The Last Wish is an adult fantasy book that collects four short stories from the world of the Witcher. It was first published in Polish in 1993, translated into English by Danusia Stokto, and published in the UK by Gollancz in 2007. It follows Geralt, a Witcher who was taken as a child and trained to fight monsters. As a result of this process, he can wield a certain degree of magic, in addition to enhanced senses and fighting skills, but is shunned by humans for being too monstrous.
Traditionally I do not get along with short story collections. I find that while I love one story, I’ll hate another so that my average rating for a collection comes in around the three start point. After watching the Netflix show and playing The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt I was excited to start the series, but not necessarily looking forward to having two books of short stories to read first. I’d even contemplated skipping straight to the first full novel, Blood of Elves. I am so glad that I didn’t because this short story collection is one of the best I’ve ever read.
Sapkowski structures the book in such a way that it does not feel as though you’re reading some short stories, which usually feel inconsequential to the overarching plot of the novels. Instead, you’re reading a set of carefully selected glimpses into the life of Geralt, which inform his present. Between each short story, there is a ‘Voice of Reason’ chapter which links all the stories together. For instance, a character in a ‘Voice of Reason’ chapter might ask how he injured himself, and the next chapter will be a short story where we see what happened. This structural choice was brilliant, just brilliant and gave the collection a much-needed sense of cohesion. It also makes this book in particular perfect for fans of the Netflix show because it’s very episodic.
In terms of plot, it’s much more character-driven than you might expect from a traditional fantasy book. That is to say that there’s a lot more talking and a lot less fighting. This is a really interesting decision because it gives Geralt’s character a lot more depth and fulfils the sense of humanity that he is supposedly lacking. I prefer character-driven narratives to this suited me perfectly. That said Sapkowski does a great job at balancing these quieter moments with his action. The fact that the heavier action scenes encompass both physical and verbal fighting gave the stories a good balance between what we expect to see from a character who fights monsters and the unexpected human side of him.
One element that I was not expecting from this book was Sapokowski’s use of fairy tales. He does not retell them, at least not in the traditional sense, but he does allude to them. The way he referenced them, in a semi-comedic sort of way felt as though the author was winking at you. It was subtle enough not to take you out of his particular fantasy world, but it was fun to see where he had gotten that original spark of inspiration from.
Being as this book isn’t even 300 pages, and is made up of short stories it should not be surprising that we focus mostly on Geralt’s characterisation. The book fills is a lot of his background, we get to hear about his childhood and how one becomes a Witcher, along with his life as a Witcher. Sapkowski is very careful not to overload us with this information and spreads it out carefully between the chapters so we only get bits at a time. As a result, the delivery comes across as being very natural. He gives us enough information so that our appetite is whetted but not enough that you wouldn’t feel the need to continue with the series. We do get bits and pieces of character building for some of the other characters, though the focus is on Geralt, which makes it a great introduction into this world.
Overall, I gave this book ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ out of a possible five stars. I adored everything about it, and wouldn’t change a single thing. It was the sort of book that I had no intention of reviewing until I realised that I just had to talk about it. The structure was brilliant and the high point of the book for me. Everything else was great and you can tell that Sapkowski is a competent writer, but without that structure, it would have fallen to pieces. I can’t recommend The Last Wish enough and will be picking up the next book, The Sword of Destiny soon.
What about you… Have you read The Last Wish, and if so what did you think about it? If not what are your favourite short story collections?