Monday, August 24, 2009

Ex Libris: Andrezj Sapkowski's The Last Wish

A funny thing happened on the way to this book review...

If there's one thing I hate, it's missing out on a particular book I'm reading. It could be because I'm not up to reading the said book because I'm distracted, I have a headache or I'm sleepy, or I'm really not feeling it. It could also be because I don't have the intellectual or emotional capacity to understand the book at the time. Whatever the situation, I feel like I'm doing the book a disservice if I can't fully appreciate it, warts and all.

In the case of Andrezj Sapkowski's The Last Wish (The Witcher), I almost dropped this Polish fantasy bestseller because I missed out on a very small, yet very important detail. In this case, this collection of short stories- had a framing story that was running alternately with the other stories. Unfortunately, because I missed out the titling of the framing story, I usually ended up lost whenever it was on. End result: I dumped it after a third of the book.

Fortunately, I was going to do a book review and I figured I'd review this particular book, especially in the light of Sapkowski winning the first David Gemmell Award. A glance at the Wikipedia page and-- bada-bing!-- I was back on the saddle again reading the book.

So enough about me: what about the book?

Well, I can see why this series of books is popular in the European markets-- as well as given the go-ahead to be published in the US market. Sapkowski's main protagonist, Geralt is a witcher, a monster-hunter for pay in this pseudo-central European Dark Ages fantasy-setting. Unfortunately, the witchers have been a little too successful and now Geralt is having a harder and harder time finding monsters to hunt. What's a killer to do?

In this case, this book is a mosaic novel collecting a number of short stories involving Geralt. These range from the framing story ("The Voice of Reason") to the short stories themselves ("The Witcher", "A Grain of Truth", "The Lesser Evil", "A Question of Price", "The Edge of the World" and "The Last Wish"). If I were to characterize all the stories, I would say these were Sapkowski's renditions of well-known fairy-tale touching on ideas of appearances, i.e. Who are the real monsters? Are the monsters those that haunt the night or the ones that bear human faces?

For example, in "A Grain of Truth", Geralt encounters a beast named Nivellen whose tale bears a strong resemblance to the fairy-tale "Beauty and the Beast". However, unlike that age-old fairy tale, Nivellen gets a lot of human women willing to look past his appearance because of his wealth. But in the end, Nivellen is granted a wish by a 'real' monster out of love for him.

As can be seen in the aforementioned example, Geralt's stories also touch a lot on the theme of redemption, whether for the monsters or for Geralt himself. In fact, the witcher character is reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's pale eldritch king, Elric of Melnibone, but older and wiser as he searches for something that would affirm his own humanity. This is because Geralt has a reputation of being a cold-blooded killer and it's quite well-deserved.

(However, that doesn't mean that he's just a dumb sword-swinger. Like any character in this bloody post-Tolkienian fantasy age, Geralt has seen the grimy, gritty side of the human race and he isn't surprised at what low-down, dirty tricks they can pull.)

All in all, this is a surprisingly good read for those who like a little more verve and cleverness to their fantasy reading material. And this book likewise gets more points in my esteem for coming from the non-UK/US European market. Highly-recommended. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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