The first in a series of rather remarkable fantasy books.
Somewhat unconventionally, the Witcher series of books, popularly considered to be one of Poland’s most beloved literary creations, starts with a collection of short stories. In them is the titular Witcher, a man named Geralt of Rivia, a monster-slayer for hire and a mutant with superhuman speed and perception. He roams the land killing monsters that threaten townsfolk. But no higher purpose guides him, even though his reputation precedes him. He just wants to live his life working his admittedly precarious trade, but somehow he always seems to get entangled in the affairs of greats.
The stories in this collection are engrossing, if somewhat unpolished reads. One can sense Sapkowski’s burgeoning literary flair emanate from the page, but held back by a series of flaws in pacing and narrative verisimilitude. They draw the world of the Witcher in bold but indistinct strokes. There is the fanciful, almost Harry Potter-esque magic one finds in more high-fantasy worlds, but also elements of incest, murder, racism and political intrigue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a George RR Martin novel. There are elves and dwarves and halflings, but they can be every bit as venal and violent as the humans. And there is science as well – this is a universe where the learned are au fait with the idea of genes and heredity, and that the stars are other suns. Just the admixture of these seemingly sub-genre-specific fantasy tropes is heady enough.
Geralt himself is quite an inspired character. He’s presented initially as a grim monster-killer, the cold and dour professional. But underneath the frightening exterior is a man who merely wants to live his life. Geralt’s no sensitive soul – he kills without hesitation when the need demands it. But he’s also guided by a set of moral codes, and prefers to err on the side of being neutral. He’s also possessed of a dryly acerbic wit and it’s often hilarious to read him putting down people who try to condescend to him because of his profession. And there’s something endearing about a man who calls all his horses Roach, and whose best friend is a philandering bard called Dandelion.
There are seven stories in this collection, in rough chronological order, and they take place within a larger chronology that has surprising repercussions throughout the entire series of books. There is a framing story that acts as an underlying structure to the other six stories. The opening story is The Witcher, a memorable story in which Geralt’s proclivity with dispatching monsters is established. A Grain of Truth is a kind of whimsical tale (reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast from the Beast’s perspective) that has an unfortunately somewhat trite and rushed ending. The Lesser Evil explains how Geralt got the (somewhat undeserved) moniker of the Butcher of Blaviken. This is a pretty dark story, but good, and highlights one of the overriding themes of the book: that not choosing is itself a choice, and no matter how Geralt wishes to absolve himself of responsibility in determining the fates of others, he is invariably drawn in. He cannot escape the inevitability of choosing sides in the moral conflicts into which he keeps stumbling. And when he does choose, evil results nevertheless.
But it is the last three stories that set the stage for the events of the saga, introducing such characters as Dandelion and Yennefer, Geralt’s love interest. Unfortunately, the two stories that do introduce those two characters are perhaps the weakest of the book, with pacing issues and muddled narratives (although the banter between Geralt and Dandelion is Top Quality). But then there is A Matter of Price, perhaps the most important story in the collection because it is the fount from which the entire saga springs, setting the stage for the birth of Ciri, a very important character later on, and Geralt’s emotional center. At the time of writing, I’m in the middle of Time of Contempt, and that novel references and clarifies ambiguities and oblique statements in that short story. It’s clear that Sapkowski is playing a long game. It’s also probably the best story in terms of pacing, narrative flow and dialogue, and there are wry and ironic references to real-world fairy tales. Geralt’s impertinent wit is also at full strength here, and the plot resembles nothing so much like a Shakespearean comedy where everyone gets married at the end after some light shenanigans. But it foreshadows a darker and much more portentous story ahead, and that is the brilliance of this story.
If this collection of short stories has one debilitating flaw, however, it’s that Geralt, while well-rounded in most respects, is a bit like the protagonist of a Japanese harem anime. Women in the book seem to want to throw themselves at him without much persuasion on his part. It’s a bit adolescent and also slightly sexist. The irony of Sapkowski is that he can create very compelling characters of any gender or race, but when it comes to sex, they all act like mindless rabbits in heat.
When all’s said and done, however, and you ignore the more sophomoric bits, this is a fantasy book with surprising depth and humor, that mines fairy tale and high fantasy for its monsters and cultures, but somehow feels fresh and innovative.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 silver swords