At its heart, The Last Wish is a series of monster stories. The first book in Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series (which CD Projekt RED’s video games are based on), it’s not so much a novel as a line-up of short stories that depict Geralt of Rivia taking on monster-hunting contracts. It feels like reading dark fairy tales, similar to The Bloody Chamber, and the reason is that the monsters aren’t all crazed animals or mythical beasts — they are usually regular men, women, and children who have been cursed.
I read the book a few years ago, when I first got into The Witcher video game series. After hearing that the series is going to be made into a Netflix show, I got onto a Witcher kick and decided to re-read The Last Wish and then continue with the novels that follow. I purchased the audiobook, which is excellent, although I think I prefer reading rather than listening to this series due to the depth of the conversations and world-building. This is a book full of details you don’t want to miss.
I enjoy The Last Wish as a fantasy for the straightforward writing style and emphasis on dialogue. While there are plenty of exciting action scenes, most of the stories are told through conversations Geralt has with his employers and the cursed monsters he must either rescue or kill. A typical flow for a story: Geralt discusses a new contract with an employer — maybe a prince, maybe a peasant– then goes after the monster, who is very often someone he can actually talk to.
There are a lot of individual wills at odds; some people want the victims of these curses saved and returned to their former states, while others look at them as dangerous creatures who should be killed. Geralt is in the middle of all this, but some of the most interesting conversations are between him and the cursed. These dialogues are tense because there’s a sense that at any moment, things could take a hairy turn.
The prose is easy to follow but waxes just poetic enough to feel like an epic fantasy. The translation from the original Polish is excellent. I could fill this post with quotes from the book, but I’ll let you find those on your own if you end up reading it!
While you could skip reading The Last Wish and jump straight into the novel Blood of Elves, this book is a great overview of who Geralt is. It paints a realistic picture, in part because it’s not a full-length novel but a series of vignettes from his life. It also gives the impression that he is a wanderer, as he jumps from one contract to another, with each story opening in a new place as if Geralt easily left the last behind.
The variety is fun. In one story, Geralt meets the beast from what is essentially a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In another, he’s at a banquet, awkwardly dressed in a purple tunic and talking to the queen. My favorites are the last stories. One shows him on an adventure with his friend, the bard Dandelion, discussing witcher work and how people invent monsters that couldn’t possibly be real. In the other, he meets the love of his life, Yennefer. I enjoyed hearing stories about some of the characters I already know from the video games.
The Last Wish also gets personal in describing Geralt. For instance, there’s a great scene in the middle of the book where he tells someone about his upbringing. Through trials, virus infections, and herbs, he became mutated to sense monsters and use magic. (If you’ve seen him on the cover of a book or in a video game, you will instantly recognize his white hair, a side effect of his mutations.) While other adolescents crumbled under these conditions, he was strong. Hunting monsters to protect people became his conviction, the reason he was put in this world.
The trouble with being a witcher is that despite his good intentions, people fear him for his magic. Even the people who hire him to kill monsters for them, upon seeing him performing his magic up close, become afraid. So Geralt is an outsider, with a gruff nature. One employer even mentions that unlike other witchers and magicians, Geralt is known for killing his contracts instead of messing about trying to rescue them. This seems at odds with what Geralt does later in the book — he does take the time to speak to many victims of curses and attempts to rescue some of them — but it’s an interesting note about who he is, that he has at least gained that reputation.
Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it creates a fantasy world where nothing is black and white. If you’ve played the video games, you can tell the game writers picked up on this gray morality from the books. Geralt meets many characters in these stories, each with a backstory that they confess to Geralt and an opinion — whether they express it or just hint at it — about how they want the monster-hunting to unfold. Just like in the video games that follow, Geralt gets to know these people through the stories they tell him and then must make up his own mind about how to respond and handle his witcher contracts.
If you enjoy fantasy, this is a fascinating world to sink into. Inns and taverns make it feel cozy and old-fashioned; the presence of elves and dwarves reminds me of Lord of the Rings; the focus on curses and monsters makes this a world where magic feels like a dark power; and the ambiguous Geralt is almost an antihero in a world where there is no pure good and evil. I don’t think you need to read this book to get into the series of novels that follows, but it’s a fun read. You can even enjoy in pieces if you want to pick up a story here and there to learn more about Geralt and his world, in which case I recommend the last chapters of the book to learn about his friendship with Dandelion and how he met Yennefer.