The Witcher Reviews: Introduction

This post was updated in April 2020.

This blogpost serves as an introduction to my reviews of The Wicher books. It’s not a review of the series as a whole. Instead, it’s meant as a companion piece to my book reviews and an introduction to The Witcher series. 

I first published this post over two years ago. Since so many new readers are finding their way to this post, I felt it was time for a little polishing. In this update (April 2020), I’ve included a Table of Contents, given the text a facelift, updated old information, and add some new material.

Apart from answering a few questions, this text does not discuss the video games or the Netflix tv-series. 

You’ll find links to my reviews and other Witcher related posts at the end of this post.


Table of Contents

  1. The Books
  2. The Witcher World
  3. Reading order
  4. Things to Consider Before Reading – Is this a series for you?
  5. Style
  6. Editions
  7. Audio books
  8. Common Questions
    • Are the video games based on the books?
    • Will I be spoiled if I play the games first? 
    • Is Netflix The Witcher based on the books? 
  9. One Last Thing
  10. My Witcher Reviews
  11. My other posts about The Witcher World

THE BOOKS

The Witcher Saga is a fantasy series made up of several short stories and novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. 

It was written during the 1990s and translated to English from 2008 and onward. The series has won several awards both in Poland and internationally and is consistently given high ratings.  

According to the author, the story reached its conclusion with the end of “The Saga” (see below). Since then, he has revisited the world in one stand-alone novel. Rumor has it he’s working on a new one.

However, those rumors have been floating around for a few years now and nothing have been confirmed. So, if there’s any truth to the rumors, it probably won’t publish any time soon.

Regardless, Spakowski has been adamant that any new books released will be set during the already established timeline, or they’ll follow different characters; he’ll not continue the story beyond the events of the last novel in the series. 

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THE WITCHER WORLD

The story takes place on the Continent, a world heavily influenced by Eastern European and Scandinavian culture, geography, mythology, and folklore. 

It was initially inhabited by dwarfs, then came the elves; finally, it was colonized by humans. After a devastating war with the non-humans, they are now the dominant race.

The Continent is technologically and politically (European) medieval. But, like most fantasy worlds, it’s not entirely historically correct.

The world is vast, with many countries, cultures, and people of all colors. However, the story takes place in the Northern part of the Continent, a region comparable to real-life medieval Europe.

Politically there are many competing fractions. There are several kingdoms, all fighting for power. There are also religious sects and a powerful magic community who are major political players.

Fifteen-hundred years ago, a cataclysm called “The Conjunction of the Spheres” occurred in which several parallel universes collided. This lead to creatures, sentient beings, and monsters being forced from their native world and trapped in this one.

This is a complex world. It’s rich in history, culture, mythology, and folklore and the creatures that come with it. Basilisk, vampires, trolls, dryads, werewolves, all manner of creatures roam the Continent. However, in this world, they are part of a mythology that is entirely it’s own.

Witcher is a monster slayer for hire.

Taken as children, these boys (they’re always boys) are put though rigorous training, alchemical treatments, and genetic mutation to become skilled and powerful killers. 

Their genetic augmentations give them superhuman abilities, including increased strength, speed and reflexes, regenerative powers, a prolonged lifespan, resistance to disease, and some magic skills.

However, like most things in this world, power comes with a price. The training and treatments are arduous and dangerous, this leads to only a handful surviving to adulthood.

The Witchers, due to the abundance of monsters, are necessary and highly sought after, but regarded with mistrust and prejudice.

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READING ORDER

I strongly advise you to approach this series in its chronological order, which is as follows:

Short Story Collections

These two books will introduce you to the world, and it’s central characters. Because of their short-story format, as well as the out-of-order publishing of the English translation, they’re often inaccurately marketed as stand-alone prequels or “optional.” They’re neither.

These two books were written before the novels. Much of the world-building, mythology, origin stories, character relationships, and backstories are established in these short-stories. 

This is important! As a storyteller, Sapkowski does not backtrack. If a character is introduced, events explained, or relationships established in the short-stories, he will not remind you how, what, where, or when in the novels. 

The Witcher Saga

These five books are full-length novels that together form what is usually referred to as The Witcher Saga; they follow one cohesive story and need to be read in order.

Stand-alone novels 

  • Season of Storms

I don’t consider this book part of The Witcher Saga. It’s set during the timeline of the first two short story collections, but it’s entirely self-contained. 

It was written after the completion of The Witcher Saga. Therefore, it hints at, references and somewhat spoils the end of The Lady of the Lake, so read this one last.

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THINGS TO CONSIDER BEFORE READING

The Continent, although a fantasy world, is grounded in European medieval history; it’s countries, cultures, and geography are heavily influenced by the same. 

Even though the world is filled with magic, monsters, and fantastical creatures, the real conflict stems from human (and non-human) nature and all its flaws.

Geralt of Rivia, the hero, is a world-weary, jaded old cynic. He’s sarcastic, grumpy, rough around the edges, and although he has someone he genuinely loves, their romance is complicated, and Geralt often… interacts with other women.

Likewise, the other characters are deeply flawed. 

They make mistakes, betray friends out of self-interest, make some very questionable moral choices, and at times they’re pretty awful, which is the very reason they’re so likable, they’re people, not heroes.

This is not a simple world where things are black or white, good or bad, right or wrong; it’s gray, gritty, and filthy. War is bloody and soldiers rape, murder, and pillage. People get tortured, persecuted, and oppressed, and kings will order the execution of an entire village to make a point. 

Society is violent, feudal, profoundly unjust, racist, and misogynistic.

Only the elite can read, only the rich have a voice, and only women with influence have a choice.

There are many well-written female characters in these books, especially in the full-length novels. However, they’re not flawless people with unbelievable abilities and no unflattering traits. 

The women in these books can be just as ambitious, power-hungry, greedy, amoral, and repulsive as the men, and like for men, their actions have consequences. In a game of power, some will win, and some will lose; losing in this world is very unpleasant.

The characters are not diverse in color, but throughout the books, questions about racism, gender equality, and social injustice are not only prevalent but major themes. Sapkowski writes about all forms of discrimination and inequality with a sharp tongue and raw social realism.

In conclusion: if you like your fantasy more fantastical, diverse and shiny, and less eurocentric, gritty, and morally questionable, this is not a book series for you.

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STYLE

The Witcher books are highly character-driven stories. The plot is essential, but it’s slow-moving and not the main focus. The short story collections are told from Geralt’s point of view, but the novels follow multiple POVs.

There are a few major players, but it’s not uncommon for minor characters to suddenly get a few chapters worth of POV. They can also change unexpectedly with time-jumps happening between them. 

It’s also not uncommon for the story to suddenly shift to short interludes, where, for example, a university professor is giving a history lecture or to a speech given by a general preparing for battle. This is used to highlight significant events in the world that impact the story but isn’t part of the major character’s individual journeys. 

This type of expository writing will not appeal to all readers, but if you enjoy getting immersed in a world, it’s very effective.

The stories are filled with history, philosophy, and social commentary that are most often portrayed though lengthy conversations between characters. 

The writing is wordy, and there is a particular style to Spakowsky use of language that won’t suit everyone: he’s not the type of writer who scales back or trims his dialogue to make it concise and to-the-point.

These are complicated books. 

Sapkowski doesn’t coddle his readers. As a storyteller, he expects you to be interested and invested enough to pay attention. This is not a book series where you can skim-read every other page. 

Simply put, this series, especially the second half, can be a challenge even for the experienced reader. I love Sapkowskis writing, but it’s not for everyone. 

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EDITIONS

Unfortunately,  for readers outside of Eastern Europe where this series has had a cult following since the 90s’, there’s not much to choose from; you’re limited to paperback and a handful of versions.

I prefer the UK Gollancz editions simply because they don’t use imagery from the video games on the covers.

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The US version of these books is published by Orion Publishing Group (the parent company of Gollancz).

The newest paperback edition, with updated cover art and blurbs, is the same for both publishers. I quite like them, but I hate that stupid “Now on Netflix” sticker. It’s too bad because the cover design is actually quite cleaver.

Whatever editions you choose, they’re all priced at roughly 8$ (US).

Unfortunately, if you, like me, enjoy well-crafted hardback editions, you’re out of luck. The English translation of these books sorely lacks a nice collectors edition.

AUDIO BOOKS

The audio books are, as usual, a lot more pricey. I suggest you use a subscription service. I got mine though my Audible membership.

However, the narrator, Peter Kenney, is excellent! He effortlessly switches between several accents, voices, and the made-up languages in the book; he’s tremendously talented.

I say this as someone who’s a little bit in love with the voice of Doug Cockle who voiced Geralt in the video games. I never thought I’d take to someone else’s version of Geralt, but I enjoyed this one immensely.

One quick note for people who’s played the video games: they pronounce Dandelions name differently than in the games, initially it really bothered me, but after half a book I didn’t notice it anymore. 

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COMMON QUESTIONS

ARE THE VIDEO GAMES BASED ON THE BOOKS? 

The simplest way to explain the relationship between the books and the games is to view the game trilogy as a stand-alone sequel; a sequel written by a different author. 

The first Witcher game picks up years after the end of the last book. The story that then unfolds in the three games is a continuation of the story told in the books. But, it’s a story written by the people at CD Project Red, not Andrzej Sapkowski

It’s a fantastic story, based on the world, characters, and creatures of Sapkowski, but it’s not written by him. 

This is a very simplified explanation.  

The games are littered with storytelling and quests heavily inspired by events in the books, and dialogue taken directly from its pages. But, it’s not something you’ll notice if you’re unfamiliar with the books. 

WILL I BE SPOILED IF I PLAY THE GAMES FIRST?

Yes. If you start with the games, you’ll immediately have the ending of the book series spoiled. 

However, I played the games for many years before deciding to read the books, but I still felt deeply invested and emotional when I reached the end. 

Knowing how the story ends will not affect your enjoyment of the books. 

IS THE NETFLIX SHOW BASED ON THE BOOKS?

Yes. So far, the Netflix show has adapted stories from the first two short-story collections, The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny.  

It’s worth noting that the showrunners have cut-out and added a lot to these stories. So, personally, I wouldn’t call the Netflix show a faithful adaptation. 

However, I have views about the Netflix show. So, watch it and decide for yourselves. 

ONE LAST THING

It’s now December 31st 2019. I have finished my second read-through of this series and just posted my review of The Lady of the Lake, the final book in The Witcher Saga.

When I began my second read-through of the series, I was prepared to be a little more nit-picky than I was the first time. But, honestly, this series is even better the second time around.

Like many others before me, I found this series, and this world utterly compelling. It’s very complex, and not for everyone. But, if you like your fantasy worlds adult, realistic, sarcastic, and rough around the edges, it’s perfect.


REVIEWS

The Last Wish ~ Sword of DestinyBlood of Elves ~ Time of Contempt ~ Baptism of Fire ~ The Tower of the Swallow ~The Lady of the Lake ~ Season of Storms



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