Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Review: 'The Witcher' by Andrzej Sapkowski

3/5 Stars

I don’t usually pick up contemporary fantasy titles, but I decided to get ‘The Last Wish’ (originally printed in 2007; this Orbit books paperback, 2008) after having played the computer game ‘The Witcher’, which is based on the character created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

Geralt of Rivia has been raised from a young age to be a Witcher: one who tracks and kills monsters for a fee. He plies his trade in a medieval world where humans are the dominant race, and dwarves and elves are relegated to eking out a living in the slum districts. Magic is carefully rationed and primarily the responsibility of the Wizard caste, although Geralt can use certain spells if needed. While his Witcher training has given Geralt superhuman powers of combat and endurance, his pale complexion, mutant eyes, and cynical disposition often lead other humans to regard him with suspicion and mistrust.

The Last Wish is a collection of episodic adventures, linked by an overarching storyline (‘The Voice of Reason’).

The first episode, ‘The Witcher’, introduces Geralt and sees him tasked with eliminating a woman transformed into a striga, a bloodthirsty monster from Eastern European legend. In ‘A Grain of Truth’, Geralt encounters a beast with refined manners and a violent girlfriend. ‘The Lesser Evil’ pits our Witcher against a vengeful bandit girl, and ‘A Question of Price’ deals with the fulfillment of vows spoken in extremis. ‘The Edge of the World’ takes place in a remote rural district where a demon has been harassing some peaceful farmers. The final story, ‘The Last Wish’, involves a genie loosed from a bottle, with fateful consequences.

Overall, ‘The Last Wish’ offers well-written, if slow-paced, tales that depart from the fantasy clichés that so dominate the publishing market these days. Sapkowski demurs from siting Geralt in a ‘traditional’ fantasy landscape driven by Epic Quests involving the Fate of the World. Rather, The Witcher’s adventures take place in mean small towns, ruins crumbling along the sides of little-used dirt paths, and castle dinner parties hosted by conniving royalty. The confrontations Geralt finds himself involved with are small-scale, never involving legions of Orcs facing off against squadrons of Heroes, but nonetheless bitter and intense.

I intend to read succeeding volumes in the Witcher Saga; I hope that the Eastern European mythology and culture that make understated appearances in the first book will expand over time, as they help give the novel a bit of unique flavor. Readers looking for a fantasy character and setting that stand apart from the formulaic material displayed on the retail shelves may find ‘The Last Wish’ worth investigating.

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