The dust jacket of this hardcover proclaims the author a European superstar. I’m not certain he would’ve achieved his super-stardom if he originally published in North America. I wasn’t terribly impressed by this book. It’s supposedly a novel, but in reality, it’s a collection of short stories united by the same protagonist, Geralt, the witcher. In a way, this book reminded me of Conan the Barbarian: by its unfriendly world and its unstoppable hero. Although I have to admit, Geralt is much more decent and better educated than Conan. More compassionate too.
In Sapkowski’s world, witchers are genetically modified mercenaries, killing monsters for hire. Kikimoras and kobolds, spriggans and vampires are Geralt’s usual targets. He rides through the land, encounters humans and mythical creatures, and nothing is as it seems in his universe. Even the familiar fairy tales, incorporated into the fabric of his stories, are more often then not turned upside down. The Beast doesn’t want his spell reversed. The Snow White isn’t as innocent as Disney assumed. As for noble knights – those are largely an endangered species. One could hardly find any in a year of traveling.
Racial tensions and petty schemes, tyrannical rulers and embittered sorcerers, marauding elves and cowing peasants populate the stories. Rudeness triumphs everywhere, and politeness is extinct. With rare exceptions, Geralt seems the only respectable human being on the pages, and he isn’t exactly human at that.
Such an approach – that only Geralt is a good guy – poisoned my enjoyment of the stories. He is a worthy hero, I don’t argue with that, but there are many other nice people around. Strangely, the author doesn’t seem to see them. He views most of his characters through dark, cynical glasses, and his protagonist follows suit.
The world building is intriguing. Despite its medieval trappings, it resembles our own, or rather an embroidered allegory of the current reality with a faint Slavic flavor. The monsters are vanishing, the climate is changing, money solves all problems, and the heroes are not in demand anymore. Soon, Geralt will find himself out of a job.
‘I’ll give you a couple of examples,’ said Geralt after a moment’s silence… ‘One day I ride up and what do I see? A bridge. And under that bridge sits a troll and demands every passerby pays him. Those who refuse have a leg injured, sometimes both. So I go to the alderman: “How much will you give me for that troll?” He’s amazed. “What are you talking about?” he asks. “Who will repair the bridge if the troll’s not there? He repairs it regularly with the sweat of his brow, solid work, first rate. It’s cheaper to pay his toll.”’
It should’ve been a humorous tirade, but Geralt is serious, lamenting his dwindling employment opportunities and reminiscing about the better old days like a grumpy grandpa.
Structurally, the book consists of two separate threads, alternating without connection. One thread is episodic – a series of Geralt’s adventures with a non-linear timeline. Each adventure – a confrontation with a monster, what led to it and its aftermath – happens sometime during Geralt’s life. There is no way of guessing the sequence of events.
Another thread is a succession of fragments, not really independent stories but snatches of the same story – a scene or two at a time, a conversation, a contemplation, a memory – taking place during Geralt’s single visit to a temple, to heal after being wounded. As an experienced fantasy reader, I wanted more of a connection between the parts, some kind of a core line holding the plot together, but it’s absent.
Definitely a must to all the fans of Conan, the Cimmerian barbarian, but for the rest of the fantasy readers, I’m not sure. Not a bad book but nothing outstanding either.