weakest story of the collection “The Edge of the World” which feels like its only purpose is to do some worldbuilding on elves.  Sapkowski’s elves here are incredibly dangerous and incredibly bitter creatures and the title refers to the idea of a metaphorical edge Geralt and his friend, Dandelion, are apparently brought to.  The plot has Geralt contracted to stop a devil in a field which Dandelion does not believe in existing, as the humans they are around are essentially yokels who wouldn’t know what a monster it.  Geralt is willing to take the contract as they seem honest enough, but the devil itself is actually an illusion conjured by some elves who bound the two heroes.  The story ends with a deus ex machina and attempts to build ups the idea of a conflict with the elves brewing, but outside of that it is weak.  It is an enjoyable story for introducing Dandelion, a bard who really shouldn’t be friends with Geralt, but in the book’s own words “opposites attract” and they end up being very close friends.  “The Edge of the World” doesn’t manage to hold interest as well as it feels like there isn’t a concrete end goal for the story, but it is still at least okay.  6/10.

The final story in the collection is the story which gives the collection its name.  “The Last Wish” shows the first meeting between Geralt and the sorceress Yennefer of Vengerberg after Dandelion accidentally releases a djinn which hurts him.  Geralt and Yennifer’s introduction to one another is excellent as Sapkowski immediately lets the sparks fly between them.  It’s never stated outright that they are love interests, but the writing style changes immediately to one of intimacy.  Yennefer as a character perhaps can be characterized as a femme fatale, confident in her sexuality and a complete tease to Geralt through their first scene together.  They end up discussing things while Yennefer takes a bath which makes Geralt note her beauty and interestingly it’s one small action which inspires Yennifer to help.  He takes a moment to help her get a drink early on in the story when others would be more concerned about their friend, which is interesting.  The djinn itself is also this force of nature and a looming threat throughout this short story, which isn’t that long all things considered.  “The Last Wish” is perhaps the best short story in the collection, bringing together some great action, drama, character interactions, and character development into an incredibly engaging read.  10/10.

Overall, The Last Wish is a successful collection and excellent introduction to The Witcher franchise.  If there was one flaw, the nature of being a short story collection does not allow the deepest level of characterization or an actual arc for the series to follow.  8.14/10.

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