Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Geralt of Rivia is a witcher, a monster-hunter for hire. Once his order was large and powerful, but now it has fallen into decline with a similar decline in the number of monsters. People rarely encounter monsters any more in the south, so Geralt travels north, hoping to make a living killing monsters and keeping people safe.

The book is based around a framing story that begins with Geralt travelling to the Kingdom of Narakort, drawn by the King's request for a Witcher. King Foltest was a great King, until he fell in love with his sister, Adda, and started a relationship with her. He wanted to marry her, over his counselor's objections, but Adda became pregnant. and the council persuaded Foltest to wait. Unfortunately, Adda died in childbirth and was buried with her stillborn child. Seven years later, that child emerged from the tomb as a Striga, a vampire-like creature that hunted anything that moved, especially on the nights of the full moon.

Foltest tried to cure the child, who he called Adda as well, but those who came to try generally wanted to kill her, not cure her. Even a witcher came, but he fled before he could face her. Now Geralt means to try, for the 3000 oren reward. But he is warned off by not a few of the King's council, and a nobleman who fears the king will try to marry Adda when and if she is cured. They try to buy Geralt off, but he will not be bought, and one of the noblemen proves to be the one who laid the curse on the Princess that turned her into the Striga. Geralt uses him as the bait to draw her out and battles with her until she turns and runs. Then he must keep her from her crypt for the rest of the night, until the cock crows thrice, to cure her completely.

He does so, but emerges from the crypt too early, when her body is mostly human, but her soul and fingernails are still those of a Striga. She slashes his neck open, then collapses and becomes fully human. Geralt nearly dies, but recieves his reward, and travels to a temple of Melitele whose head is a friend of his, who re-opens the wound so it can heal properly. While he is in residence at the temple, the local ruler and a group called the Order of Fiery Rose, take exception to his being there and try to convince Nenneke, the head of the temple, to throw Geralt out.

As the confrontation slowly unfolds, Geralt tells Nenneke and others at the temple about some of the adventures he has had, both alone and with his friend Dandillion, the bard. The end of the framing story ends with a confrontation between Geralt and two Knights of the Order, in which he is ordered to fight one of them, but not touch the young man with his sword, because they want him to lose (although the fight is not to the death, but to first blood), so that the young man can feel important.

I really enjoyed this book, which is part of the collection of stories that led to the PC-game called "The Witcher". Geralt of Rivia is sarcastic and insolent, but has the skills and abilities that let him fight monsters and drink potions that would kill any normal human, but instead, increase his already-superhuman abilities.

He inhabits a world that is dark and gritty, where monsters have been pushed back by humans to the very northern fringes of the world. Monsters, including Elves and Dwarves, at least to the humans' eyes. Not only have the monsters been driven off, but the world itself is changing, from the earth to the very sunlight that falls on it. Some of the non-humans are trying to adapt to the new world, while others blame the humans and try to make war on them, hoping to stave off the inevitable change.

These stories are fantasies, but they will make you think and even feel sad. It's all rather low-fantasy, but the stories are compelling and extremely well-written. It's easy to see why Andrzej Sapkowski is the foremost fantasy writer in Poland. I am looking forward to reading the rest of his novels when they are translated into English.

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