The Last Wish

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrej Sapkowski is the first The Witcher item I have read. No, I have never played the game and no, I have never seen any video or show. So, this is basically my introduction to The Witcher. However, I also live in wild times with y’all and therefore I cannot say I was utterly blank when it came to this series and this character. How do I know about The Witcher? I could not say, except to suggest some sort of ambient knowledge that I absorbed unawares. This is a collection of stories that was first published in Polish in 1993.  In English, the first release was 2007.  I have had it on my TBR list since 2018.

I have reviewed about thirty novels on this blog this year, so far, and I think there are only a couple that I could call fun.  Lots of other adjectives could be used to describe all the other novels, including “entertaining,” “interesting,” and “engaging.” Some novels would get words on the other end of the spectrum. However, The Last Wish and maybe East of Desolation would get the word “fun” pinned to them.

I expected something along the lines of the usual sword and sorcery fantasy that we have all come to know and love.  I was not super excited to read the book, but I felt I could settle in with it being the third book of the week in the Appalachians.  Well, it was far better than I expected.

None of that farmboy becomes hero and everyone roots for the unlikely shining hero over the darkness that overfell the land stuff. This is grimdark-medieval themed and maybe just ever so slightly has hints of Eastern European influence, which makes sense and is a welcome change. It does not feel like so-called “appropriated” Slavic mythology (Cp. certain YA books) and these influences are only that – not burdensome heavy anvils to drag around. The writing is fresh and ribald and witty.  Read superficially, there is a lot of action and fun.  A little closer look shows there are some interesting concepts that the author is toying with. Concepts in ethics and religion, especially.

Many readers felt that the dialogue was not very good. I have no idea what they mean. Seriously, after reading some comments from other readers I was ready for some very stilted and awful writing.  Yet as I read along the one thought I kept having about the characters was that they are all very realistic.  They are neither, none of ’em, good or evil.  Their conversation and phrasing is true to how I hear people talk. Oh, I know most people think they are speaking in Old English at Buckingham Palace. I know most people feel like they are in the Ivory Tower and they are eloquently pontificating on the finer linguistic details of their chosen reading material.  But guess what – no, they are not.  The seeming inconsistencies in character show through in this novel not as inconsistent characters, but realistic personalities.  Characters are rarely good or evil.  Some of them are blatant with their status and some are more subtle. Mostly, everyone is in a mix of some good, some bad, trying to get through the day in a dog-eat-dog world. With the occasional monster.

Frankly, I found the stories in this book fresh, fun, interesting, and a good variety of creatures and characters. I loved several scenes in the book wherein characters strongly choose to be pragmatic, honest, exasperated, or stubborn. In one story when Geralt is talking with Nenneke, he starts having sharing things that in other books would be “personality insights” and “character development.”  But here, Nenneke shuts him down abruptly:

“Stop it,” she said sharply.  “Don’t cry on my shoulder. I’m not your mother, and I won’t be your confidante either. I don’t give a shit how she treated you and I care even less how you treated her. And I don’t intend to be a go-between or give these stupid jewels to her.” — pg. 270

In another story, a queen named Calanthe jousts with Geralt over supper. Their back and forth is witty, sarcastic, intelligent, but more than anything, it is realistic. It is not some weird stilted conversation had in some other books. This meandering, but sharp-edged conversation is fun to read. Particularly at a wild dinner party that is getting increasingly out of hand. Calanthe and Nenneke are just two of the female characters that seem to have no problem putting The Witcher in his place, so to speak. I would not call them weak or stereotypical female characters, either.  Among the comments at the table, Calanthe remarks:

“I’ve been told that witchers are an interesting caste, but I didn’t really believe it. Now I do. When hit, you give a note which shows you’re fashioned of pure steel, unlike these men molded from bird shit……” – pg. 166

Its realistic writing that is refreshing to read. I barked a laugh at the lines here and told myself I would have to include them in my review. Many times in the book, characters state something outlandish and another character just refuses to “follow them down the bunny trail” of ridiculous.  To use an example, no, it is not always special food demons that come from unfaithful kitchens – sometimes its just indigestion or overeating. That sort of thing.  It keeps a fantasy novel that is full of monsters and swordplay from viewing everything through the “its magical” lens.

I do not know what to say about Yennefer. I do not particularly like her, that is for sure. And the last wish…. hah, what a great writing ploy Sapkowski used on us! Bravo, well done. I guess it is all okay with me for Geralt and Yennefer to have crossing fates, because I know that Dandilion is on Geralt’s side and Dandilion is absolutely 100% awesomeness. He is a great character and I am very glad I met him and I am even more glad that he is Geralt’s buddy. Ack, who is not a bit jealous of such friendships?

The characters in this book are realistic because they do not fall into those neat categories that other fantasy novels rely on so very much. They are morally ambiguous or situationally ethical. They sometimes surprise and are also sometimes predictable.

“Stregobor,” said Geralt, “that’s the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off.  Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters.  In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at  banquet every minute, blue from poisoning.  I’m used to it.” — pg. 105

There is a somberness to the book as well. Both with the Yennefer scenario and the origin of Geralt as a child and then witcher. But also in the viewpoints sometimes expressed, which seem weary and worn. Some readers took offense at some of the ribald and wild moments in these stories. I find their comments ridiculous because in a land of monsters wherein everyone is fighting for power, magic, or might – acting shocked by these characters’ actions is silly. Characters are rough and they live in a rough world. As Geralt said above, that’s the way of the world. So, readers should not shun this book because “rough things” happen in it.

Anyway, of course I will read more The Witcher items. I think maybe this particular book will hang around in the collection awhile, as well. It surprised me because it was much better than expected.

4 stars

The Investigation

The InvestigationThe Investigation by Stanislaw Lem was first published (in Polish) in 1959. It was translated in this edition in 1976 by Adele Milch.  This is the second novel by Lem that I have read.  I do not think that this novel fits the standard idea of science fiction found in the new and shiny bookstores.  Honestly, I am okay with this. However, it does fit the idea of “science fiction” in a classic literal sense. This novel is fiction and the entire thing is about science – or, rather, scientific inquiry.

This is one of the most creepy and eerie books I’ve read.  I was reading this book late at night (after midnight) and I had to put it down and read a few pages of something else.  It doesn’t really have much gore or violence at all, but the thing is still eerie to the maximum! I do not find many truly “disturbing” books, most are shock-factor gore or comical horror. This is a science fiction novel that will make your skin crawl.  Now, I do want to include a small disclaimer:  you have to be an intelligent reader in order to experience the thrill.  If you do not have patience for a little bit of philosophy/psychology/statistics, well, you probably will experience something other than creepy-eerie.

A Scotland Yard lieutenant is charged to investigate the mysterious disappearance of corpses from London morgues. The only “explanation” is a statistical theory that correlates the body-snatching with local cancer rates. The detective from the very beginning suspects the statistician being the perpetrator. Reality, however, proves less mundane and certainly less comprehensible than he had hoped. In The Investigation the classic procedural police mystery is turned into a metaphysical puzzle, in which Kafkaesque themes are present. Philosophical questions are presented under the simple surface of the plot:  what is the role of scientific inquiry? What does the existence of competing explanations mean for that goal?

This novel will leave you with unanswered questions – if you do not like books that do not sew up perfect resolutions on every conflict/problem, then you probably will not like this novel.  To be fair, unlike a lot of novels that leave things unresolved just because the author thinks that is a fun literary technique, that’s not what Lem does in this novel.  The whole point of this novel is the concept of scientific inquiry, the boundaries of rational detective work, and the possibility of answers that are beyond the intellect.

Late in the novel, toward the end of chapter 6, the statistician named Sciss tells detective Gregory about a problem that resulted in Sciss losing the command of Operations.  The theory that Sciss shares is interesting  – and as frightening as the bodies moving from the morgues. I quote a part here, since it does not really have any gigantic bearing on the whole plot…………………………or does it?

“The nuclear race was just beginning.  Once the race starts it can’t stop. It has to go on. If one side invents a big gun, the other side retaliates with a bigger one.  The sequence concludes when there is a confrontation; that is, war.  In this situation, however, confrontation would mean the end of the world; therefore the race must be kept going. Once they begin to escalate their efforts, both sides are trapped in an arms race. There must be more and more improvements in weaponry, but after a certain point weapons reach their limit.  What can be improved next?  Brains.  The brains that issue the commands.  It isn’t possible to make the human brain perfect, so the only alternative is a transition to mechanization.  The next stage will be a fully automated headquarters equipped with electronic strategy machines.” –  pg 159, chapter 6

Definitely at least a four-star rating for this book. I guess an argument could be made to give it all five stars.  What I do know is that after having read this Lem book, I’ve read two by the author and really enjoyed both.  Lem is an excellent writer, a master of novels and ideas and originality.  Certainly, I want to read all the Lem stuff I can get my paws on.

4 stars