Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

When I first heard of Geralt, a Witcher, a professional who hunts down supernatural horrors, it was not in a positive context. Over on Michael Moorcock's website, some of the fanbase essentially noted that the Witcher was a direct rip off of Elric, an aspect of the Eternal Champion created by Michael Moorcock. And what's more, the character or at least the world and setting, is apparently part of a best selling series of computer games.

That didn't necessarily strike me as a bad thing mind you. Conan, despite the dozens if not hundreds of stories written about him, has relatively few by the actual original author, Robert E. Howard. Most of these stories have been written decades after his death. 

So when the opportunity came to pick up The Last Wish by  Andrzej Sapkowski, at a decent price on the old Kindle format, I snatched it up. It appears to be a series of short stories broken up by an over arching rest point where Geralt is preparing himself for future travels after taking an injury in a case.

In terms of 'being a rip off' Elric, at least in this book, I can see where the comparison comes from, but Geralt is no Elric.

But let's start with the similarities. They are both albino characters. They are both spellcasters and master swordsmen. They both use drugs and elixirs. Note that in Geralt's case, the dependency, at least in this novel, seems like a new thing as opposed to Elric's ongoing need for them due to his chronic weakness. The other thing that would be annoying if I was Michael Moorcock would be having had a character like Elric whose bylines include The White Wolf, which at least one person calls Geralt here.

However, Geralt doesn't have a rune blade that drinks souls or has sword his own soul or alliance to the forces of Chaos and their worlds are vastly different. This bit is important because even in the first Elric book, the albino of that series is going to other worlds and planes and eventually times and manifestations of himself.

In terms of weapons, Geralt uses two different types of swords, one made of cold iron and the other of silver. Each suited for fighting a specific type of creature. Their outlooks, again, at least as far as this book is concerned, are also different although there are some similarities in terms of themes of fate and destiny.

In terms of the novel itself, it was worth a thought in terms of how certain types of characters fit into the wider world. In Geralt's case, he is a Witcher.  Being a Witcher means hunting down supernatural entities. But it notes that even during Geralt's time, that the need for his services has become less and less and that 'honest Witcher' work is harder and harder to find.

The whole idea of the Witcher would fit in well with specific roles in a fantasy game. Such roles have long been a part of Dungeons and Dragons, being put into more game related mechanics in the various Complete books with kits that provided game benefits and often role playing penalties or guidelines. It was made more concrete in 3rd edition with prestige classes that characters couldn't start as, but could advance into, and then part of the overall core mechanics in the Player's Handbook in 4th edition with paragon classes.

It showcases how such designs could go in a variety of methods. The abilities that Geralt has, are particularly suited for many dangerous things, not just fighting against monsters. In one short story, he has to note that he is not an assassin and those who seek to use him as such meet poor results. Geralt though, is not a player character. In a situation where characters are down on their luck, will they use their special and specific abilities to go outside those boundaries?

Another interesting bit that Andrzej uses is that of folk tales. He plugs several events from a variety of sources into the setting of Geralt with no problem or even attempts to make it subtle. This has been done for other settings like the Forgotten Realms with some success by plugging in deities from other campaign settings or eras. When something works, it works.

A third thing apparent, is the changing of an age. In one of the short stories, a fey creature is 'stealing' secrets of farming from humans and providing them to the elves. Geralt notes that the elves only chance of survival is to trade and work directly with the humans or they'll die out of starvation and only have a last ride out against humanity and then fade into legend. Given that the title of the next book I have by the author is The Blood of Elves, perhaps that vision comes true already.

In the Forgotten Realms, in some time lines at least, the elves, much like they are in Middle Earth, are a fading power. As are the dwarves. This is a common theme when humanity and technology and civilization are on the rise. The only thing that doesn't become too clear in The Last Wish, is how this interacts with the ideas of magic. Geralt has the ability to cast spells, as do many others he encounters and few of the human spellcasters seem to have any issue with civilization as opposed to the things in the wild that might be considered mythical which are being hunted to extinction.

The Last Wish isn't the strongest book I've read in the genre and my purchase of future volumes of the Witcher will be heavily influenced by how much I enjoy Blood of Elves, and of course, any future sales I may find that feature the books at the prices I like.

For those who've played the Witcher game, is it worth picking up for a person who doesn't play a lot of games on the computer?

For those who've read all the novels, is there one in particular that stands out from the crowd?