Review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Finally Visiting the Witcher

For a fantasy and videogame fan, it took me an embarrassingly
long time to get to this book. On the one hand, The Last Wish is more than 30
years old. On the other hand, I was only 6 when the original short stories were
published. The Last Wish is by Andrzej Sapkowski and inspired a game called the
Witcher that you may have heard of.


Now that I’ve read it, I’m not sure what to think.

There is a touch of a spoiler near the end, but nothing to
significant. If you’re phobic, roll on to another post!

Set in the usual fantasy variant of medieval Europe, The Last Wish is a frame story about a nefarious Witcher, a man named Geralt.
Witchers are mutated warriors with magic powers and heightened abilities,
dedicated to hunting and subduing monsters and magical threats – usually for substantial
coin. In the story Geralt is remembers some of his more significant hunts while
he recuperates in a temple run by an old friend. Between memories he encounters
new trouble born from his past exploits and ponders a dark fate.

My biggest issue is with the language. The book was written
in Polish and translated into English. Idioms and turns of phrase didn’t translate
gracefully. Many sections have unusual, awkward, or distressingly modern
language that detracts from the story. Maybe there are better translations out
there. In any case, this is hardly Andrzej’s fault, which leaves me wondering
how the story reads in the original Polish.

What I Liked

Geralt for president! I loved Geralt’s character. He’s courteous and formal, yet still able to level stinging rebuke. He is full
of quiet competence and dry wit. He is very knowledgeable in the ways of a
stunning variety of creatures, magical practice, elixirs and potions, but is charmingly
blind to his own character. He believes himself to be cold and hard, but there
is more warmth and kindness in him than in most of the people he encounters.

The concept of the Witchers is a neat take on the old trope
of the monster hunter, excellently realized with nice personal touches from
Andrzej. It is a profession not chosen, not loved by those it serves, but
nonetheless quite necessary. With the powers they possess and the hatred they
endure, one wonders how the Witchers as a whole keep from turning against the
general populace, becoming more like the monsters they hunt. The magic that infuses the world feels complex without having to be explained in full.

Some of these stories are also retellings of traditional
fairy tales, which is something close to my heart. Many of these are very dark
and twisted, with role reversals that make them fun. All the monsters are
wonderful, too. Andrzej managed to avoid the tired old trap of vampire this and
werewolf that, and has a staggering array of creatures mentioned in the text.
At one point Geralt is trying to figure out what monster he’s facing and has to
rhyme off in his head all the possibilities, ruling them out one by one. This
makes the world feel diverse, despite the narrow window we have into it.

The dialogue is often intelligent, and Geralt has his share
of zingers and moving lines both. A few strands of beautiful prose survived the
meat-grinder of translation, too. But the real intelligence is in the story
twists. As the dust-jacket proclaims, nothing is quite as it seems. I like
being not quite able to guess the ending, and Andrzej does this admirably.

What I Disliked

It wasn’t all good, though, which is why I’m undecided. Aside
from the language, the most disconcerting part of the book is the glaring misogyny.
The women were there to be described and, if they were pretty enough, for Geralt
to sleep with. Much is made of the appearance of every woman in the story. They
are scrutinized unkindly, offhandedly, as a matter of course. There is even a
character born so ugly that the only possible fate for her was to learn magic
from an outcast sorceress, then undergo extensive magical beautification. What
she was left with was a too-perfect body and the “bitter eyes of an ugly girl.”
Geralt, of course, gets to spy on her while she bathes, after they defeat a
monster together, they have sex in the ruins of a building (which doesn’t sound
comfortable, or particularly enjoyable, but who am I to judge?)

Now, we humans have had a long history of treating women badly. We’ve made
progress as a culture toward fairness for both sexes, but we have a long way to
go, still. Extensive and prevalent plastic surgery comes to mind when I think
of the magically altered sorceress. Misogyny may be appropriate to a
medieval-esque pseudo-European fantasy, but what’s the message here? You might
be ugly and bitter, but with enough corrective procedures (implants, makeup,
botox, whatever) you’ll be good enough to sleep with. At least that’s how it
comes across.


I would like to think this is just the world and characters
that Andrzej created and not his personal standing towards the fairer sex. Maybe
he didn’t, in the context of these short stories, have the space to deal with
the complexity of these issues fairly. And goodness knows I wouldn’t want to be
judged on the beliefs or actions of my characters. I may have produced similar
material myself in the past before I realized my subconscious (libido?) was
controlling the pen. Still, it was extremely hard to get past it as the
chapters went on.

I did appreciate the theme of change that Andrzej wove
through these short stories. We see the sadness, the quiet rage of the elves,
whose time is likely coming to an end. We listen to the grumbling priestess who
has to use special crystal to shield her garden from a sun that is no longer kind.
We hear of the fading order of the Witchers, who now has to beg for children to
replenish their ranks. It is understated, but if there is a single thread that
ties these tales together, this is it.

Will I read the rest of the series? I don’t know. There are so many books on my
reading list that it pains me to add any that I’m already wary of. I’ll be
checking out the game, though, that you can be sure of.


Next on my reading list: Words of Radiance by Brandon
Sanderson!

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