Friday, 12 January 2018

Book Review: The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

I am not a proper gamer, and have no familiarity with this story world previous to reading. As such, I didn't really know what to expect, except magic, swords, travelling, probably some gore and horror and a bit of nudity and rated language. It has all that stuff. It has some really excellent action sequences that are highly visual and genuinely engaging, very similar to how I imagine a game version of this story would appear. Right from the first striga battle, I could see Geralt in my mind, impressive and quick and cool, dodging and swiping and parrying, and I was impressed by the writing of those scenes, even if the character was maybe a little bit *too* cool, making him difficulty at times to connect with. But that's a forgivable trait of a story-driven narrative. This author writes action superbly.

I wasn't won over by it, but I respect the unusual narrative style, apparently a set of unconnected adventures (possibly time-ordered, but not necessarily) retold later to an audience of one silenced (and literally silent) character. Because this didn't really seem to build to anything, the book felt to be lacking in cohesion, and though the final recount in the set was arguably the most dramatic and most exciting, it involved characters introduced much too late in the book for me to feel invested in their outcomes. Geralt, too, is distant even to the reader, and I was never really that afraid for him. Evidently this is the first in a much larger series, opening up to a massive world built first by the author and then by the expanded media platforms that have taken it on, and I imagine a lot of this was set-up for the rest.

The benefit of the unrelated tales meant the story had a cool way of playing with traditional fairytales and turning them on their heads. I liked the "no one is really good, no one is really bad, and whatever you've heard is probably wrong" message that permeated the story. That was a strong theme to work with, and I appreciated that. I enjoyed the little spark I felt whenever I recognised a fairytale within the stories Geralt was told. "Oh! She's Snow White!" etc.

A complaint I would make of this book was info-dumping, which made the book read like an RPG at times. Stranger rolls into town, gets into brawl in pub, is brought before local lord guy, local lord guy sits and monologues about the town's whole history for pages on end. This works in games where the monologue comes up as text you can scroll through, but these are meant to be believable people. They seemed to need to tell whole narratives to explain "I made someone angry and I think they cursed me. Now I have this problem. Can you help?" It fumbled the pace of the story but also fumbled the characterisation, because no one talks like that, so it made it hard to 'hear' them in my head as I read.

The book also has a near-constant fixation with describing female characters according to their sexual attractiveness/availability/potential to the male characters, which after the third mention of rape and about the fiftieth offhand comment about hands up skirts, bums being pinched, girls giggling at crude jokes made at their expense, thighs on display and 'the curve of her breasts', started to really, really distract from the quality of the storytelling. I just don't need to know about every single woman's thighs to be able to picture PUB SCENE. I inferred the thighs. When twelve bad guys ride up and one is a woman, I don't need to know how low the cut of her shirt is or how her skirt hangs from her hips to know she's a chick. Where's the description of one hot bad guy's amazing arms, or the sexy scar across his bare strong shoulder? Women were sexual objects in almost every single description of them in this book, or, if they were not, it was ensured that their unattractiveness, weight or age was conveyed quickly as the reason why they were unworthy sexual conquests. Lovely. It was so prolific, and considering it did nothing to advance the story, I found myself thinking more about what kind of view this author must have of women than I was about the story, and then by the end I'd already decided I wouldn't be reading the rest of the series.

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