⭐ ⭐ ⭐
The Last Wish is a series of short stories that introduce us to the dark, brutish world of Geralt of Rivia. Geralt is a witcher, a mutant trained to hunt the multitude of monsters and fiends that plague the land. He’s currently recovering from a near fatal wound at a temple of the goddess Melitele and Sapkowski uses this as a framing device to allow Geralt to look back on the battles and adventures that brought him there.
There’s a definite Brothers Grimm vibe to the stories and a lot of the monsters are inspired by dark fairytales and Eastern European folklore. There are stories about a sinister, violent Snow White, a dark take on Beauty and the Beast and a nod to Rumpelstiltskin. The world-building isn’t extensive; instead each story is largely self-contained and we’re given tantalising snippets and hints of things I hope will be expanded on in later books.
While some of the side characters are somewhat forgetable, a few others just burst out of the page and the sorceress Yennefer is my favourite. There’s definitely a lot of unchallenged sexism and misogyny in this book, which means it’s not going to be for everyone, but in that setting Yennefer is a women who succeeds in imposing her will on the world without being overpowered or overruled by men.
And Geralt himself exemplifies everything about my favourite kinds of grimdark character. He’s flawed and conflicted, he lives in a world with little cause for hope and yet still strives to do good (most of the time), even if it is a thankless and Sisyphean task. He ostensibly works for money, but I found his imperfect morality and loosely-defined code of ethics a fragile, flickering source of light in an otherwise grim setting.
And Geralt’s world is bleak. Sapkowski introduces us to a ruling class of scheming nobles who care nothing for the peasants they rule over; bitter, vindictive elves oppressed by despotic humans and an untamed wilderness where travellers are ruthlessly murdered by monsters and men alike.
This isn’t a world of black and white morals. There is no good versus evil, no human bastions of virtue and honour fighting a brave struggle against the forces of darkness. Geralt is a monster hunter, but often the real monsters are the people he encounters every day, the people who abuse what power they have to oppress others and excuse or cover up their behaviour by pointing to the beasts and monsters Geralt is hired to kill.
“People,” Geralt turned his head, “like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live.”
All that said, the book wasn’t perfect.
I found some of the fight scenes to be overly-descriptive without adding anything to the narrative and a lot of the lore was delivered in clunky dialogue that I didn’t find particularly believable. I got the impression that a fair amount of that can be excused as poor translation rather than bad writing, but I thought there were elements of The Last Wish that just weren’t written very well.
Despite some flaws, I’m still looking forward to reading the next collection of short stories before moving on to the full length novels, where I’m excited to see how the lore is expanded. Geralt and Yennefer are fascinating characters and I can’t wait to see how their tentative relationship develops.
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