The Last Wish (Gollancz S.F.)
by Andrzej Sapkowski
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0575077832
Date: 19 April 2007 List Price £18.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Uncorrected proof Copy: I once went to a fantastic convention in France and was saddened to meet so many wonderful native authors whose work I will never be able to sample because a) I didn't pay attention in French classes at school and b) the chances of them being translated and published for the English speaking audience is virtually nil. This is a shame, but perhaps also understandable given how crowded the marketplace is without looking abroad. However, thankfully, on occasion, we do get great works in translation and here is one such very fine example.
The Last Wish is a novel made up of short stories by Polish fantasy master Andrzej Sapkowski, a writer who has for some years now been a best seller in a number of European countries. Characteristically it is Gollancz who lead the way in ensuring that we don't lag too far behind. Hat's off the them, once again!
Geralt, the witcher from Rivia is stronger than mere mortals, with sorcerous powers at his command.
His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world... but not everything monstrous-looking is evil, and not everything fair is good and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth."
Given that the large proportion of our popular folklore has its origins in central Europe, it's odd that most of our contemporary fantasy nowadays seems to be produced exclusively by English speaking writers. With such fertile source material, I can't help feeling that I should be familiar with the works of far more European writers, but since I didn't pay the slightest attention in language classes at school, my own Anglo-centric ignorance means these works are not available to me. Given the glut of home grown fantasists, our UK and US publishers really have no need to look to other countries for potential money makers (let's remember that publishing is a commercial business over everything else) and so translations are rare - very rare in fact.
A treat then is in store for fantasy fans, for Gollancz (always the trailblazer) have released a translation of stories by Polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski, an author who has bestseller status in many countries on the continent as well as his own. His most famous works concerns Geralt the Witcher, an unusual superhero, part man, part mutant, who with a big sword in his hand, scours a middle ages type landscape searching out and 'dealing with' monsters and evils of all kinds. Something of what he hunts lies within this hero – he has unnatural strength and super fast reflexes and he's handy with a spell or two – in short, he's very much a 'spellsword' archetype straight out of role paying games – and therefore it is no surprise to learn that a computer game based on Sapkowski's character is due later this year from CD Projekt (the game's official website).
To stick to the literary rather than the digital Geralt – this collection of tales follows our hero through a series of adventures – amongst other things he tackles a bloodthirsty Striga (aka Stix) in a dank dark crypt, a rough lovelorn monster, an ancient curse and an attractive but treacherous witch. He also has to deal with his outcast status, with being a pariah amongst peasants and Lords alike. The stories themselves are concise and neatly plotted and were to me very reminiscent of Leiber's Lankmar tales (no bad comparison, that!) in which Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser got up to their own adventures. A similar and welcome vein of humour runs through Sapkowski's stories, but there is an additional and far more sophisticated element that is not present in Leiber's work - for Sapkowski adds morality to the mix. Geralt questions the rights and wrongs of his work and is well able to philosophise on its various and questionable aspects. There is, in one story, a notable treatise on how ironic it is that to be a successful Witcher is to be an unemployed one – for destroy all the monsters and there are none left to hunt. Another argument comments on how modernity itself robs the Witchers of their work, as it sweeps away traditional beliefs and reduces the value of myth and folklore with it's enlightened rationality.
The Last Wish is a very fine example of European fantasy can offer to our inward-looking marketplace – I hope fervently that it opens the doors for other continental genre writers.