For over four years, Andrzej Sapkowski has been one of those authors that has been dangled in front of me, mentioned in passing by Polish readers here and elsewhere, along with an occasional mention on a couple of non-English-language sites that I frequent on occasion. Maciek (Vanin) in particular has been one who has been singing his praises to me, even going so far as to post a link to a fan-translated story (one that was done with Sapkowski's blessing, I later learned). What I read was intriguing enough for me to want more. I looked into buying the Spanish-language editions, but the shipping costs (close to $25 per book) were too prohibitive for me to import from Spain and I never could find any available in American online stores. So I waited. And waited some more, fearing that Sapkowski might never be published in English translation. Until last year, when I heard that Gollancz, perhaps influenced by the upcoming The Witcher game (which stars the main character, Geralt, of most of Sapkowski's stories), agreed to publish some of Sapkowski's work in English translation for the UK market. The Last Wish is the first of those works to be published in English.
The Last Wish is a slender, 280 page collection of six loosely-connected stories and intervals starring Geralt. Originally released in 1993 in Poland as Ostatnie Zyczenie, The Last Wish contains some of the oldest of the Geralt tales, although it was not the first Geralt book released in Poland. It is, however, an excellent introduction to the character and to the type of story that Sapkowski apparently wants to tell.
Geralt is a Witcher, an altered human being who has enhanced eyesight, a quicker healing/recovery mechanism for his body, and supposedly immune to most of the normal human emotions (although some of his interactions with various characters belies this to some extent). As a Witcher, Geralt's task is to roam the countyside and towns, looking for and destroying true monsters. While this might sound like a perfect D&D-style adventure series, Sapkowski quickly shows a combination of a sly wit and a tendency to not just subvert these adventure tropes, but to twist them and spin them upon their head until they collapse, too dizzy to assert themselves in the story themes.
Although Geralt is trained as a killer and does have some impressive skills as a fighter, violence is not a staple of these stories. Rather, it appears to be that there are two overarching themes to these tales: overcoming first impressions and the notion that the truest monsters might have a comely appearance and be fair of speech. Geralt elaborates on this in one scene:
"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."
Each of these stories have moments like this, moments where Geralt shows that his greatest strength is not in how fast he can decapitate a monster (although he does this on occasion) or how quickly he can evade an attack (these, too, occur on occasion), but rather in how he is able to take a keener look than his companions at what is truly at stake. There are moments of humor here, as when a monster, Nivellen, discovers that by being generous with his gold, he can get quite a few merchant's daughters for a bit more than the usual roll in the hay. How Geralt deals with Nivellen is one of the more humane and understanding stories that I've read in this genre of work, but I'll leave that story's conclusion to the gentle reader.
There are many elements of Slavic mythology, from various creatures that do not have exact analogues in Western mythologies to codes of behavior, that make this collection a bit more mysterious to me. I suspect there are a few elements that would be funny to a Polish or other Eastern European-reading audience but which might be taken more literally by the likes of me, born and raised on Western European and Southern mythologies. Perhaps this is the main reason why, despite selling over two million copies of his works in certain European countries, Sapkowski had to wait almost twenty years for the first English-language publication of his work. It is a shame that it has been this long, as I believe that there are enough elements in common that most fantasy readers in the English-speaking world can relate to and enjoy them to much the same degree as German and Spanish-speaking readers have enjoyed Sapkowski for years.
Summary: The Last Wish is a series of connected short stories that recount the adventures of a Witcher named Geralt. Told in third-person omniscient PoV, these tales take traditional fantasy adventure motifs and play with them in a parodical fashion on occasion. Highly recommended for those who like a mixture of humor and depth to their stories, especially to those who like Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett.
Release Date: June 2007 (UK), Hardcover, Tradeback
Publisher: Gollancz, no known US release planned