And so to the books but where to start? The Blood of Elves was supposed to be the start of the novels so I began there and…hang on, this isn’t the beginning – the characters are talking about Geralt and Yennefer and the things they’ve already done. Look again…ah, there are two books of short stories first. Now we’re talking.
The Last Wish
Temeria. King Foltest has a stryga situation. This is very familiar. Haha, he just said ‘whoa there, Roach’. Later Geralt arrives in a place called Blavakin and I know this isn’t going to end well. Here is the Cintra where Ciri is supposed to be a Princess. The stories are nicely contained and slightly unexpectedly from my experience of the games, particularly the first two, they are funny at times and not afraid of the odd cheeky cultural reference. There’s a line about not about not wanting to dispatch a troll because he does good work maintaining the bridge that could have almost been in place in Terry Pratchett. When I later revisited the games I realised some of this humour can be found but this is a journey and we’re not there yet.
Overall, the tone is much lighter than the grimdark I had expected having played the games. Being separated from Geralt’s leaden delivery helps in this regard. Book Geralt is world-weary and cynical it is true but he’s also more sardonic and generally animated. He also pontificates on the nature of things from time to time. In short, game Geralt isn’t nearly as good company.
I get to the Last Wish that is heavily referenced in the quest of the same name in Witcher 3. This is more or less the Yennefer we meet in the games. Spoilt, headstrong and manipulative, living in luxury and putting noses out of joint in every direction. As before, it’s a more light-hearted affair than is hinted at by the Witcher 3 and provides a satisfying set up for what is to come.
The Sword of Destiny
I later found out that Sword of Destiny wasn’t released in English for a long time. I wonder how followers of the books got on because it’s quite an important missing piece to remain unfilled. I’m glad I started reading them when this volume was available as it is vital to understanding the relationship Geralt has with the two most important women (for that matter people) in his life; Yennefer and Ciri.
I’m also glad Sword of Destiny was available to me from the beginning as it remains by far my favourite of all of Sapkowski’s works. It makes the tonal transition from the lightness of The Last Wish to the gloom that will follow. As an aside, I always have a fondness for the parts of a series that hit this sweet spot. Goblet of Fire and Mass Effect 2 also fit in this category but that is a matter for another blog.
Yennefer is back and on fine form and the dragon hunt is on. Witcher 2 references paying off here with the Crinfrid Reavers (in fact they are only in Witcher 2 to do this) and Yarpen Zigren. There’s also a GWENT card pay off and the conversations between Geralt and Yennefer in The Last Wish quest now make a lot more sense. The oft spoken of Zeugl also makes an appearance later on. In terms of the relationship between Geralt and Yennefer, if the games had been set between where they end up here and the next time they meet the Yennefer/Triss choice would have been more finely balanced.
The short form seems to suit Andrej Sapkowski. One thing he does very well is introduce characters and quickly make you care about them even if you will only know them for a short while. Sometimes it’s heart-breaking and I wonder why he did that to me. A life, like the Sword of Destiny, has two sides. There is the life of the person and there is the life that their effect on other people has. I understand now why he did that. Sometimes to understand someone you need to see how they act towards other people and how they suffer at their loss.
Sword of Destiny is mostly about the two women in Geralt’s life. For me, it is also where I started to like Dandelion. His humanity emerges from behind the facade of ridiculous hedonism. I find he is at his best when he is prepared to contradict Geralt and in these moments their unlikely partnership seems to make the most sense. Sometimes you need to see how people act towards others to understand them. Through Sword of Destiny and beyond you see the flashes of Geralt’s soft side. Not weakness but a fierce if somewhat begrudging loyalty to anyone or anything that falls under his care, even if he does call them ‘Roach’.
A point of view is like a camera. It can only focus on one thing at a time. In the world of The Witcher this often means that important things are happening out of sight. Sometimes this works, other times this is frustrating. We never get to see the Battle of Sodden. We get to stand on the hill and feel it’s aftermath. Names are mentioned that I’ve heard in the games. I think about the sorceresses who fought together there and wonder how Sapkowski would feel about how their fates play out in them. Is Sabrina Glevissig supposed to end up burnt on a wheel? It’s an idle question really. I get the impression that Sapkowski doesn’t give the storylines of the games too much thought.
I’m glad I didn’t start with the novels. The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny is where the main characters are properly established. From what I have gathered so far it also seems that the events of these books are set to feature heavily in the upcoming Netflix series. In essence, if you want to get to know Geralt, Yennefer and Dandelion; read the short stories. I think you could go from here into the games and need almost no explanation for who is who and why these things are happening. With one exception; Witcher 3 is in many ways Ciri’s story and her story is yet to be begun. To understand that properly I had to read the novels.
Photographer: Victoria Romanova aka Milligan Vick
Model: Galina Zhukovskaya