Books

Log: Entering the Witcherverse with The Last Wish

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Earlier this year I finished Baptism of Fire, the third novel in the Witcher franchise, but the fifth book in the series (the first two books are a collection of short stories). The story of Baptism of Fire is largely self-contained. The main hero — Geralt — goes on a very linear adventure looking for his pseudo-adoptive daughter — Ciri. Geralt goes to one place, then another, then another, and another. He meets many people and these characters and their relationships get a good deal of progression, but at the end of the book the narrative pulls back reminds the reader of the macro-scale politics that are going on in the world while Geralt was galavanting in the forest. It was in these final few pages of the book that I realized I had no idea what the hell was going on.

If I’m being honest, the feeling of confusion has been the most defining attribute of the Witcher book series for me. It seems as if it was written for an audience that would read, and re-read, every entry to pick away at the world — something I have no interest in doing. I’ve consumed most of my understanding of the Witcherverse through the games which I hoped would catch me up to speed enough to understand the books. But when it comes to these grand feuding political entities and their individual motivations, I get totally lost. It also doesn’t help that there are plenty of characters who have hidden motivations or mistaken motivations and many of those characters don’t appear in the games at all. One example that comes to mind is Vilgefortz, who’s referenced in Witcher 2 as a type of guy you can envision being a main antagonist. Vilgefortz appears in the second novel — Time of Contempt — and his introduction is such that it becomes very obvious he’s a significant character worth remembering. In Baptism of Fire, Vilgefortz does not appear at all, and if it wasn’t for Witcher 2’s mention of him I would’ve forgotten about him entirely — the same way I forgot many other characters.

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One of the strengths of the Witcher games is it knows to anchor your interest in the world with characters Geralt has a direct relationship with.

If any other book series had done this to me, I would’ve given up on it. I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to individual books (I almost never give up on a book, I force myself to finish it even if it takes years of chipping away at it), but for a book series I’ll easily abandon it if one book loses my interest. I did this with The Magicians series where the second book handled a heroine character so catastrophically I swore off the whole thing. At this point, The Witcher has committed a similar grave error. I read books to enjoy them and if I have to take notes just to know what’s going on that’s not conducive to an enjoyable experience. It makes reading feel like work. Suddenly reading this series becomes a literal chore and I don’t want to have that experience.

But I also feel an obligation to The Witcher. I loved Witcher 3 so much. I like the characters Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer. I like Sapkowski’s interest in politics and the allegories he creates for the modern day. I also truly enjoyed the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. I even remember really liking Time of Contempt. So where did it all go wrong? Maybe I took too long to read the individual books, or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. There’s enough doubt in my own ability to compel a re-reading before I swear off another series that I really have every reason to like. So, I started re-reading The Witcher franchise, starting with the first short story collection. This time with a more critical eye: What is it about the series that turned me off? Where does it all go wrong?

How was it?

Unsurprisingly, The Last Wish remains one of my favorite fantasy books. This was my impression when I first read it a few years ago and its quality holds up today. In a way, re-reading this book was the first true reading I’d done of it. When I first began the Witcher books I got confused on which book came first so I actually started with Sword of Destiny. I didn’t notice the error until I started The Last Wish, where it becomes very obvious that I had consumed the story out of sequence (Yennefer is introduced in Last Wish whereas she’s a prominent character throughout Sword of Destiny). This time around, I got to read The Last Wish as a true introduction to the Witcherverse. Every story told was an indication of what Sapkowski thought was vital about the world he was creating. It was a revealing re-read and I want to share some thoughts from each individual story:

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The Witcher games pitch Geralt’s profession as supernatural detective work, but the book is far more politically focused.

The Voice of Reason

I should mention up front that The Last Wish is framed with the backdrop of an overarching story called “The Voice of Reason.” The Last Wish has six self-contained short stories, but each one is broken up by a few pages dedicated to The Voice of Reason which typically sets up the next story.

There’s probably a good reason Voice of Reason exists but it’s easily the worst part of the book. It’s disjointed delivery and shallow scope offers nothing but confusion to the reader. Maybe Sapkowski wanted to give The Last Wish a sense of “conclusion” that it didn’t have otherwise if it ended on a random short story, but Voice of Reason is a poor substitute. Its problems get worse as the book goes on. By the final installment, Geralt has a “climactic” fight with a character who was introduced several chapters ago. Which means you have to read two self-contained stories plus a chapter of Voice of Reason without this character, so I can’t fault anyone for forgetting the identity of this character or why they’re upset with Geralt

Voice of Reason is a shape of things to come from Sapkowski’s storytelling. My experience with the Witcher novels is reading about characters as if I should know who they are, but it’s been several hundred pages — or sometimes multiple books — since I last ran into them.

The Witcher

The introduction to Geralt and the Witcherverse is basically perfect. You get everything you need to know about this world in a single story — specifically how it subverts genre tropes. I’ve always heard that the Witcher series is known for subverting tropes, but it’s been a funny experience for me. I am a Polish American, and although I won’t say I totally understand Polish culture, I have some understanding of Polish people (specifically older Polish men) and their tendencies. I’ve always considered Polish people to have a streak of contrarianism. There’s probably a good historical reason for this. I imagine the concept of “general wisdom” has always been a term dominated by Western societies that have no interest or understanding of Polish culture and customs. So to Polish people, the “general wisdom” is simply the thoughts of westerners that don’t know anything about their life or values. But since Polish culture is a minority, it comes across as being combative and contrarian. This is a half-baked theory that probably deserves more research before I make such bold claims, but that’s the unedited version of my thesis at this point in time.

The reason I mention this streak of contrarianism is because The Witcher seems conceived from a place of contradicting the current fantasy norms. Mages are not intelligent scholars but self-interested rejects who can’t be trusted; Elves are not mystical environmentalists but ruthless rebels with no interest in diplomacy; Geralt is not a knight in shining armor but a mercenary who kills monsters for money, and etc. Even the details of the plot have slight deviations that give The Witcher a grittier feel. Geralt is tasked with saving a King’s daughter, but not from a monster, she is the monster — a striga. And why is she a monster? Well because the King had an incestuous affair with his sister. Some might say the Witcherverse exists in shades of gray but it’s closer to shades of black. Pretty much everyone in the universe is an asshole, which is not unlike our collective experience in life.

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Nothing is ever simple for Geralt. Every bit of information affects various parties and their attitudes toward him.

But then there’s Geralt. Who’s portrayed as a politically neutral actor focused on his job and that’s it. It’s interesting to hear that Geralt — and by extension Sapkowski — has become a right-wing hero to some readers because of the values he puts forth. For example, in the introduction story, Geralt is focused on his work and nothing else. He believes he has a trade and his purpose in life is to excel at the responsibilities and duties of that trade. There’s definitely a conservative value in that approach that some readers may see as admirable. However, I feel this is a shallow reading of Geralt’s motivations.

As interesting as the genre-defying window dressing may be, this story — and the Witcherverse itself — really comes into its own when Geralt is given a counter-offer to the King’s predicament. Rather than cure his daughter, a loyalist asks Geralt to kill the monster. The loyalist offers more money, but Geralt doesn’t believe the sum will be paid and even if it were, he can cure her, so why kill her? If that wasn’t an interesting dynamic enough, another political actor asks Geralt to leave the town. Don’t cure the daughter, don’t kill the striga, leave things as is. Geralt intuitively sees this political actor wants to oust the King, and it’d be easier to do so if the striga ran rampant.

This added plot point is what dumps the reader into the world of the Witcher. Even a neutrality-focused mercenary finds himself entrenched in politics. Sure, witchers have a “code,” but even Geralt admits it’s used as a convenient reason to decline contracts that seem more trouble than they’re worth. This is where the modern-day allegories become obvious. It seems we’ve been thrown into a world where every action is political and no one can remain totally neutral. This is a concept that’s developed more fully throughout the novels. It’s the idea that made Sapkowski’s books so successful and what makes the series unique. It’s evident in the very first story and it’s what makes this particular introduction so rewarding to read.

In the end, Geralt satisfies the wishes of the King and it seems as if all the bad guys have been defeated and the good prevails, but we’re left with this world that’s buried in unfairness. Geralt is mistreated throughout the entire story. His morality has no benefit. In fact, he probably lost money by adhering to it. So what is the fate of this character in this world? The Witcher is a great self-contained story but its greatest accomplishment is piquing interest in where things could go next.

A Grain of Truth

The Witcher eventually becomes a fascinating political world, but A Grain of Truth is the first deviation to traditional fantasy elements that have never been Sapkowski’s strength. This story is meant to be a redux on Beauty and the Beast where the beast is kind of an awkward jerk and the beauty is a monster he’s fallen in love with. From a lore perspective, this story sets up the monster side of the world. Not only are there various factions and political entities in the Witcherverse, there are also monsters who can co-exist with some humans or resolve their own problems with one another. Not every monster needs to be killed. In fact, a horrifically cursed man can fall in love with a nice creature of the woods.

While that sounds nice, reading this story is a bit of a chore. Sapkowski seems to enjoy describing scenes with a thesaurus on hand. One passage on page 50 uses the words mottled, festooned and plinth, which you wouldn’t think are enough to completely devalue an entire section but no matter how many times I read it my eyes glaze over and no image is imparted onto my imagination.

There are other lore concepts that are introduced in this chapter but it’s all very forgettable. None of these off-handed references add depth to the world, other than mentioning there’s various types of monsters and magic. Sapkowski has never seemed interested in explaining the fantastical elements of his stories so when a narrative focuses on those aspects, it’s not very engaging.

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Lesser Evil shows the Witchverse for what it is: grim and full of death.

The Lesser Evil

Lesser Evil is one of the more iconic stories from The Witcher, and potentially the best short story of both books. The central conflict in this story is an excellent synthesis of the world of The Witcher, but even before we get to that this story introduces some other realities in the universe.

The color of Lesser Evil fills in the grim thanklessness of Geralt’s work. At the beginning of this story he kills a monster but finds out there’s no contract listed in town — resulting in no pay. When Geralt meets with a sorcerer later, he makes a quip about witchers killing off the last of endangered species. These two encounters show how Geralt’s profession ensures he gains no fans from experts in monsterology, and it’s also rare for the common folk to show him any gratitude. He finds himself between the two worlds, serving a role that neither really cherishes, even if they do benefit from safer country roads due to witchers pruning monsters from the path. This isn’t a world of honor and prestige, it’s about individualism and people only acting in their best interests in the worst of ways. For example, there’s this passage from Geralt that shows what the world is like outside the stories told:

“One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off. Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters. In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at a banquet every minute, blue from poisoning. I’m used to it.”

More so than the prior stories, Lesser Evil shows the Witcherverse isn’t a fun fantasy world. It’s a dark place. This isn’t one of those worlds where you wish you could visit and stay for a while. These details do a nice job for filling in the world but also prepare the reader for the content of Lesser Evil’s plot.

Geralt runs into a sorcerer named Stregobor, who says he’s being hunted by a woman named Renfri. She’s coming to town to kill him. Stregobor hires Geralt to protect him, but to be extra safe, he stays locked up in his tower. Geralt seems confident he can resolve whatever murderous dispute exists between the two, but Stregobor says it’s not so simple.

He explains that Renfri bares the Curse of the Black Sun — being born during an eclipse. The curse is known to cause tendencies of insanity and pushes people to cruelty. The curse is well-known and as such, Renfri has been treated as a potential serial killer her whole life. Her step-mother attempted to have her killed. Stregobor was assigned the task of putting the girl out of this world but his plan went wrong and she escaped.

Given that background, it’s easy to sympathize with Renfri. She’s been mistreated her entire life. Even her own family wants her dead. It seems obvious that anyone who is treated as evil their entire life will develop a chip on their shoulder and may feel the desire to exact revenge on their terrorizers, but that’s not the result of a curse — it’s an understandable response from someone who’s been abused their whole life.

At the same time, Renfri doesn’t do a very good job at convincing Geralt — or anyone else — that she’s not a demented lunatic. The plot finds its own conclusion, but it’s difficult to see the resolution as anything but a tragedy.

Renfri’s story, and Geralt’s predicament, can act as allegories for other political issues. In any issue, there are abusers and the abused. It’s easy to imagine sympathizing with the abused, but there are instances where the abusers have their hands tied or are the results of other actions they may have mishandled (If you find it difficult to consider the thought that some people “deserve” the abuse they receive, consider this op-ed from a Silicon Valley billionaire who argued rich people are more mistreated than German Jews in the 1930s). While it may be true one side’s anger is more deserved, or maybe both sides are equally delusional, the reality of politics remains the same. Sympathizing with either side necessarily earns you an enemy of the other. There is no resolution in these types of conflicts, there is only tragedy. Especially when one side tries to radicalize their actions, hoping it will bring the result they desire.

It’s an excellent point, deliver perfectly by Sapkowski’s writing that doesn’t play favorites with either side’s depiction. Reading the story feels like being between a rock and a hard place, a location that Geralt will occupy many times over across all the Witcher stories.

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A Question of Price

So begins the unending tale of Cintra and its royal class. This story is the first mention of Calanthe, the grandmother of Ciri, and the country Cintra. Cintra has quite a significant place in the geopolitics of The Witcher and much of it stems from the royal bloodline and alliances made or broken in an attempt to preserve that bloodline. While this plotline’s first mention in A Question of Price isn’t so egregious, I have a hard time enjoying this short story since it represents everything I’ve come to loathe about The Witcher series.

For one thing, it introduces an immense amount of characters and expects you to remember them. Anyone who’s played the games knows about the culture of Skellige Islanders, and if you’re a devoted fan you may know that Mousesack is the same character as Ermion (he was renamed for obvious reasons), but if you didn’t have those reference points then this story is a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of banter between warrior buddies as they drink around a huge table trying to court Calanthe’s approval to marry her daughter.

Thematically, this story introduces the concept of destiny, and explains the law of surprise — a tradition in the Witchverse where someone chooses their reward to be “what you find at home but don’t expect,” often a child. This is a key development for Geralt’s relationship with Ciri, which is explained in Sword of Destiny.

It’s neat that this short story carries its significance across the Witcher novels, but it’s not a particularly interesting story. It’s a bunch of lords arguing with a stranger about his rights as a peasant with some random magic thrown in as well. Some of the dialogue is engaging, but this story is mostly all the types of politics people hate with none of the morality predicaments that makes things interesting. Even worse is this short story is likely the most essential for understanding the background of many of the events that take place throughout the novels, which makes its slow pace all the more agonizing.

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Edge of the World

This story is likely The Witcher at its most “fun.” You’ve got Dandelion, a talking monster, some pretty ridiculous superstitions and a run-in with the vicious elves. I’ve already mentioned how The Witcher or Lesser Evil set up the tone of the Witcherverse — grim, pessimistic and politically infused — but Edge of the World is a sample of how those elements get interwoven into a world that isn’t always so serious. There are a lot of silly elements in Edge of the World. It’s easy to see how Geralt’s job can go from dangerous to ridiculous, to dangerous again — which is pretty much the arc of this short story.

From a lore standpoint, this is the first introduction to the elves and forest mysticism which is relatively unknown outside of elder races that live outside of society. You also get a sense of where the world “ends.” There isn’t a flat earth with dragons off the side, but if you get far enough from the main civilizations, you’re in elf territory and bound to get your throat slit.

I remember not liking this story so much on my first read-through. Looking at my notes, it seems my younger self got very confused by two characters: Torque and Torviel, being introduced in the same passage (technically Torque is established way before, but his name isn’t mentioned until he’s in the presence of Torviel). Maybe I’m the dumb one here, or maybe it’s a good reminder for conventional storytelling wisdom: don’t have two characters whose names begin with the same letter — especially don’t have two characters begin with the same three letters.

Other than that minor misstep, this is a low-stakes story that shows what Geralt’s day-to-day is like, and it’s a refreshing change from the intense drama seen in the other stories.

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#TeamTriss

The Last Wish

Sapkowski ends The Last Wish by introducing one of his most iconic characters: Yennefer of Vengeberg. I’ve read that Sapkowski created the character specifically to write a female heroine that defied genre tropes. While it’s true that Yennefer’s aggressive attitude, more-than-competent magical ability, and dark fashion sense differed from what was in-vogue for fantasy during the 1990s — Yennefer still falls into some tropes that authors are frequently criticized for. Sure, Yennefer punishes Geralt for sexualizing her, and uses her sex appeal against many men to make them literal zombies to do her bidding, but at the end of the story she’s still a damsel-in-distress saved by our hero, Geralt. And of course, his reward is sex.

This is one of those instances where Witcher 3 has truly left its mark. Whereas the book Yennefer seems inconsistent, the video game adaptation seemed more fully-formed. In the game, Geralt is practically bossed around by Yennefer and the only reason he can hold his ground is because she does truly care about him and his feelings (although he denies having at all). It’s an interesting dynamic, almost the complete flip of conventional love interests in fantasy writing, but in the books that dynamic isn’t as clear. It doesn’t help that the magical bond that ties Yennefer and Geralt romantically seems a bit more vital in their book relationship, whereas in the game its understated. Of course, the follow-up short story collection would expand on their relationship in many ways.

All of this is to say, while Yennefer has become a well-known beloved character in the franchise, her introduction story is merely ok.

Final thoughts

This “short log” is nearing 4,000 words, so I’m completely betraying the goal I had with this log.

I’m glad I re-read The Witcher’s introductory short story collection. Even with a more critical eye, it’s still about as good as I remember. If anything, this process has only revealed to me what I already knew on a subconscious level. There are kernals of greatness in the storytelling that propels me to keep reading just in case there’s another nugget worth reading, but among those good moments are an abundance of dreary politics, ineffective descriptive text, and way too many characters to keep track of. Knowing this could enhance my reading experience moving forward, since I’ll know when I’m entering one of those slog sections that it’s a known weakpoint of the series. I hope this awareness will make the good moments that much more significant.

 

4/5

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