Witchers are magically enhanced humans who fight monsters for money. They are faster and stronger than humans, live longer, possess extraordinary skills and make use of elixirs that could kill a normal person to enhance their abilities; they also feel no emotion, thanks to their special training, and they are feared and hated by most people.
Geralt of Rivia is one of them, maybe the most famous. With his milky white hair, his two swords, and his wolf medallion, he travels looking for jobs to make a living. He will encounter monsters, but also elves and druids, wizards and sorcerers, queens and bards and druids.
The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny are the first two books in The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. The series is now rising in popularity due to the recently released Netflix adaptation and, I’ll be honest, that’s what pushed me to finally pick up these books. They had been on my to-be-read pile for a long time before that.
They are both collection of short stories, but I felt quite different about them while reading.
The Last Wish starts with Geralt fighting a striga. He gest badly hurt and needs to go a temple to be healed, and this is what makes up the frame for the entire novel.
I was not aware that there was going to be such a frame to the story, and I think it was a very clever way to structure the book. Each story is interesting on its own, but they would feel disconnected if it weren’t for those short intervals between a story and the next that puts them all in perspective.
The frame itself has its own arc and provides useful information about the world. The other stories are reminiscences of Geralt’s past, either explored as just memories or narrated to someone by the protagonist himself. Each story shows a different aspect of Geralt’s personality and the world around him. We learn about the witcher’s code and his morality, the upsides and downsides of his occupation, the way people treat witchers in general, and then events that shaped him to be the kind of person he is now.
We are also introduced to important character, the ones that will come back over and over again. They even appear or at least are mentioned in the frame, thus confirming their relevance, and making them more real. We understand that they are important people in Geralt’s life and we come to care about them even in a very short amount of time.
Geralt, the protagonist, is not exactly likeable: he’s bitter, sardonic, and seemingly emotionless, even as he feels less and less so as the stories progress. He’s a pretty grey character. Some of his remarks are extremely funny and more than once I found myself grinning while reading. He also has a very strong moral compass, which is put to the test over and over, and stronger still is his disdain of the concept of destiny.
Speaking of destiny, we are introduced to the interesting concept of the Law of Surprise. This law states that, if someone saves another person’s life, he can by rights ask for whatever the saved person will find at home that he didn’t have when he left, or that he didn’t expect to find, or he already has but doesn’t know about it. Thus, it can be anything: the “surprise” can be a particularly good harvest, or a newborn pup, or, in some cases, a child. In this case, it is believed that this “child of surprise” is destined to be with the person who invoked the law, and so the parents have to leave said child with them.
One of the stories introduces us to one such events that will clearly have repercussions on the future, and that’s one of the reasons that prompted me to finish this book so quickly and jump right into the next.
Sword of Destiny is another short story collection, chronologically set a few years after The Last Wish.
The first difference between the two books is the absence of a frame in the second one. The stories feel a little less connected for that, but at the same time the chronological order helps not to feel lost. It’s almost like reading a regular novel, except that it’s missing a proper overarching plot. There are hints here and there of a bigger picture, but we still don’t see it clearly.
Andrzej Sapkowski doesnt’ explain too much. He gives you all the information you need, but he doesn’t spell them out for you: you have to make that extra step and put the pieces together by yourself. We meet with new characters and old ones, we keep learning about Geralt and the workings of his mind.
Destiny is a really important concept in this second collection. We are faced again with the consequences of the Law of Surprise and the way it plays with destiny. This is especially true in the last story of the collection – which is also, I have to say, my favourite. Probably also the one that feels more connected to what could be the plot of the novels themselves (which I haven’t read yet, but plan to read really soon).
If I can voice one complaint about the books – and I don’t think it’s fair to consider it a negative, to be honest – is that I found the writing style a bit hard to get into. I can’t say if it’s the author’s style, the translation, or simply the fact the the original language has a very different structure compared to English. I did have to reread some paragraphs a couple of times to really figure out what was going on. That said, it might also be my personal problem, as English is not my first language, so take it with a grain of salt.
To wrap this up, I did really enjoy this books, more than I thought I would. The idea of starting a series with not one, but two short story collection sounds counterproductive, but it works and I’m excited to get on with the rest of the books. Now that the characters and the setting are established, I imagine the author will get on with the story without too much delay.
So if you like monster chasing, every magical creature you can think of – elves, dryads, dwarves, dragons, mermaids, and a million others linked to polish folklore; if you like a morally gray – dark gray – main character; if you, like a lot of people, want to see the Netflix adaptation but not before reading the original material; then this books are for you.