REVIEW: THE LAST WISH (THE WITCHER # 0.5)
HOW I RATED IT
4.5/5 I was pleasantly surprised by this book's dark fantasy humor, exciting action scenes, and fairy tale feel as well as the serialized nature of the short story format.
I think starting with the tone for this is probably the most logical opening. At it's core, THE LAST WISH is sort of like a dark remix of classic fairy tales and folk lore, with a heavy leaning towards the Slavic inspirations. I'd originally put off reading this series, because I thought it would be too dark and disturbed and while there definitely is a darkness to these stories, there is also a more humorous side to it all as well which I was not expecting at all. I feel like both the Neflix show and the video game adaptation are quite serious (or at least any humor in them was lost on me), but reading through the original version of these stories was so much more fun than I expected. The stakes are high and the action scenes can be absolutely brutal, but it's all handled in a much more whimsical way that's a bit hard to describe. The sex and sexualization of the female characters are also not as pronounced as they are in the game, but those elements are definitely here. The opening page of the book involves Geralt getting a "visitor" in his bedchamber, which was certainly a bold way to start a story, though probably not my first choice. In spite of this interesting choice of an opener and scenes where female characters are depicted as being naked or simply impractically dressed, I was actually pleased to find that the women are all pretty badass. Many of them are powerful, some are skilled warriors, and others have a more mythological sort of power. I think my ultimate conclusion is that this isn't sexist so much as it is just VERY European.
The book plays out in a sequence of six short stories that are set at different points in Geralt's past. In between and bookending these stories are interludes titled "The Voice of Reason." It isn't immediately clear what the title of these means until the end of the book, but these all take place in a more linear fashion, presumably set in Geralt's present. The format of this really worked for me. I kind of love serialized fiction in general and wish that more of that existed in literature, so this was a perfect fit for me, even though not everyone is thrilled by how it reads. One thing that did trip me up is that the timeline isn't immediately obvious in terms of how the stories switch to points in the past and then we come back to the present as Geralt is dealing with something there. It was clear enough once I understood the narrative pattern and I think this was certainly a lot more straightforward than the multiple timelines in the Neflix show's first season (although I rather liked that even though others did not). Part of me has to wonder if my experiences with the adaptations influenced my enjoyment of this book at all, since I had some pre-established knowledge of the stories and characters, but ultimately, I found the stories and the characters in them to be very different from the adaptations and I enjoyed these original versions much better.
A particular standout for me in this was Geralt, who I was not expecting to connect with on the level that I actually did. He definitely is on the sterner, more stoic side, but he's also incredibly sarcastic and dryly funny. Whereas Cavill brings a subtle sense of humanity to the character that wouldn't otherwise be there in the script of the Neflix show, Sapkowski's original version is dripping with layered and nuanced personality. I found the duality of him making a living killing creatures for money while also wanting to do the right thing deep down during impossible situations to be deeply compelling. I also found myself appreciating both what he does and doesn't say in certain situations, with his silence sometimes speaking at the loudest volume. His friendship with Dandelion also felt so much more sincere and I found myself really enjoying the juxtaposition between their opposing personalities - often times relating their bond to friendships I have in my own life with people who are quite different from myself. Dandelion's character also works much better given the decidedly funnier tone of the story overall, whereas I generally find adapted version of him to be annoying and/or out of place. Although he isn't introduced until about halfway through the book, I enjoyed that we got so much of this version of Dandelion and I think he made an excellent Robin to Geralt's Batman.
There is a rotating cast of side characters, most of whom only appear in one of the six stories or are recurring characters in the "The Voice of Reason" segments. Certain standouts include Neneke, a queen who hires him during "A Question of Price," and of course, the one and only Yennifer of Vengerberg. The book really does save the best for last as this original rendition of Yennifer is far more interesting than other versions of the character that I've seen. Did I need for her exposed boobs to play so heavily into the story? No. But, I thought her somewhat toxic entanglement was a sexy and funny mess of two forces of nature colliding. I also enjoyed how much more cunning this version of her is and I liked that her beauty is described as a more unusual sort of attractiveness versus a more barbie doll kind of look. The badass femme fatale energy is on point and I definitely want to see more of her and Geralt together.
Set in a Slavic-inspired fantasy world, I wouldn't say there was anything terribly unique about the shape of the land or the construction of the towns, but there was still something about this place that felt distinctly magical. I think this is largely due to the vast amount of mystical, and often dangerous creatures that exist in this world. The inclusion of magic and curses and fate also add that distinctively fairy tale atmosphere to this setting. Because a lot of the rules are left undefined, there is a distinct sense that really anything can happen in this world, though the author still manages to never just "magic" the characters out of their problems. I rather liked how Geralt's signed were described and appreciated that his abilities were a compliment to his wits and never a crutch he leaned on too heavily.
I liked how the flashback style of the short stories allowed us to explore a nice variety of locations. Riverside towns, lush farmland, a dark castle, and a vibrant banquet hall all served as interesting backdrops for Geralt's exploits. The way that politics and religion plays a role into the world was also fascinating. A lot of it remained somewhat mysterious with information about churches dedicated to different gods and distinct kingdoms being doled out slowly. While some readers might like this aspect of the worldbuilding to have been more defined, I rather enjoyed that we only really learned what we needed to know in that moment and that the story never got bogged down in expositional dumps. I am admittedly, a more plot-driven reader, so I will always appreciate when the setting and characterizations flow nicely with the story being told. That said, I do think this objectively works best for this type of story, given it's fairy tale influence. Had there been additional time taken to build the world or explore certain characters, then that vibe would likely have diminished.
I read this for the first time with the newer illustrated hardcover edition from Orbit and wow, this was a luxurious way to read through the story! The pages are thick, the font/formatting is comfortable, and the interior is filled with gorgeous little flourishes that make this feel like a truly premium experience. The interior illustrations are truly exquisite. Each one is done by a different artist and while that might sound like a bad idea, it actually works extremely well, largely due to the black, white, and red color motif that connects them all together. I thought the way that little icons were taken from each of them to decorate each chapter heading as well as the inner cover pages was a brilliant way to reuse these visuals. Their inclusion truly did enrich my reading experience even if I pictured things a bit differently in my head while reading the text. I also quite liked the artwork on the dust jacket as well as the design of the naked hardback with the foiled lettering for the spine and quote on the front cover. My particular copy did come a bit banged up with slightly frayed edges on the dust jacket and slightly bent corners of the hardcover itself (plus some smudges on the jacket I had to wipe off) despite me buying it "new". It wasn't bad enough to return and the vendor gave a truly pathetic response to my complaints. Some blame could be placed on the shipping, and some perhaps on the durability of the book itself, but it was clear to me that there was simply negligence on the part of this seller. Even with these signs of distress (or "character:" as some might say), I am very happy to own this edition and think this might be the best way to enjoy the story.
THE LAST WISH is not what I'd expected based on the Netflix show and video game, but I had an absolute blast with how much funnier this was than those adaptations and I know that this is one dark fairy tale that I'd like to continue.
(+) Interesting twists on classic fairy tales
(+) Surprisingly humorous character interactions
(+) Some brutal action scenes
(+) The short story format really worked for me
(+) The monsters Geralt faces were all super interesting
(+) The fantastical creatures aren't overdone, but there is still good variety
(+) A luxurious hardcover edition with stunning illustrations by different artists
(-) The timeline can be a little confusing until you figure out the formula
(-) The spiciness isn't as outrageous as it is in the adaptations, but it's still a little bit much