I love to over-analyze the heck out of a good story, whether it’s a movie, a video game, or of course, a novel. It might be because I’m an English major, or because I’m myself a writer, or because I’m such a huge nerd, but there is something deeply satisfying about unpacking the events of a novel and peeling back those layers to understand the narrative on a deeper level.
I’ve posted lengthy, rambly analyses before for trailers and movies, and in 2020, I really want to write some word nerdy analyses for amazing books, but I’ve also mentioned that I don’t like ‘reviewing’ books. I can only give my thoughts and impressions, and I certainly don’t like assigning them a rank. So if you were looking for a review, this might not be quite what you’re looking for. Still, I hope that I can find and discuss great books, and maybe you’ll want to read them too.
We’re starting the bookish fun with The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.
Now, I know this wasn’t one of the books I set out to read for my Twelve Books Challenge, but there are dozens of other amazing fantasy and sci-fi I’ve been meaning to read, and one of those happens to be the Witcher series.
In case you were unaware, the very popular Witcher game franchise (and now Netflix series) is actually based on fantasy books published by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski in the 90s, with a separate standalone novel following the eponymous Geralt of Rivia published in 2013. The first true novel in the series is titled Blood of Elves, but after doing a bit of research about the reading order for the series, a lot of fans of the books recommended that new readers start with the short story anthologies – The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, respectively.
After the series dropped on Netflix, I happened to see it available electronically via my library so I picked it up – I’ve always wanted to play the games, and I’m excited to watch the series, but I have this weird need to read the source material first. Thus I began reading the first book in the Witcher series.
And what a wonderful surprise it was.
I didn’t think I would hate the book, but short stories tend to be hit or miss for me – I either love them or hate them, and as much as I love a good short story anthology, I worried that I would find The Last Wish a little lacklustre.
Maybe it was because my expectations were low to begin with, but I was immediately charmed by the adventures of Geralt. And I loved how the anthology itself was formatted.
The book opens on chapter one, but you quickly realize that it’s not your typical novel. The anthology jumps back and forth between two narratives – one storyline focuses on our protagonist Geralt while he is recovering from an injury in a temple to the goddess Melitele, and interspersed between these chapters (and his discussions with the head priestess Nenneke), we follow the Witcher on his various missions, and see what terrible beasts he slays. Those stories make up the bulk of the anthology.
!! POSSIBLE SPOILERS INBOUND !!
An Intriguing Main Character
Geralt is by far one of the most interesting elements of the stories, which makes sense – you would need a complex and interesting main character to carry you through the series. He’s not famous, but neither is he completely unknown. He has a moral code, which he follows almost to a fault. He’s very capable and clever, but he is also capable of making mistakes. He’s impressive without seeming overpowered. His profession is respected by some and ridiculed by others – you really run the full gambit here. Some characters are desperate for his help, some are fearful or want to get rid of him, and some choose to manipulate him. He’s not entirely selfish, but he isn’t afraid to get what he feels he is owed, which I found refreshing. He has the charisma and agency to carry the story forward, while still being compelling enough to make you care what happens to him.
A Glimpse into Another World
Maybe it’s because we were exposed to the world of the Witcher in small vignettes, but I loved how we were only given bits and pieces with each story, and the more you read, the more your understanding of the world and the Witcher’s role in it starts to build. None of it felt too info-dumpy, or heavy-handed.
I also really appreciated how much was held back. It’s clear there are other political machinations going on in the background – it’s obvious in A Question of Price with Queen Calanthe and again with the elves in The Edge of the World. Based on the synopsis of Blood of Elves, it’s clear these tense relationships are being set up for future stories down the road and it made the world feel big and dynamic. The Witcher was not a hero out to save the world – he’s just one small part of a much bigger machine.
What at first I thought was a coincidence, I soon realized was intentional – all of the short stories in The Last Wish have a very loose connection to fairy tales we are all familiar with – Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Aladdin. They were obviously much darker and the details were subtle and cleverly woven in so they didn’t detract too much from the story as a whole. It also gave the anthology this interesting mythical vibe. It was unexpected, but I also really enjoyed it.
One of my absolute favourite things about the whole anthology was the friendship between Geralt and the bard Dandelion. I half expected Dandelion to be comic relief, someone who followed Geralt around and served as an annoyance and an obstacle, so I was taken aback when I read the last few stories of the anthology and they revealed a genuine friendship between the two.
When his friend endures a deadly injury at the start of The Last Wish, I was moved by how much he cared about not only the health of his friend but his passion – when Geralt realizes that Dandelion’s throat is damaged to the point where he might not be able to sing, he resolves to find someone with the power to heal him. It was not what I expected from someone so emotionally reserved and stoic as Geralt. Despite appearing opportunistic, it’s clear that Dandelion is equally loyal, and doesn’t want to abandon his friend when they are both in danger. It added depth to both of their characters and made their adventures more endearing. Also, the fishing scene gave a dark book much-needed levity and really expressed to the reader the kind of friendship these two dorks have. I loved it!
Even though Dandelion was only in a few of the stories near the end, his rapport with Geralt stole the show for me – a character that I expected to be a nuisance and a source of comic relief or a frustrating obstruction in the Witcher’s path turned out to be far more complex. The witty banter was between two good friends, and you could tell that even when the bard annoyed Geralt, there was a genuine kinship. It was one of my favourite parts of the entire anthology.
It needs to be said – as much as I enjoyed The Last Wish, it is a product of its time, and completely fails any Bechdel tests. While not overt in its poorly treatment of women, I couldn’t help but notice how many of them had side roles, and barely influenced the narrative at all – aside from a handful, including the aforementioned Nenneke and Geralt’s love interest Yennefer, the women barely speak. They barely do anything, in fact, except play the role of victims and plot devices. Or they’re monsters and villains.
Aside from Nenneke, the only other benevolent women we are introduced to are Iola, who is overly sexualized, and Lille, who doesn’t say a damn thing despite playing a crucial role in her story.
It is subtle, and definitely not the worst case I’ve ever read, but it did make me a little uncomfortable. It’s something to note if you are sensitive to these sorts of things. At least I know what to expect going forward.
I’ve mentioned this already but I loved the structure – I loved how the short stories were tales Geralt was telling and weaving into an actual narrative, both giving us a deeper look at the world and illustrating for the reader the character of Geralt. And the friendship between Dandelion and Geralt was both a surprise and a charming delight. I thought the writing was simplistic, but I think it suited the narrative.
I have yet to continue with the series, but so far I agree with what those experienced Witcher readers have said – this definitely feels like a good place to start. It gives you just enough insight into the world and the characters and I’m excited to continue with Sword of Destiny!
Let’s Discuss The Last Wish!
Have you read any of the Witcher series? What do you think of the world and the characters? What did you enjoy in this first instalment? What didn’t you like? Let’s chat in the comments!
Also, this is hopefully the first of many bookish discussions, so I’ll be playing with format and content until I find something I like – let me know if there are any changes or improvements I can make to these chatty posts!