Sunday, July 13, 2008

Andrzej Sapkowski - The Last Wish (Book Review)

"The Last Wish" (Amazon: UK, USA)
by Andrzej Sapkowski (Wikipedia)
Format: Paperback, 280 pages
Publisher: Gollancz
---Geralt was always going to stand out, with his white hair and piercing eyes, his cynicism and lack of respect for authority... but he is far more than a striking-looking man. He is a witcher; his sorcerous powers, enhanced by elixirs and long years of training, have made him a brilliant fighter and a merciless assassin. He is no ordinary murderer, though: his targets are the vile fiends that ravage his land, preying on the unwary. But as he roams the country he comes to realise that first appearances are often deceptive: not everything monstrous-looking is evil, and not everything fair is good... and in every fairy tale, there is a grain of truth.
In his role as a guardian of the innocent, Geralt, the witcher from Rivia, meets incestuous kings with undead daughters, vengeful djinns, rancorous maidens, shrieking harpies, love-lorn vampires and despondent ghouls. Many are pernicious, some are wicked, and none are quite as they seem.

I usually avoid blurbs-slash-synopsis on the back of the book, since in most cases I see them as tedious, spoilerific, pompous and in most cases not at all in character that permeates the actual story. But in this case I've made an exception as the blurb hits the proverbial nail on the head.

Sapkowski is considered a bit of a superstar in Poland and in few other European countries that were lucky enough to get a translation of his works - ironically enough, the English speaking world had to wait for more than 15 years to get a translation of the first book featuring Geralt the Witcher. The second book in the series, entitled "Blood of the Elves" (US import, UK), is scheduled for release on September 18. So, was "The Last Wish" worth the wait? Without doubt. Sapkowski brings a set of fresh elements and twists alongside with the otherwise pretty straight-forward quest oriented epic fantasy.

First off the bat, despite 1the disjointed structure of the narrative - "TLW" is basically a set of short stories set apart by individual chapters and loosely interconnected by a story of Geralt's reprieve which is dissected and wedged in between the chapters that delve into the past exploits of Geralt - and 2simple adventurous-oriented plot I liked the book a lot. It read really well and besides, Geralt is a most sympathetic character (I'm a sucker for righteous outcasts with their own heightened sense of judgment and highly reflective approach to situations). We get to know little about his past and he doesn't show any signs of personal growth (since he is already a fully grown/developed adult), but he nevertheless displays incredible depth and complex personality which is revealed through well-timed and well-measured snippets of dialogue, through the way he looks at the world and through how he deals with situations. In some of the later adventures Geralt is joined by Dandelion - a sidekick in the form of a wandering scholar, famed bard and skirt-chaser. The novel's structure and the Geralt/Dandelion due resembles much the adventures of Gotrek and Felix. One of the downsides is that the rest of the crew is not as fleshed out as Geralt and usually cross the threshold of stereotypical by a fair margin, although if I'm honest this didn't bother me all too much as Sapkowski compensates elsewhere in abundance.

What makes "The Last Wish" stand out from the crowd is not the way it mixes fantasy tropes with their subverted and disfigured mirror images because this is not a groundbreaking practice anymore - it's become a bit of the latest trend really - but the inclusion of the (mainly) Slavic mythology within the faux-medieval setting; 1predomination of Slavic names for cities and people is a relief from the randomly generated multiple-vowelled names with apostrophes jutting here and there to make things more otherworldly and exotic, as is the 2inclusion of creatures such as strigas, spriggans, leshys, kikimoras, vyppers etc. where otherwhere we are being literally drowned with imps, orcs, goblins and other creatures from the Nordic folklore.

Worldbuilding is otherwise spare and the info-dumping dampened to boot - the book concentrates on Geralt and the tasks that lay at his feet. Magic is present, but subdued and complimented by vials, elixirs, Signs, intentional body mutations and other inventions. Like said, these elements are subdued and unobtrusive, but the mere hint of their presence really makes the otherwise unadorned storytelling work on a deeper level. If you are at least partly familiar with the structure of fairytales and myths you will probably be delighted by the way Sapkowski plays with conventions.

Sapkowski's dry wit permeates the whole book; from dialogue, characters' traits, to his use of language and so forth. There is little to no explicit content in the book so it is suited for the people of all ages (and convictions) without turning out childish or...well, anesthesised. The younger readers should be hooked on the awesomeness that is Geralt and those a bit older might appreciate his subtle cynicism and world-weariness that make him a truly memorable character.

"The Last Wish" is not all flowers, though. The world and the secondary characters could be done with more care so they wouldn't turn out so one-sided. The plot lacks real substance and coherence; all you get is a set of short stories that account for the Witchers exploits and not much else. The whole book works as an introduction into the word and the protagonist that Sapkowski created, but I think it is safe to expect that the later installments improve on this aspects of the storytelling, as the potential and talent are obviously present. All this niggles might be seen as shortcomings when you dissect the text, but on the accumulative level everything works as it should and that's what matters the most.
~ Thrinidir ~


James said...

Good review Thrinidir, it's slightly worrying how often your own opinion of a book seems to match my own...

I quite enjoyed this book, and think Geralt is an extremely cool character. I had the same issues as you though, in that there's no real plot and no other truly memorable characters save for Geralt. I also found the prose clunky and wooden at times, but I'm sure this was just the translation.

Lsrry said...

It is frustrating that the English-language publishers currently have no plans on releasing the second collection, The Sword of Destiny, as that collection of stories develops things much, much further and introduces the main characters for Blood of the Elves. I think if you could read that one before the novel is released in a couple of months, it would receive even higher praise. After reading the Spanish translation, I was tempted to fork over $300 to buy the five novels en masse in Spanish translation and have them imported. Only a few bills here and there prevented that :P

ThRiNiDiR said...

Thanks James; yeah I've noticed the resemblance of our opinions as well and I think this is a good thing - if nothing else, I've found a reliable source for recommendations :).

Larry, yeah I know about The Sword of Destiny being skipped - I think it was you who wrote about this. It's a shame and I don't speak Spanish so the alternative (no matter how expensive or not :p) is not really an option, really.

Lsrry said...

Well, if you can read German, Russian, or Polish, that might become an option. Perhaps it'll soon be translated by people in Belgrade or Zagreb if it becomes popular in the Anglo-American markets and then maybe in Ljubljana? I seem to recall that being the usual pattern, although it wouldn't surprise me if some Pole posts fan translations later.

ThRiNiDiR said...

That would be a dream come true, but the chances are worse than bad Larry :). Croats have a wonderful sf&f community and a well-developed publishing system that supports this fandom (I'm not sure about the Serbian market, but while I think it's not as well developed as Croatian, it's still light years away from ours). You have to take into consideration that Slovenia has only some 2 million people and besides, the publishing industry is pretty fucked - the books published by our publishers (whether they be hardbacks or paperbacks) are almost devastatingly expensive; but that's not the main reason behind the underdeveloped sf&f's just that this genre is considered trite so no distinguished publisher wants to dirty its hands by translating it - sure we have some classics, but we are lapsing far behind the trend (we were happy as puppies when the ASoIaF book was translated; we have some Discworld novels translated - terribly might I add, Hobbit and Lord of the Rings obviously, some Dick and Vonnegut, but mostly children's fantasy: Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl and such...), and things aren't really going for the better.

RobB said...

A very fair and balanced review, Thrin.

Orbit is publishing Blood of Elves next summer, hopefully if the sales are good enough, we'll be lucky enough to see Sword of Destiny.

Lsrry said...

True, but I was thinking, depending on your age and exposure, you might be able to read it in either Croatian or Serbian (yes, I know the two are practically the same, but being around a Serbian has convinced me not to be cavalier with titles :P). I've read your few passing comments on the state of the Slovenian SF community and it sounds similar to a gathering of all SF fans from say Kansas (I think it's only 2-3 million in population). That being said, bestsellers ought to get some consideration at least somewhere, right? :P

ThRiNiDiR said...

Thanks Robb, coming from you it means a lot. I'm positive that Sword of Destiny will be translated sooner or later; the author has received wide recognition and acclaim with the translation of The Last Wish and the video game The Witcher.

I believe you discussed the state of our publishing with @Trin a while ago as well? But yeah, I'd be able to read Croatian or Serbian (they two languages are not so similar anymore - relatively speaking of course; Croats made some major changes to their grammar to distinguish themselves from the Serbian population...and I think they consider it a blasphemy if you mention any kind of similarity between their it language or anything else; because they kind of loathe each other; and I think I'm being mild with the term here :)). Kansas you say? Well yeah, probably, but with one exception: everybody in Kansas speaks (and reads?:p) English, but not everyone speaks/reads English here, and many more don't bother reading English books (or any books at all while we are at it) so it is not quite like Kansas, agreed? :)

Lsrry said...

Well, I meant Kansas in the BFE sense of it being what we call "flyover territory" here - who thinks of Kansas anyways, except for The Wizard of Oz fans? :P And yes, I'm a bit familiar with the changes the Croats have done. I ought to get back in contact with a cousin of mine - his mom was born in Dalmatia, I believe, and he grew up speaking English, German, and the then Serbo-Croat (my uncle was in the military and his mom moved to Bavaria sometime after WWII and they were married for a few years before she divorced him and took my cousin back to Germany - long story). But yes, the two don't seem to like each other all that much. A shame, as it could have led to more publishing opportunities, no? :P

P.S. Yes, "BFE" means what you think it might mean after you do a search ;)

Anonymous said...

Just wait for Blood of Elves to come out - It`s far deeper, more intricate and generally better than Sapkowski`s early stories, yet still immature compared to the later installments of the five-volume novel. If anyone has ever managed to efficiently blend the escapist fantasy genre with disturbing current issues, it`s Sapkowski. He`s definitely not "the new Tolkien", as some Polish fans claim. He`s in fact *the opposite* of Tolkien: cynical, witty, relativistic, yet able to create believable characters with moving storylines. Some fans of the funny and simple early stories get actually turned off by the complicated style of storytelling he develops through the novel - hope this doesn`t happen to you, you`d be missing a lot.

To sum up: The Last Wish is nothing compared to the novel. Don`t miss it.

BTW: English reviewers keep claiming that the novel is called "Blood of Elves". That`s not true; "Blood of Elves" is only the title of the first part, followed by "Time of Anger", "Baptism of Fire", "The Tower of The Swallow" and "Lady of The Lake". The novel as a whole does not (as far as I know) have an official title, but it`s commonly reffered to as "The Witcher Saga".

Anonymous said...

If you want another Sapkowski novel in english
check this,beacuse there is also translation of one Sapkowski novel called “Maladie”(The malady)


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