The Witcher: The Last Wish (1993) by Andrzej Sapkowski

THE LAST WISH is a collection of fantasy short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski between 1986 and 1993 (later translated into English in 2007). There are five short stories that were published in a Polish fantasy magazine through those years, two stories written especially for the collection, and a framing story written to give the book a bit more shape.

THE WITCHER, as a series, would go on to become very popular, both in terms of the stories and later novel saga themselves (particularly in Europe), and with later adoptions to the series becoming very popular in the west. The main characters, and underlying concepts of the series, are all present in this first collection. The titular witcher (a mutated monster-slayer to hire) Geralt of Rivia that masks his emotions and indecisiveness behind a fictional representation of himself, the morphed sorceress Yennefer that presents coldly but holds convictions with endless loyalty underneath, shades of the child Ciri that would come to be, the bard Jaskier/Dandelion that good-naturedly holds little prejudice, they’re all established here.

Themes and frequent motifs are also established – the price of neutrality and whether a greater sin is inactivity or acting on a “lesser evil”, the fractal and inescapably far-reaching consequences of choices made, the fiction that literal or imagined monsters can match up the inhumanity of humans themselves, the maliciousness and injustice of pervasive hierarchical bigotry, the question of what defines humanity and monstrosity, the relative costs of mutual vulnerability, the absurdity – yet sometime rare sense – of existent myth and fairytales, how the lies of layered false histories obscure the material realities of the world, the ambiguity of ‘destiny’ and how predicated on coincidence and relationship-building it is, and the fundamental inescapability of entropic decay and climate change.

Most germane to this book are the inversions of fairy tales, with A GRAIN OF TRUTH centring THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on the love of a female monster instead of the male (and also examining the ways a man might very well like being the Beast), THE LESSER EVIL interrogating the inherent sexism in curses-cum-hysteria and princesses-in-tower narratives present in stories like SLEEPING BEAUTY, THE EDGE OF THE WORLD’s consideration of the logistics of the ‘elves in a waning world giving way to men’ trope, and THE LAST WISH playing off the murkiness of djiin wishes. In those latter two stories the play on fairytale tropes is more a fun tweaking in Sapkowski’s dark and sarcastic style, but in the first two cases they’re a more interesting would-be feminist (tangible, but sits oddly amongst the casual misogyny in stories like A GRAIN OF TRUTH) recontextualisation of narrative.

Recontextualisation of narrative isn’t always so successful in the book, with the framing story of THE VOICE OF REASON often feeling purposeless. Some interesting characterisation is brought up in it, and it is a good example of Sapkowski’s pointedly anachronistic writing style (with the priestess Nenneke’s ruminations on basically the greenhouse effect, and how climate change is affecting plant growth), but starting the book with a two-page context-free lurid sex scene is embarrassing and paints a very poor picture of what’s to come. The framing story functionally wraps around the existent stories, which were perhaps somewhat disparate given the nature of their intermittent writing over the years, but I question the ultimate worth of the project, particularly given the flatly vague “violence is to come!” would-be hook at the end that it provides.

Interestingly, THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, THE LAST WISH (the short story itself), and of course THE VOICE OF REASON were actually written well after the rest of the stories in the book, and even after what is chronologically the second short-story collection of the series (THE SWORD OF DESTINY) was published. This means they actually function as prequel stories for the characters of Dandelion and Yennefer, whose first written appearance is actually in that next book. You wouldn’t know it, as they flow on perfectly smoothly here.

The translation doesn’t flow on so smoothly. The translator, Danusia Stok, only translated two books in the series, and I’ve seen it said by bilingual Polish readers that she didn’t maintain Sapkowski’s frequently stilted and rhymtic sentence structure as well as the other translator, David French, did. Some inconsistencies also flare up between the books and other media like the video game adaptations (Mousesack/Ermion, Wyzim/Vizima, White Chill/White Frost, Vodnik/Drowner, Sheala/Sile, Chimera/Frightener, Grey Mountains/Blue Mountains, Jan Natalis/John Natalis, Chapter of Wizards/Conclave of Sorcerers, Transriver/Riverdell, Vodnik/Vodyanoi, Black Annis/Devourer, Afreet/Ifrit, Enchantress/Sorceress – some of these only pop up in Stok’s other translation, BLOOD OF ELVES), but that’s unsurprising.

Invariably much is lost in translation, but the general tone and vibe certainly feels unique to the series – how much of that is Sapkowski’s style, and how much is the oft-touted “Slavic spirit” escapes me, but I enjoy it in any case. A mite clunky at times but certainly an in intriguing hook into a world, a series, and its themes and characters. Three meteorites and an urcheon.

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