Theres many examples of books being written to tie-in with a major video game release (Halo, Mass Effect and Assassins Creed to name but a few), but other than some of the early Tom Clancy branded games, the reverse is seldom true.
For those of you who have played The Witcher games by CD Projekt RED, Geralt of Rivia, Dandelion the bard and the sorceress Yennifer will be immediately familiar names. Yet, the genesis of these characters dates back to a series of short stories by Andrezej Sapkowski, originally published in the Polish sci-fi and fantasy magazine Fantastyka.
Now, I’ve only recently gotten into the Witcher games, and I am enjoying them immensely. Yet, while I’ve always known of the books, I’d never gotten around to exploring the literary basis for one of the most mature and interesting fantasy RPGs of recent years.
This changed, however, when I stumbled across a copy of The Last Wish, a revised edition of Wiedźmin (The Witcher), which collects a number of short stories concerning the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, and his exploits.
The Last Wish opens much the same way as the first Witcher game did – Geralt being tasked with removing a violent beast known as a stryga from the catacombs beneath a castle. This event sets up the novel’s framing story – Geralt is recovering from this battle in a monastery, and there he recounts tales of his past adventures with the friends and priestesses he encounters during his stay. The stories he recounts are in turn funny, sad, exciting and sometimes bizarre. Yet each tale is more than worthy of your time.
The very first thing I noticed about this book, is how faithfully the video game has adapted the characters and atmosphere of the novel. Geralt, a sarcastic, yet honorable and wise man, drifts through this world being outcast, mistrusted and vilified by others who see him and his kind as cursed. And yet, Geralt continues on his path with determination. Fighting monsters, he would have us believe, not for fame and honor, but for coin and that alone. Although on more than one occasion, without explicitly being stated, it is hinted that this man also fights to protect the very people who hate him. This subtle revelation enderes Geralt as a far more sympathetic, and possibly a more tragic, character than what he would want to be seen as.
More so than in the games, Geralt is a flawed character (thats not to say his game counterpart is not without his flaws). He makes mistakes, and these mistakes have the potential to cost him dearly, but a defining characteristic of Geralt is that he takes responsibility for his actions. It is this trait that, again, raises Geralt above the unsympathetic sell-sword that he may otherwise have become.
It is commendable that Sapkowski has managed to show such consistency throughout the book. Where many authors may write a collection of short stories and view each as a stand-alone episode, the tales in The Last Wish are tied together not only with recurring characters, but with a beautifully melancholic tone and common themes of desire, change and endings.
Like many other works, The Last Wish uses its fantasy setting to tackle difficult and complex issues, such as racism, the definition of good and evil, fate vs free will, and the role each of us plays in others’ lives. Where the last wish differs, however, is that it does not attempt to provide the reader with any answers to these tricky questions. Sapkowski leaves us with the opportunity to fathom these issues ourselves – what is right? what is wrong? Is there such a thing as ‘a lesser evil’?
I believe that in leaving these questions unanswered, The Last Wish rises above many other fantasy novels in the sense that, rather than simply lead the reader through a narrative, it encourages the reader to reflect on the use of standard fantasy tropes, and how these reflect real-world issues. This truly is a mature and occasionally thought provoking read.
The Last Wish is by no means the best fantasy novel I have read. It is not without its faults. The main issue being the lack of an ongoing antagonist seeming to diffuse any sense of threat or urgency at the end of each chapter.
Yet, I can’t help but overlook these shortcomings, because the excellent setting, the rich and detailed world, and the well written characters have such potential, I keep wanting to go back & hear of Geralt’s next adventure… but for now, I will have to wait until either more of these books are translated into English, or I learn to read Polish.
In the meantime, I’m looking forward to revisiting Geralt and the world of The Witcher in yet another playthrough of the games.