Saturday, 13 June 2015

Book Review - The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Published by Gollancz

'Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. 

And a cold-blooded killer.

His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. 

But not everything monstrous-looking is evil and not everything fair is good. . . and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.'

I first became aware of Andrzej Sapkowski and Geralt the witcher through the video games, whioch no doubt many people did. I never played The Witcher, I wasn’t a huge fan of The Witcher 2 (though it was enjoyable), but The Witcher III blew me out of water; sumptuous visuals, amazing atmosphere, and a wonderfully rich open world to explore. The adventures of Geralt now had my undivided attention.

So I looked further into the history of the character and the world and picked up a copy of The Last Wish, Andrzej Sapkowski’s first volume regarding the witcher and an introduction into the larger world he has created.

It’s been a long time since a fantasy setting has really stuck in my mind - I had not yet come across any fantasy worlds that have excited me as much as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Howard’s Hyboria, Warhammer’s Old World or Fighting Fantasy’s Titan - but Sapkowski’s world is rich and alive, primarily through the actions and attitudes of the characters rather than any long-winded narrative on the author’s part. I suppose I had a lot of help from the computer games, too, what with the wonderful design work and the huge map to explore. The book far transcends that, though, and the stories are rich with detail and a sense of reality not often found in books such as these.

So, briefly, Geralt is a witcher, taken as a child and put through some rather terrible training to become a sorcerous witcher, able to cast spells and fight against the monsters of the continent, to protect unsuspecting normal people from the terrors that lurk in the dark... for a price. Think of him as a monster bounty hunter, but he does have principals and a sense of honour and duty. His white hair, scarred face and cat-like eyes make him stand out and he and his skills are celebrated, untrusted and reviled, depending on where he is at the time.

The book is more of a sequence of short stories, each adventure reflected upon as Geralt recovers from a nasty wound while fighting a striga, a monster thought created by an incestuous relationship between a king and his sibling. And that’s the first story; it doesn’t get any better - vampires, elves, angry Knights, cursed men, insidious Queens, and all and sundry come out of the woodwork to play in Geralts sandbox, but don’t be deceived; not all beauty is good, and not all ugliness is evil.

The narrative doesn’t mess around and goes on a great pace, with enough detail to paint the world but no long-winded descriptions full of prose and sweeping paragraphs of world-building. Basically, enough to create the picture in your mind, with no huge walls of text that you skip past because you simply didn’t need to know about the small inconsequential details. It can sometimes be brutal, and the fight scenes are well detailed and can be quite exhilarating.

I found the dialogue to be excellent and the conversations build the relationship between characters, carry the story and create the world in which they live, almost as if you’re listening to an audio recording of their conversations. The characters are solid and yet unpredictable, with the sully Geralt the most interesting by farm his boisterous friend Dandilion was incredibly annoying and frustrated me greatly - as I feel he was designed to do - and Yennefer was intriguing and designed in such a way that I’d love to learn more about her and what made her the way she is. All in all, great characters with depth and a lot of feeling.

It’s a great book and one that I enjoyed immensely. I have only touched on the world of the witcher through a small amount of time on the game, but it‘s the books where I think I’ll find the true heart of the setting. I’m incredibly eager to read more. This book was certainly something I found hard to put down.

A world of danger, intrigue and more than few surprises - a must read for any fantasy fan.