A few years ago, when getting into The Witcher series of video games, I decided to pick up the books too. The games are based on a series of short story collections and novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and the books provide tons more backstory that the games just throw at you to figure out (not in a bad way). Back then, I read two books: The Last Wish, which is a short story collection that introduces the main character as a lone wolf type, and Blood of Elves, the first of a handful of novels about the witcher.
A couple of months ago I heard that Netflix is going to adapt the books into a new show, which got me on a Witcher kick. I would totally pick up the video games (again!), but I have too much other gaming on my plate right now. So I decided to go back to the books, starting the series over again and continuing on to (hopefully) read all the novels this time.
The best part of this re-exploration of the books? I discovered that I missed one last time! And it’s my favorite so far: a series of short stories called Sword of Destiny, which actually comes between The Last Wish and Blood of Elves.
Here are a few reasons Sword of Destiny is such a memorable read, and why I recommend it most for fans of the games!
Monsters Who Aren’t Monsters
The Witcher series revolves around protagonist 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 taking contracts to kill monsters, but what’s cool about the books is that most of the monsters he encounters aren’t monsters at all — they are people who have been cursed. Geralt can either kill them outright or try to save them by returning them to their previous forms. The Last Wish focuses on him taking these contracts.
But Sword of Destiny has fewer witcher contracts and more stories that Geralt happens into. For me, the fantasy characters he meets here are more fun than the monsters of The Last Wish. For instance, the book opens with a tale about a seaman who has fallen in love with a mermaid, but neither wants 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 ends up making more money than the man he’s pretending to be — which annoys the man to no end. As always, Geralt ends up relating to these characters not as monsters, but as misunderstood people who aren’t always happy with their fates.
More Connected Stories
The Last Wish is a series of disconnected stories that all happen to star Geralt, monster-hunter. He’s a lone wolf, and he doesn’t spend a ton of time with any familiar characters (although you do meet Dandelion and see his origin story with Yennefer, if you know them from the games). Sword of Destiny digs into his friendships much more. He is never really alone in this book, but always traveling with his friend, the bard Dandelion, or romancing Yennefer, the love of his life but 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! This also makes the stories feel more connected, as they influence Geralt’s life as a whole instead of being random, one-off stories.
Fun Times with Dandelion
Dandelion seems to be Geralt’s best friend in the world. They are always traveling together on adventures, or else spending time in the taverns where Dandelion sings as a bard. His name really fits him — he’s a total dandy — which makes him a stark contrast to the gruff and practical Geralt. That’s why their friendship is so odd and wonderful. They’re different. They challenge each other. Some of their conversations become minor arguments, but there’s a humor there too. I love hearing Dandelion call out Geralt on his bullshit, while Geralt gets upset at some of Dandelion’s romanticized songs about him and his witcher life. Some of their conversations turn philosophical, and they know each other so well that they also know exactly where to twist the knife. It makes for some amazing character development.
Dandelion is also just a fun character to be around. Every town he goes to, there seems to be some woman or other who is angry at him for loving and leaving her. (He has a lot of things thrown at him from open windows.) But despite being a player, he’s also a romantic who is constantly seeking beauty in stories, singing songs of adventure and romance, with happy or tragic endings that will tug at people’s heartstrings. He also knows a fellow bard who is like a little sister to him, and his affection for her is really heartwarming.
Meeting Little Ciri
If you’ve played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, you’re familiar with Ciri, a white-haired woman who is almost like an adopted daughter to Geralt. In the game, you see her as a child, being trained as a female witcher at Kaer Morhen, as well as when she is an adult on the run from the Wild Hunt.
In Sword of Destiny, you see her very first meeting with Geralt. He’s traveling with an elf in the forest and happens upon her when she’s still very young — and a princess who doesn’t care for a future than involves an arranged marriage, having babies, and wearing dresses. (Not that she doesn’t enjoy dresses later in the series!)
I love a good origin story, and seeing Geralt’s relationship develop with Ciri in Sword of Destiny is really sweet. You get a lot more of their bond in the next book, Blood of Elves, which is all about Ciri’s training at Kaer Morhen. But there’s something satisfying about knowing how the two meet, and why Ciri ends up with Geralt instead of at a palace somewhere.
I’ll admit that romance was not something I was really expecting from these books, but they include very poignant love stories. In Sword of Destiny, Geralt spends more time with Yennefer, the black-haired sorceress whose signature scent is lilac and gooseberries. She is the love of his life, but she doesn’t love him alone. While Geralt would happily give up every other woman for Yennefer, she doesn’t seem quite willing to do the same for him, which makes their relationship rocky — and very on-again, off-again.
Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that Geralt’s romance with Yennefer resurfaces a few times during the book. He also spends time away from her, still pining a bit but busy with other adventures — even another woman, at one point. It’s sad, seeing another girl fall in love with him, while he cannot return her affection because of his love for Yennefer.
Even if you’re not normally one for romances, the love story in Sword of Destiny is so perfectly woven in to the rest of the tale, it feels very real. It also shows another side of Geralt that makes him even more well-rounded as a character.
I still have the rest of the series to read, and I have to say that I really enjoy Blood of Elves because it’s an entire novel, with an overarching story and politics to follow. However, so far I’d say if you only have time to read one Witcher novel, make it Sword of Destiny. The perfect balance of action, character development, and romance makes it a gripping read the entire time. And if you’re a fan of the video games, this one includes tons of time with characters you know and probably already love.