The Last Wish – No Witty Title, Read This Book

I tend to feel that books translated from other languages are generally amazing. I do not mean to imply that I believe  English writers are worse than authors writing in other languages. i simply feel that if a publisher/author feels justified in spending the enormous amount of money and effort to translate a book, it is usually because they know it is a great read and will sell to a larger audience. In this way, books that make it through the translation criteria are filtered to a pretty high quality of writing and are an easy way to cherry pick great reads. Personally I have yet to miss with a translated novel, which is why I am kicking myself for taking so long to pick up The Last Wish – a Polish novel by Andrzej Sapkowski.

The Last Wish is a stand alone novel that was originally published in 1993, and is one of the first few books that Sapkowski wrote featuring  the world of The Witcher. If any of you readers are gamers you will likely be familiar with the term “The Witcher,” as it is also the name of a gigantic and fantastic video game series of the same name. These books are the original material that was used as inspiration for the game series, and I am pretty sure anyone who reads the book can see why. Due to its ties to the game franchise, I wrote off all the wonderful things that people said about this book as coming from rabid fans of the game. While I try not to pump up books too much, I can definitively say that writing it off was a mistake.

So now that I have set your expectations high, let me do my best to justify them at least slightly. What is The Last Wish about? Well it is about a witcher named Gerelt of Rivia and his travels and stories. And what is a witcher? Well a witcher, other than someone with a really dumb sounding name, is one of the coolest and weirdest professions I have seen in fantasy. Witchers are like journeyman craftsmen similar to a smith or tailor, except their craft is death. See, the Witcher world is a classical fantasy setting and has no end to supernatural entities that tend to wreak havoc across the land. The Witchers are mutated warriors trained from birth to fight these monsters, but are very different from something like a hero, soldier, or mercenary. The fights that Witchers take up are very much a job to them, and they do not treat their work as a moral crusade. The Witchers mostly live in this giant grey zone between what is right and wrong in their line of work as what they do is mostly driven by what they are paid to do. This results in each Witcher developing some semblance of a personal code that rules what types of jobs they like to take.This morally ambiguous “grey zone” is furthered by the unsubtle and often used literary trope life lesson that sometimes humans are the real monsters. Many times the ghosts, ghouls, and vampires are simply trying to go about their super-natural lives when some farmer decides to try and have them killed to gain the land they inhabit. This is not a new trope in fantasy, but it is one that Sapkowski executed extremely well. In fact,  I have never seen it done better than in this book. It makes literally every choice Geralt has to make in his work important as there are never any truly obvious “correct” paths. Sapkowski does an incredible job building Geralt as a character as someone who is strong and dangerous, but mostly survives due to his patient nature and willingness to gather tons of evidence before making a choice. He is an interesting character with an incredible personality that reflects the tumultuous nature of his job.

The actual plot of The Last Wish follows two stories. In the first, Geralt in the present is recovering from a wound in a temple of healing and is trying to decide how to tackle a new and complicated problem. In the second, Geralt tells a series of mini stories as flashbacks that each demonstrate a lesson he learned about the world throughout his life. Each of the two stories alternates chapters and each of the flashbacks is a different small story while the present is one continuous one. In addition, the flashbacks are also all retelling of popular fairy tales such as snow white and beauty and the beast, something I usually do not enjoy. And yet, as I sit here writing this I have spent over an hour trying to decide which of the flashbacks I enjoyed most – and I can’t. In the end I simply enjoyed all of them too much to single out one.

What Sapkowski accomplished in this short novel is nothing short of incredible. I immediately purchased the first book in The Witcher Saga, a five book series that tells a longer story of Geralt’s life. The first three books have been translated so far and the last two are slated to be released in 2016 and 2017 and I have marked the dates on a calendar. I think it should be obvious by now, but I emphatically recommend The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski.

Rating: 10/10

Perspective – The Good, The Bad, And The Initiate Brother

I think that A Song of Ice and Fire has gotten a little too much credit as the best fantasy has to offer in recent years. That being said, it is a really good series. I do not really think anyone could argue against that. George R. R. Martin is an incredibly talented writer and that can be seen by the fact that on paper the plots of his books are incredibly boring, and reading them is anything but. GRRM has a myriad of skills that he uses to achieve this in his books, but one that is paramount is his mastery of perspective changing.

No one does perspective changes as well as GRRM. His perspectives both encompass a unique aspect of the story that is wholly separated from the others, yet also all come together to paint a larger complex picture. GRRM accomplishes this by making each character in his story into a different miniature book that all have great pacing. In this way, when you have a cliffhanger at the end of one chapter for Jon, you flow straight into the resolution of another for Arya. This is what creates the effect of never wanting to put the story down because there never feels like a good place to stop. By switching which character is in the spotlight, GRRM is able to maintain complete suspense at all times without ever tiring out the reader or running out of material to throw at them.

Then we have stories that use multiple perspectives to tell a single story. These books use shifting perspective but usually have one dominant character that the other point of views support. The positive of this technique is that you get to provide a lot of behind-the-scenes information that helps reader understand what is happening in the world, provide foreshadowing, and built tension for the main characters. The negative of this is that sometimes authors do not do an amazing job fleshing out all the perspectives and often some feel like incomplete characters only there to provide information for the protagonist. Often time authors are forced to keep the characters separate because it creates redundancies in the story telling. A notable example where this is not the case is Joe Abercrombie’s Half the World.

The brilliance of the dual perspective in Half the World is that the two main characters, Thorn and Brand, are telling the exact same story through different lens. What this does is add a lot of depth and grey space to an otherwise fairly one dimensional story. With multiple perspectives on the same event from two protagonists, a lot of thought and emotion is added to the story. By giving you this set of lens Abercrombie allows multiple takes on the same situations that are all equally right (or wrong depending on opinion), but still tell a full story. It is rare and impressive when you read a story that is both fulfilling and open to interpretation.

And then we have The Initiate Brother. The inspiration for this post is an interesting novel I recently read by Sean Russell called The Initiate Brother. The book is set in a fictional Asia-esque fantasy world that is well developed and beautifully realized. The story is a political drama that follows a newly crowned emperor, a rival noble family, and an initiate of an order of all powerful monks that seems special. The plot generally follows the noble family as they try to do what’s best for their country while their emperor tries to stab the noble family in the back due to paranoia. While all of this is happening, we also follow a young monk while he makes a myriad of discoveries about the world around him and his destiny.

The Initiate Brother is likely a favorite book of a lot of people in the world, and it definitely could have been a favorite of mine. The interesting setting, good plot, political intrigue, and deep culture would have made for a great read, if not for two very large problems I had. The first are the semi indistinguishable characters and the second is the almost random perspective changes. While the characters are actually fairly deep, there seems to be two of each character in the book. Each protagonist and side character have multiples that are a little too similar to tell apart. In addition, The Initiate Brother changes perspective with no warning in the middle of paragraphs, and sometimes even in the middle of sentences. Often times the perspective shift is made even harder to notice because several of the characters happen to be thinking the same thing like some sort of hive mind. Other times a miss in POV shift resulted in things like me thinking one female protagonist was homosexual for a while because I thought she kept thinking about how attractive the other women were. Unlike the previous two examples, this use of perspective not only doesn’t add anything to the story, it made reading into an uphill battle. Passages that could have easily have been in one voice, were instead in three, resulting in me having to reread the pages several times to understand what is going on.

Perspective is a very powerful tool that can add a lot to a book. However, I read for pleasure (as many who read fantasy do) and while I like deep thoughtful books, I do not enjoy feeling like I am at a job when I read a story. I have read other books by Sean Russell and found them very enjoyable, so it is with heavy heart that I must say that I do not recommend The Initiate Brother. I will have to go elsewhere to get my fill of enlightened monks.

Rating: The Initiate Brother – 4.0/10