Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

"People, {...} like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves. When they get blind-drunk, cheat, steal, beat their wives, starve an old woman, when they kill a trapped fox with an axe or riddle the last existing unicorn with arrows, they like to think that the Bane entering cottages at daybreak is more monstrous than they are. They feel better then. They find it easier to live."  page 215 

Geralt de Rivia is a witcher.  As best I can describe it, his job title equates to, 'bad-ass monster hunter."  Of the many problems that Geralt is presented with monster hunting is the least and most infrequently dealt with.  The book deals with people problems and the moral ambiguity that humanity often presents.

The Last Wish is a collection of related short stories.  There are six in total and they are broken up by reoccurring sections called "The Voice of Reason."  The publisher has done nothing to make this clear and it was initially a bit jarring for me to figure out what was going on.  There are reoccurring events and a comprehensive narrative.  I wish the book's display was like a short story collection with a table of contents, rather than me thinking the book was merely haphazardly put together in a random sequence until I had read far enough into it make sense of things.  I don't fault the author for this, and cover to cover, it is my only complaint.

The first story introduces us to Geralt in all of his marital awesomeness.  The first story also gives rise to several themes that are constantly repeated in the book though none are overly dwelt on.  Geralt, a witcher, is not altogether human himself by way of the training he has undertaken en route to his job.  There are running subtle suggestions as to his aberrations and mutations though nothing is ever explicitly is ever spelled out.  The irony of an evolved 'monster' dedicating a life to training to kill other more immediately perceived monsters was never lost on me. 

For all of his actions, monstrous or humane, Geralt is undoubtedly mercenary.  The first standing rule of his profession is that he works for a fee; there are no pro bono engagements; nothing done out of the goodness of his heart nor to the betterment of the people.  Tied in with this idea is that he is not a hired thug.  Though he carries two swords, silver for monsters, and iron for humans, he doesn't and continually refuses to kill people for money.  His principles and ultimately his morals are regularly put to the test. 

One story impressively deals with the debate of lesser and greater evil as opposed to only a general evil or the act of turning a blind eye.  Geralt's most trying circumstance are never a battle against a supernatural monster (there aren't very many of those battles and they are rather short as Geralt is very good and efficient at his job) rather they come when he is made to justify his actions or the actions of others.  In addition to Geralt's mercenary decision making we also see him argue against an idea only to embrace it at a story's end.  Such as the claim to lay rights to a child--like property.  

More than any other theme, through Geralt we see a world where nothing is what it seems: monsters are children transformed by parental flaws; others are excellent dinner guest and display manners of royalty despite beastly appearances.  Sapkowski perhaps elevates the role of women higher than ever before in a fantasy novel.  Every 'monster' he fights, without exception, is female.  There are no helpless damsels in distress or solitary female soldiers holding their own on the front lines with men, yet its difficult to ascertain who is the 'bad guy' in Geralt's tales as he is so difficult to fully embrace as a 'good guy.'

There are fairy tales aplenty: genies in a bottle: a question of how much fun did Snow White have cooped up with those seven dwarves for so long; we learn the fate of all knowing mirrors (they are either smashed to little pieces or learn to lie); there is a spin on beauty and the beast that was perhaps my favorite.  It's rare to see fantasy done this well.  There's a secondary world, a dude with a sword, elves, vampires and every monster of nightmare imaginable.  The set up for a derivative fantasy epic of 'blah' proportions are perfectly in place.  What we get is something more complex and refreshing that will only leave you craving more translations of Sapkowski's work.      

1 comment:

Maria said...

This book sounds pretty fun. I've read Sapkowski a long time ago and enjoyed his fantasy. Having read this review, I might pick up The Last Wish now.