The OF Blog: Review of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish


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

12 comments:

Adam Whitehead said...

Nice work, Larry. I felt the books' humour was reminiscent of Jack Vance (especially the bit where Geralt had to battle the surreal goat-man-thing armed with iron balls). Agreed that he's a very good author and I look forward to the next book!

Larry said...

I haven't read enough Vance recently to comment, but I do seem to recall a faint echo of that sort in the first volume of The Dying Earth, although it's been many years since I've read that one (I'll correct that shortly).

I just hope that a US publisher will take a chance on this ASAP, as I too am really looking forward to the full novels :D

Matt (torresmatt at gmail.com) said...

Hey, if you're interested in getting your hands on copies of the Spanish versions of these books, go here:

http://www.bibliopolis.org/editorial/bibliofan/ultimodeseo.htm

About half-way down the page in that column on the left are links to his other books. Bibliopolis is the Spanish publisher of the books. The cool thing about them is, I emailed them about how I was having trouble finding the books somewhere that WASN'T going to charge me 30-40 dollars JUST for shipping. They replied back very kindly saying that they wouldn't be perfectly happy to send me the books with NO shipping charge. The only thing is they don't have a storefront or anything, so you have to wire the money directly to their bank account, but it seems legit. They charge cover price, so all in all it's the best way I've found to get my hands on them. Fair warning, they did say that the shipping method they would use would be the cheapest, so it would take quite a while for them to get to the US.

I did get my hands on an ebook copy of El Ultimo Deseo (Last Wish) just to see how it was written. It seems very well translated and I'm enjoying it so far.

Matt (torresmatt at gmail.com) said...

WOULD be perfectly happy. Bibliopolis told me they WOULD be happy to ship me the books, not that they wouldn't. Sorry.

Piotr Konieczny said...

Nice review. Would you consider adding some of your text to Wikipedia's entry on the book?

Anonymous said...

Great to learn that Sapkowski's prose has finally reached the Anglo-Saxon world! I wonder how long it's going to take until the first reader notices that most of the short stories stem from fairy tales... ;))) (just notice the seemingly incidental [and ironically intended!] similarity in the general story outline: "Grain of Truth" = "Beauty and the Beast", "Lesser Evil" = "Snow White", etc).

Plus, (not having read the English translation) I wonder if the "goat-man-thing" as you call him keeps threatening how he's "gonna bugger" (sic!) unless you do as he asks. I remember that was sth we used to laugh about for years, back in the 90s... *sounds like an old dumbwit* ;)

nice reading :)!

TG said...

I am very curious about the things from Eastern European mythology which you said are mysterious to you. Any examples?

Larry said...

Things like the rusalka which I ended up encountering elsewhere in altered form. I just am not as familiar with Slavic myths as I am with Romance and Germanic/English myths, although that is changing the more I devote myself to learn more about Eastern European myths and cultures.

kromeck said...

Very nice review, Larry. And BTW rusalka is a female ghost of water. Something like greek nymph.

Anonymous said...

Slavic mythology
http://web.raex.com/~obsidian/SlavPan.html

regards from svk

Sonnig said...

I'm such a huge fan of Sapkowski, I don't know how about English translation I I don't know if it's easy to understand everything he ment (or I think he ment) without knowledge of Polish culture, nevertheless I just Love The Witcher. All those great moments f.e. When Jaskier is trying to find the title for his new ballad

And he ends up with 'where the devil says'goodnight' ' brilliant moment ^^

I'm pleased to see that he's got his fans who are admiring his work outside Poland xD

Ju said...

'When Jaskier is trying to find the title for his new ballad'

Jaskier is a Polish name for Dandillon. 'Jaskier' means 'a buttercup', but actually I think - as much as it has been lost in translation of the word and context plays - the translation of Jaskier's name is better than the original :-) I think it comes from 'dandy' with an elegant (or posh) French ending 'illon', and both these elements are excellently describing the bard's character :-)

 
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