My husband is a big, big Witcher fan — played all the games more than once and listened to the audiobooks. When the news broke that the series was coming to Netflix, I knew I would end up watching with him. He’d been badgering me to read the books for ages and during the show, he kept pointing out where the TV series differed from the books (usually expressed as a complaint). It was funny because that’s usually MY job. So I have caved in and started the series. While most of the stories in this first book were already familiar thanks to the TV series, The Last Wish still contained a few pleasant surprises.
The Last Wish is a collection of 7 stories involving the Witcher. For those who are not familiar with the show, games or books, a Witcher is a human man who has been transformed by some sort of magical training and medicines into a powerful monster-hunting mutant. Witchers are feared and often reviled by common folk but their services are necessary and welcome should your village find itself plagued by basilisks, werewolves, rusalkas or any other vicious monsters that roam the world. This collection opens with a story that was featured in the Netflix series — the story of the striga. The striga is a monster, always female, with a hideous body, capable of ripping humans apart and devouring them. She lives in a crypt in the castle and roams at night, preying on villagers. The problem is that this striga is/was the king’s daughter (a bizarre tale that you need to read for yourself). The villagers and town councilors want the creature dead while the king holds onto the hope that the curse she lives under can be broken and his daughter restored to a normal life. The striga has been terrorizing the land for years, and wizards, sorcerers and other witchers have had no luck in dealing with her. Enter Geralt of Rivia, Witcher extraordinaire. The thing about Geralt is that while he slays monsters for money and absolutely expects to get paid (he works out a deal before setting about his task), he also has some moral scruples, a code by which he operates. He prefers not to kill if not necessary, and he sees that sometimes the humans he deals with are more vile than the monsters.
As I read through the stories, one thing that struck me was how most of them are riffs on or homages to fairy tales we all know. In some ways, the story of the striga reminded me of Sleeping Beauty — a princess cursed because of her father’s actions, a deep slumber and a fight to bring her back. The next story in the book, one which I believe will appear in Witcher season 2 and will feature the GOT actor who played Tormund, is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a very surprising twist. The story with Renfri (and where Geralt gets the nickname Butcher of Blaviken) is Snow White. This really did not come through on TV, but it’s quite obvious from the book, and I have to say it is still one of my favorites. Renfri, who is also a princess, is not a helpless victim waiting for a prince. She is a fierce assassin and understandable in her rage. The story of princess Pavetta’s betrothal feast is a re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin, and within the story, a character makes reference to the “gnome Rumplestelt” when defending the Law of Surprise. This is the law that famously allowed a stranger who had saved your life to claim as repayment that which you have but did not know (such as going home and finding out your wife is pregnant).
Of course, The Last Wish also introduces the reader to Yennefer and Jaskier, who is called Dandelion. Dandelion the troubadour first appears in the story of the Sylvan who is trying to help a displaced band of elves survive. Unlike the TV show, Dandelion and Geralt are actually very good friends who genuinely like each other — no sucker punches or anger from Geralt here. The story of the Djinn and Geralt’s first encounter with Yennefer is one of the last stories in the book. When Dandelion is gravely wounded by a Djinn, Geralt rushes to find the nearest wizard or sorcerer who can help. Yennefer is willing to help, but as others try to tell Geralt, her help comes with strings that you might not expect or want. It’s a great story, and my only complaint is that the TV show did not do justice to the whole matter of the three wishes and what those wishes were. In fact, the first wish is completely changed for TV and I so so wish it hadn’t been because it’s hilarious!!! Also, the idea that nobody knows what the third wish was is false. Pretty much everyone knew what it was, including the main characters.
One of the things that makes the books like the TV series is the odd disjointed timeline. The stories are told as flashbacks and not in chronological order, but each chapter begins with Geralt in current time at a place and with a character missing from the show. Geralt is at the Temple of Melitele being healed of his wounds from the striga. The High Priestess there, Nenneke, is an old friend of Geralt’s and has known and healed him for years. Little by little, as each chapter opens, we learn that Nenneke is concerned about changes she sees in Geralt, and that she is aware of his complicated history with Yennefer. She tells him that the “vortex of power” and fate that surrounds him is serious and that he ought to submit to a trance so that she and the other priestesses could read his future, which he resolutely refuses to do. We also see that the local authorities have it in for Geralt and are waiting for an opportunity to do him in. The book ends with Geralt firmly planted within this vortex of power and fate.
All in all, I have to admit I liked the stories. I was surprised by the number of tough, strong, smart female characters and by the author’s cleverness with traditional fairy tales. He really takes those stories and turns them on their heads, kind of like Nina MacLaughlin did to Greek and Roman myths in Wake, Siren. I’m moving on the next book in the series for sure.