Book Review: The Last Wish

I’ve been reading a lot of Sword & Sorcery books recently, both classic and (relatively) new, and I now got around to finish The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Spoiler for the end of this review: Oh boy, am I happy!

The Last Wish was released in Polish in 1993 and contains stories written both before and after the release of Miecz Przeznaczenia (no English translation) the previous year. The stories also take place earlier, which makes The Last Wish both the second and also first book in the series, depending on how you want to count it. The book consists of seven stories of Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter from an old but fading orders of warriors who have acquired special powers through magic and alchemy. Six of the stories are conventional narratives with a beginning, middle, and end in the correct order, while with the seventh Sapkowski did something rather unconventional and quite clever. The Voice of Reason is about as long as all the other stories in the books, but split into seven different parts, between which the other six stories are inserted as flashbacks. It’s not like Geralt sitting down and telling another character a tale from his past, but instead we cut to those other stories so that Sapkowski can give us the necessary background info we need to understand the context of the next scene in The Voice of Reason. May sound strange, but in practice it flows very smoothly and works perfectly well.

Even though the book is kind of an anthology, I am not going to go into detail about each story individually, as they are all by the same author about the same character and they do form a single coherent, if very loosely connected work. In my previous Sword & Sorcery reviews there were always two things that really had me disappointed in a story: Lack of evocative descriptions and lack of thrilling action. While the former is mostly a personal preference, action, passion, and thrill is what I consider the most fundamental essence of Sword & Sorcery. You can change and experiment with all the common archetypes and conventions, but if there is no passion and fury, a story will always just be Heroic Fantasy. The Witcher has all the hallmarks of a Sword & Sorcery hero: An outsider who uses descisive action for selfish gains. And at least in the first two books, the tales of Geralt use the classic short story format as well. (The other six books don’t.) So I gave The Last Wish a try, hoping to find something for my Sword & Sorcery craving. And does it deliver?

Oh yes, and how!

Many descriptions of him make Geralt sound like a gloomy anti-hero, but in practice he is at least as good and compassionate as Conan. I would argue even considerably more so. In Geralts case it’s not that he doesn’t like other people, but simply that most people don’t like him for what he is. In the world of the Northern Kingdoms, which seems to be inspired by 17th century central-eastern Europe, the few witchers that are still around are clearly categorized as nonhumans, bunched together with elves, dwarves, and more monstrous creatures. And given the extensive modifications they underwent when they were recruited as children, that assesment is not completely unfounded. In addition to being much tougher and with a much higher resistance to poison and disease, the ability to see in the dark, limited spellcasting powers, infertility, and other unnatural traits clearly sets them apart from other people. And being basically a mercenary who show up wherever people are terrorized by monsters doesn’t exactly endear him to most normal folk. He never works for free, but that often seems to be more because he can’t allow getting a reputation to help everyone out of charity than being greedy or uncaring, and he is willing to negotiate for prices that his employers can afford. He is also very strict about only fighting monsters for pay and not doing any work as a mercenary or killer for hire. And while he likes being grumpy and sarcastic, he can actually be very diplomatic and reserves his contept for people who are calling for it. Even though Geralt is a lone wanderer who deals with peoples monster problems, he is quite different from characters like Conan, Fafhrd, or the Gray Mouser, in that he doesn’t revel in brawling and carnage. (Though he does admit to himself that his job not only pays reasonably well, but he also really likes doing it.)

Geralt is a person who is both very strong and good with swords and can shrug off considerable punishment, but he is also someone who doesn’t get into fights lightly. One problem with many Sword & Sorcery heroes is that they are almost invicible to the point where normal people don’t pose any possible thread to them and only main villains and boss monsters have any hope to injure them. Not only do I consider that weak storytelling, but it also trivializes death and glorifies violence. Now I love me some really cool action and furious battles, but I want both writers and characters to take fights with sharp weapons to the death serious and aknowledge that people are dying and mutilated. All to often, action fiction takes lethal violence as a joke. The Witcher is different. To Geralt, killing his enemy is a means of last resort, when everything else has failed. To him, violence does not solve a problem, it just ends a conflict by taking one side out of the picture while the real source of the problem doesn’t get adressed at all. The story The Lesser Evil is the most explicit about it, of the eight monster Geralt is dealing in the book, he kills only two. He also kills eight humans, of which six gang up on him at the same time and it can be counted as self defense. That’s really not a lot. Many fantasy heroes rack up higher body counts in a single scene.

Though that doesn’t mean that there are few fight scenes and lots of people end up getting hurt quite badly. In fact, The Voice of Reason takes place in a monastery where Geralt is staying while the wounds from his last adventure are healing. The book also has one of the most brutal and violent fight scenes I’ve read in a book. The fight itself is very short and ends with a headbutt to the face. But where most books would simply have the enemy knocked out cold and immediately forgotten, the rest of the scene brings up at several times that the woman got really badly hurt and while the leader continues interrogating Geralt, the rest of the group are busy tending to her smashed face while she is held to the ground in huge pain. At the meantime, some of the other characters are getting increasingly terrified by the situation escalting more and more. That’s the type of things I meant earlier, when I was talking about treating violence serious and not trivialzing it.

In fact, I think Sapkowski was quite ahead of his time, though probably it was also a major factor that the book was released in Poland in the early 90s, less than four years after the Poles had set into motion the mostly nonviolent collapse of the Soviet Union and its vassal states. He certainly had a quite different background and approach to writing than someone who had been watching endless Hollywood movies all his life. The major themes of the book are minorities, violence and nonviolence, accountability, terrorism, and state violence. You’d have no problem telling someone the book was written in 2013. But even 20 years earlier there were already people who felt like they had something relevant to say about them.

Another, minor thing I just love about the book, which makes it so much stand apart from American fiction, is the generous swearing. This is one of the most annoying things about American entertainment, this silly panicing about some casual swearing. Fuck that shit! ^^ The Witcher is about a badass dealing with lots of terrible people of both high and low station, and those people don’t threaten each other with death and torture in a child friendly language. And it’s really quite surprising how much character it adds to the people.

One more thing I feel like mentioning is how well picked the names for each of the stories are. They do sound rather poetic, but most of the time they are actually quite significant to the plot and often get mentioned word by word. However, it’s only during the later parts of the stories that the meaning really starts to make sense. Most books and stories have titles that are pretty much meaningless, describing either just a thing that appears in the story at some point, or being some banal and generic phrase. With this book it’s different. I recommend reading the stories while always keeping the title in the back of the head and occasionally pausing to think what meaning a scene might have in regard of the title.

  • The Voice of Reason: This story turns out to have many scenes in which a character tries to convince another to do a certain thing or another, because that would be the reasonable thing to do, and not causing themself unecessary trouble out of pride. However, many of the various character have rather different oppinions what would be reasonable, and quite often the appeal to reason starts drifting into bullying someone into compliance.
  • The Witcher: I believe this was the first story ever, and there is no deeper meaning to the title, other than it introducing the character.
  • A Grain of Truth: Things are not as they seem and often more complex than at first look, especially when it comes to thinking monsters. There’s quite a lot of half-truths and selective ommisions in this story.
  • The Lesser Evil: I really liked this one. As Geralt sees it, there are no lesser evil. Evil is evil, no matter how you want to rationalize it. But like the voice of reason, the lesser evil can be a matter of perspective, as well as a method to veil a threat.
  • A Matter of Price: Again, Geralt is resisting being forced to compromise on his principles. It first seems someone wants to hire him as an assassin, but things turn out more complicated.
  • The Edge of the World: I think the English translation of the title, while catchy, does not really capture the finer nuances of the original name. Looking at some online dictionaries, Kraniec doesn’t seem to mean “edge”, “border”, or “end”, but more like “periphery”, “outskirts”, or “extreme”. The story deals both with a place that is very far away and removed from the big centers of civilization, as well as the people who live there. Both literally and figuratively.
  • The Last Wish: I can’t say much without giving away some funny twists in the story, but this most probably isn’t anything like what you first think at the title at all.

I think it comes not as much of a surprise that I really love this book. This is pretty much exactly the kind of fiction I’ve been looking for in my search for modern Sword & Sorcery. I am dabbling myself in some early attempts to get words on paper, and the stories that inspire me the most are from Ghost in the Shell, Mass Effect, and Metal Gear Solid, which ironically are all science fiction and not fantasy at all. But they are all dealing with themes that I think would also work really well in a world of magic and monsters (and the technology in all three work a lot in the same way) and which I think could add some new relevance to Sword & Sorcery other than masculinity, courage, and honor. (I don’t consider Robert Howard a dumb macho writer in any way, but he wrote Conan four generations ago in a world and society that was dealing with things very different from the issues of today.) Geralt is a character who adresses exactly the same things that matter to me and does so successfully in a fantasy world. I also think that Sapkowski is really quite a step up from the common fantasy author. Not only has he something to say and important things to say, his style of storytelling is also quite sophisticated. As a reader, I really don’t have a high standard when it comes to the writing style of authors. If the plot is solid and the sentences allow me to keep up with what is going on and I don’t have to cringe at weirdly constructed sentences, I am perfectly happy. But in The Last Wish, Sapkowski is doing a lot more than simply telling us what happens. I mentioned the structure of the book with the six stories being put as flashbacks between the parts of The Voice of Reason and how the title of each story sets the overarching theme for the story and considering its meaning is part of the reading experience. I also remember when reading The Witcher, that I was very impressed how much personalty the characters had simply from the way they are speaking. At some points I did take notice that certain scenes were slightly drifting into socratic dialog, where two people arguing really is a vehicle to present a philosophical argument. But even though I noticed it, it did’t become annoying, because the characters were discussing genuinly interesting points. This book isn’t your average B-List fantasy novel to rush through and then pick up something else. I really recommend reading it to anyone, especially since it’s just a single book and not a particularly long one, so it’s not a huge investment if the subject and genre doesn’t normally interest you.

Book Review: Stealer of Flesh

Stealer of Flesh is a… well, I am not exactly sure what it is. It’s not quite a novel, nor quite a series of short stories, but something inbetween. Written by William King in 2011, Stealer of Flesh tells the first major adventure of Kormak, a Guardian of the Order of the Dawn who hunts the ancient creatures of the night. It consists of four stories that are very closely linked together but each have their own distinct character and take place in four very different locations. Calling them “episodes” feels very appropriate to me.

The story follows Kormaks hunt of a demon from the ancient past, who has returned to haunt the world, but is yet too weak to face a seasoned hunter of monsters and spirits all by himself. Several times does Kormak come face to face with the demon, but each time it manages to escape from him, keeping the hunt going for what seems like several weeks, though three of the stories all seem to take place within a single day.

King obviously is writing to capture the classic spirit of Sword & Sorcery. The stories are full with mentions of the Elder Sign and Old Ones, there is black lotus and Kormaks homeland is distant Aquilea, which surly doesn’t sound almost exactly like Aquilonia by coincidence. And to disperse any remaining uncertainty, King explicitly lists Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, and Smith as the people who inspired him in his introduction. You couldn’t make a stronger commitment to the genre than this. Which is why I think it entirely appropriate to not only judge Stealer of Flesh on its own merrits, but also on how well it manages to capture the spirit of the genre.

Unlike many other genres, Sword & Sorcery has pretty clear boundaries on which most people who use the term generally tend to agree. Joseph McCullough identified three defining elements of a Sword & Sorcery story, on which I completely agree with him: They protagonists “are self-motivated, outsiders, of heroic stature.” Kormak fits all those three criteria pretty well. He is a big warrior with great strength and a magic sword and possesses extraordinary skill as a swordsman. He also travels the lands very far from his home all by himself, seemingly without any companions or other attachments, and people regard him both with awe and uneasiness. His quest to search for evil creatures that prey on innocent people may seem very selfless at first, but once you have spend some time with the character it becomes increasingly obvious that it is not compassion that drives him. “It is what I do.” is all the answer he will give to those who ask, and not only is he frequently called out on that, he also is perfectly aware that it is a very flimsy justification for his quest himself. But while I agree that these things are fundamentally parts that make Sword & Sorcery tick, they are not the full essence just by themselves. They are the How, but not the Why. When Fritz Leiber originally coined the term, I think he was spot on: The Sword and the Sorcery are two strong symbols for nefarious magic and eldritch creatures, and for thrilling action and passion about larger than life heroes. King is certainly delivering in the Sorcery department and there is a quite unique and interesting background to his monsters. But where Stealer of Flesh is unfortunately lacking is in the regard of Swords. Kormak is not a character in the tradition of Conan and Bran Mac Morn, of Fafhrd or even the Gray Mouser. He is not a character of strong emotions, and to be frank, of any emotion at all really. Many of the fight scenes are very short with not much interesting happening, and when you look back at the whole story and are honest, Kormak as a character is rather dull. There is neither fury nor joy, no excitement, anger, or grief. At some point there seems to be some glimmer of hurt pride, but that is it. However, many of the secondary characters don’t suffer from that flaw at all and King seems to be quite capable at writing emotions. It’s just Kormak with his stoic indifference to everything, who doesn’t really work as a character.

After having finished the book, I just can’t shake the feeling that King both knows Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher stories and also took them as a major inspiration for Kormak. The similarities between Kormak and Geralt are too striking to be mere coincidences. Kormak is a warrior of an ancient but dying order of monster hunters, who is a master swordsman who carries a special monster-slaying sword on his back, special amulets with the Elder Sign around his neck, and has been trained in special techniques to defend against magic. And his stoic calm and bleak oppinion of his profession also match Geralt perfectly. In the 70s we got a small horde of Conan-Clones, here we are obviously having a Geralt-Clone. The difference between Geralt and Kormak is that Sapkowski makes it work, while King ends up with a character who is a lot more dull and gloomy rather than badass.

While the lack of action and passion are the main flaws of Stealer of Flesh, the writing is otherwise mostly quite good. King manages to be genuinely witty in many of the dialogues and brings up several quite interesting thoughts throughout the story. The one that struck me the most is how Kormak is thinking at two or three points how strange it is that he is hunting creatures that are older than the mountains and could continue to keep on living for much more than that, because they are killing people who would die after just a few decades anyway. It doesn’t cause Kormak any doubts about what he is doing, but it’s an interesting thing to think of anyway. And there is a good share of similar moments like that in the book.

While King tries to hide it in dialogues, he’s still guilty of doing obvious infodumps. Three characters musing about the philosophical implications of things they all know can be interesting, but in this case it ends up mostly being statements of basic facts about the history of the world and its magical creatures, with the occasional “yes, it’s quite sad” thrown in to make it seem like the characters are actually involved in some kind of discussion or debate. This could have been handled a lot better. At other times, the dialogues become a bit repetitive, bringing up the same arguments and observations we already discussed one or two scenes before. In some cases I had the feeling that these were oversights rather than intentional, and that these parts could easily have been improved with some editor input. Perhaps the weirdest parts of Kings writing are the sex scenes. King either doesn’t want to, or isn’t capable of writing sex scenes, which usually wouldn’t be anything objectionable at all. Yet it seems like he feels that there must be some sex scenes in a story like this, and the result is just strange. Quite often, it all happens within just two sentences. One sentence flirting, one sentence kissing, and then it’s straight to the next scene on the next morning. Generally there isn’t any buildup at all, and the first time it happens the woman just drops her dress in the middle of a conversation and Kormak immediately guides her towards the bed, out of complete nowhere. I am quite happy with keeping out unneccessarily long sex scenes as they are frequently popping up in movies that are about something entirely different. But if you do it like this, why bother in the first place. Conan and Geralt pick of lots of women on their adventures, but that’s part of their character. With Kormak it just seems completely random.

It’s not all bad, though. Yes, Kormak is a bit dull as a character and the story tends to be a bit gloomy and lacking action at many times. Now the only Moorcock story I’ve read is Red Perls, and I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of him based on that. But what reading Stealer of Flesh most reminded me of was this story. Yes, that’s right: I am comparing William Kings writing to that of Michael Moorcock. What writer of Sword & Sorcery wouldn’t be happy about that? Another thing I do quite enjoy about Stealer of Flesh is the format. It was written to be published as an ebook, which means King had no required length for the story, so that it looks like a full sized novels when standing in a bookstore. At about 60,000 words, it would be very short for a novel, but also far longer than any short story. It’s a relatively long adventure, but packaged into four individual stories that are each quite densly written. I think the 15,000 to 25,000 word length is excelent for adventure stories but with the change from magazines to books from the 40s to the 60s, this is a format that has become pretty much lost to us. You can write very great stories that way, but there just wasn’t any good way to get them into stores for a very long time. With digital publishing, writers can write their stories as long as they need to be, with no arbitrary numbers of pages to be filled to meet certain standards in the printing industry. I am always happy to see more fantasy written on this scale, and since it’s much easier to get into that a trilogy of novels, I hope to be seeing a lot more new writers in the future, who bring some new ideas that publishers would not consider profitable to print. (Also, the book is simply called Stealer of Flesh, and not The Stealer of Flesh. I think that is a lot cooler.)

With all that being said, in the end it does not come down to a percentage or a number of stars, but to a simple Aye or Nay? Was it worth to read this book or was it a waste of time?

Aye, I say!

Reading Sword & Sorcery, particularly modern one, has not always been a pleasure. While I was reading Swords & Dark Magic and Sword & Mythos, there were plenty of moments where I just groaned and really felt like getting a big red pen and marking all the terrible writing mistakes. Those two books were ordeals, and even reading Fritz Leiber I was making a lot of faces the whole time. The worst I had with Stealer of Flesh were occasional small sighs when a dialog was starting to repeat some of the arguments that had already been a page before. Stealer of Flesh is a story with its fair share of dents, but from what I’ve been able to tell completely free of any cracks or holes. While this may not be the most glowing of verdicts, I still recommend to any fan of Sword & Sorcery to give it a look. Especially because King has put it up on his website for free. (As well as Guardian of the Dawn, the first appearance of Kormak.)