Reading the Witcher--The Last Wish, Sword of Destiny, Blood of Elves, and The Time of Contempt

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I'm a huge fan of the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt --it's got great game play and an excellent story. I enjoyed the game so much that after my first play through (I'm on my second right now), I decided to try reading the books that inspired the game, as well as a new Netflix series with Henry Cavill. The Witcher books were written by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish author who's considered the Tolkien of Poland. He's had a huge influence on fantasy in Poland, and it's clear why--the books are fun to read, with compelling characters and great, if episodic, storytelling.

The first Witcher book, The Last Wish: Introducing The Witcher, is a collection of short stories linked by the main character, Geralt. Many of them are extremely dark, heart-rending re-tellings of fairy tales, including a brutal version of Snow White, but some of the stories, especially “The Last Wish” story the collection is named after, are hilariously funny. Anyone who’s played the games knows that for the the pathos and tragedy that surrounds his life, Geralt can still get into some screamingly funny misadventures! The book tells about many of the key moments of Geralt's early life, including his first meeting with Yennefer and how he invoked the Law of Surprise to become Ciri's eventual guardian. While some of the language in translation is a bit clunky, the characters and stories in the book make it a compelling read, especially for anyone who loved the game.

The next book is in the Witcher series is another collection of short stories, The Sword of Destiny. I ended up loving this collection almost as much as The Last Wish. It explores Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship further, in particular how their inability to have a child together despite Yennefer’s desperate yearning complicates their relationship. To me, the stories in The Sword of Destiny are ultimately about family and love (though with plenty of monsters, dragons, infidelity, and dryads along the way). Geralt was bereft of a family from a young age, having been abandoned by his sorceress mother with the Witchers. Yennefer also is bereft of a family, and her and Geralt’s infertility make it impossible for them to form their own in a typical way. They dance around each other, in love and sadness. Likewise, Geralt meets Ciri for the first time, but her formidable grandmother, the Lioness of Cintra, makes it clear that despite the Law of Surprise, she won’t let him take her.

But destiny is a twisting and complicated road, though as Geralt notes, destiny by itself requires something more. And in the haunting and heartrending final, it’s clear what that is—love. This is another book I’d highly recommend—it might be my favorite of the Witcher books, though I also loved The Last Wish. so it’s hard to pick a definitive favorite. While you don’t necessarily need to read The Last Wish to appreciate The Sword of Destiny, it might help to establish the relationships with the characters.

The next book in the series, Blood of Elves, is more of a cohesive novel, but since it tells its story from multiple perspectives it's still a bit episodic. Nonetheless, it tells an excellent story and as usual, the characters are one of the best parts. Geralt seems like the strong, silent type, but Sapkowski gives him a depth and mystery that make him compelling even when he's understated. And Yennefer develops into a complex, intriguing woman with a subtle intelligence. If you don't understand why Geralt is so in love with her after playing the games, this book shows why. Sapkowski draws a complicated web of relationships between Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri and Triss, creating both understanding and mystery.

The Time of Contempt is the second novel and the fourth book in Adrzej Sapkowski's series of books on the Witcher. I really enjoyed the first two books, and this one did not disappoint. The story focuses as much on Ciri as it does on Geralt, but both their stories are exciting and interesting. What's more, for a book with plenty of action, the story is surprisingly philosophical at times. Geralt tries to do what he thinks is best to protect Ciri and do the right thing. Yet, time and again Sapkowski shows how tricky it is to determine the "right" path in a complex, morally ambiguous world. The haunting tragedy of war, and the terrible choices that people make when confronted by devastating circumstances become a running theme.

I loved the characterizations of Geralt and Yennefer--their relationship has complexity and depth, and the reader ends up sympathetic to both characters even when they seem opposed to each other. Their touching love for Ciri shines through their actions, even when they disagree about what's best for her. Even Dandelion becomes a fascinating character, one with more complicated connections than you might think. What's more, Dandelion's "translations" of Geralt and Yennefer's discussions is both touching and hilarious.

For those of you who love the games, this book gives quite a bit of backstory on characters like Phillippa Eilhart and Dijkstra. It also reveals the origins of the political strife and warfare from the games.

I'd recommend these books to anyone who enjoys fantasy, the Witcher games, or is excited to see the new Netiflix series with Henry Cavill. Reading these books had deepened my appreciation for the game, yet they are excellent reads even if you don't ever play The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt . They have a world as deep and fully realized as anything in Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, and rich, intriguing characters.

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