One of my commonest complaints about fantasy novels is that the setting is warmed-over England. There is so much fantasy that uses vaguely-English feudalism as its model, that it’s possible for someone to grow up reading almost nothing but, and then to embark on a career of writing in the same genre without necessarily realizing that things can be different.
Enter the witcher, or at least Andrzej Sapkowski. As the copy on the back of the book tells us, “Geralt of Rivia is a witcher. A cunning sorcerer. A merciless assassin. … His sole purpose: to destroy the monsters that plague the world. But not everything monstrous-looking is evil, and not everything fair is good … and in every fairy tale there is a grain of truth.”
Geralt is a classic, pulpy fantasy hero: possessed of many heroic traits including strong magic and superhuman feats of arms, an outsider in his world’s society, righter of wrongs, seer of hidden schemes. He’s not without flaws, but he’s a Hero from central casting.
The Last Wish is a series of short stories, tied together by a framing narrative, in which Geralt is recovering from his adventures in a temple that serves as a haven from the outside world. The stories themselves are exactly what one would wish for when picking up a book whose cover features a sword-wielding man in armor running from the fire breathed by an immense dragon. The adventures are fast-paced, tense, and things are not always what they seem.
The background world is also recognizably Polish, if you know where to look: titles, such as castellan (I’m thinking there may even have been a starosta or two); a plethora of practically independent nobles; vast borderlands where most of the adventuring takes place. Plus more small differences that arise from originating in a different culture. Translator Danusia Stok has rendered Sapkowski faithfully into the English of fantasy adventure; I don’t recall stumbling over anything at all in her writing.
And one more thing: Sapkowski was 41 when communism collapsed in his country. There’s a sequence in “The Edge of the World” in which Geralt is talking with the leader of a band of elves – elves who once gained everything they needed from a land that gave to them willingly but who have been displaced by grasping, business-driven humans. Geralt urges the elves to find a way to compromise, a way to live in the new era. The world has changed, and the people from the old era can either change in a way that gives them new life or in a way that leads to extinction. Either way, the old era is gone, and carrying on unchanged is impossible. Sapkowski’s world changed around him; writing out of that experience is just one thing readers gain by entering a world that is more than just warmed-over England.