A few years ago, I picked up The Witcher books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, in an attempt to learn more about the video games based on them. As expected, the books provide tons more backstory, which the games just throw at you to figure out as you play. Back then, I read two books: The Last Wish, a short story collection introducing the main character, and Blood of Elves, the first in a handful of novels about the witcher.
Then I heard that Netflix would adapt the books into a new show — and I fell back into a Witcher frenzy. Though I wanted to pick up the video games (again!), I had too much on my plate. So instead, I returned to the books. I started reading the series over again, from the start, and continued on to learn more about the main character, Geralt of Rivia.
The best part of exploring these stories again? I realized I had missed a book! It’s called Sword of Destiny, and it belongs after The Last Wish and before Blood of Elves. As a collection of short stories with tons of action and a deep-dive into Geralt’s relationships, it ended up being my favorite of the entire series (so far).
If you’re looking to pick up The Witcher books, I’d recommend starting at the very beginning. But if you can only pick up one, make it Sword of Destiny. It’s the perfect background for the video games and the new Netflix show. Here’s why!
Monsters Who Aren’t Monsters
The Witcher series dives into the life of Geralt of Rivia, a man who grew up mutated by potions so he can now sense monsters — and fight them with magic. He’s made a career of fulfilling contracts to kill monsters, traveling from village to village to help those in need. But not every monster he encounters is an animal or beast — many are people who have been cursed. Geralt must decide whether to kill them outright or try to restore their humanity. The Last Wish, the first in The Witcher series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, focuses on Geralt’s monster-hunting contracts.
Sword of Destiny veers away from the witcher contracts to explore Geralt’s life in-depth. The fantasy characters he meets here can be more fun than the monsters in The Last Wish. For instance, the book opens with a tale about a seaman who has fallen in love with a mermaid, but neither the sailor nor the mermaid want to give up their residence for either fins or legs, respectively — so they can’t live together. Another story spins on a doppelganger who impersonates others; when he impersonates a halfling merchant, he ironically ends up making more money than the man he’s pretending to be. As always, Geralt tries to relate to these characters not as monsters, but as misunderstood people who aren’t always happy with their fates.
Friends for the Witcher
While The Last Wish is a series of disconnected stories that all happen to star Geralt as a lone wolf, Sword of Destiny digs deeper into his relationships. He’s never really alone in this book, always traveling with the bard Dandelion or romancing Yennefer, the love of his life who remains unattainable. If you’ve played the video games, I recommend reading Sword of Destiny over The Last Wish, just because you’ll recognize so many of these side characters. The stories here also feel more connected, as they influence Geralt’s life as a whole rather than just being one-off stories.
Adventures with Dandelion
Dandelion seems to be Geralt’s best friend in the world. When they’re not out on adventures together, they’re drinking in taverns where Dandelion sings about Geralt as a hero. In many ways, Dandelion is like a Restoration-period rake: a man whose life revolves around wine, women, and song. His name suits him; in English, Dandelion is the name of a flower but also brings to mind the word “dandy,” which brilliantly describes his personality. (In the original Polish, the character’s name Jaskier is a type of flower, too.)
As a free spirit, Dandelion’s self-expression is a sharp contrast to Geralt’s gruff and practical demeanor. This is why their friendship is so wonderful: they’re odd together. They challenge each other. Some of their conversations devolve into minor arguments, but these provide a humor reminiscent of the laughs in modern buddy cop movies. And when other conversations turn philosophical, they know each other well enough to understand exactly where to twist the knife. It makes for some amazing character development.
Dandelion is also just pure entertainment. It seems that every town he visits, some woman or other is angry at him for loving and leaving her. (He has a lot of things thrown at him from open windows.) But as a Casanova, he’s also a romantic who seeks beauty in stories. It’s why he’s a bard, singing songs of adventure with endings that tug at people’s heartstrings. He also cares deeply for others, shown in such a heartwarming glow as he frets over a fellow bard who’s like a little sister to him.
It’s this love for others that explains his friendship with the challenging Geralt, too. Not just anyone could befriend someone like him, but through their travels together, readers can see glimpses of the heart Geralt hides beneath his tough exterior.
Meeting Young Ciri
If you’ve played the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, you’re familiar with Cirilla, a white-haired woman who is like an adopted daughter to Geralt. In the game, you see her first as a child, training as a female witcher at Kaer Morhen; later, she’s shown as an adult on the run from the Wild Hunt.
In the book Sword of Destiny, Ciri has her very first meeting with Geralt. While he travels with an elf in the forest, he happens upon her when she’s still very young, a princess who doesn’t care for a future involving an arranged marriage, having babies, and wearing dresses.
Because I love a good origin story, seeing Geralt’s first conversations with Ciri in Sword of Destiny provides sweet insight into their relationship. This is where you learn why Ciri ends up with Geralt instead of at a palace somewhere. In the next book in the series, Blood of Elves, you’ll see more of their bond when Ciri trains at Kaer Morhen.
While romance is not something I was expecting from The Witcher series, the books surprised me with poignant love stories. In Sword of Destiny, Geralt spends more time with Yennefer, the black-haired sorceress whose signature scent is lilac and gooseberries. Though she is the love of Geralt’s life, he is hardly her only lover. This creates a longing in their on-again, off-again relationship. While Geralt would happily give up every other woman for Yennefer, she doesn’t seem quite willing to do the same for him.
Because their romance is so rocky, Geralt goes long stretches without seeing Yennefer. Even when taking up with another woman, he pines for her, unable to fully return the affections of anyone else he encounters. This sheds light on another aspect of Geralt’s character; where we’ve seen him as a fearless monster-hunter and a gruff friend, we now see his romantic side, too.
Overall, Sword of Destiny provides the perfect balance of action, character development, and romance. If you can only read one Witcher novel, make it this one. And if you’re a fan of the video games, Sword of Destiny offers the most time with characters you know and, most likely, already love.