The Witcher, Books 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 Rothdas book review RSS
4.0 Stars

A delightful, clever, funny, bleak, and pleasantly rambling series of eastern-European fantasy novels. I initially heard about the Witcher books from a friend who loaned me the first novel in the series. So when it was time for me to move into my second (and hopefully last) house and I needed audio books I thought back to the series. The Witcher audio books served their purpose admirably, and added a touch of monster-hunting, destiny chasing flair to an otherwise boring house moving endeavor.

So, in more detail. The books start off as a series of one-offs, about investigating and occasionally killing different monsters. Many of the initial stories are based off of fairy tales, but add in more realistic and interesting twists. A characteristic tale would be his version of Beauty and the Beast, where a young man is cursed to beast-hood and lives in more-or-less isolation on his manor estate. Unlike the Disney tale though, the young man doesn't entirely mind. Before he was weak and nobbly; now he is mysterious and dangerous and robust, attractive to ladies and imposing to men. From there the story develops more, bringing in Beauty, the true nature of the curse, and other fun elements. So that is the standard Witcher formula: start with a fantasy cliche or anachronism, and then mesh it with a more realistic universe and continually embroider, twist, and complicate the result. It's not a bad pattern, and I generally like the result. From these initial one-off stories the Witcher gradually becomes more of a standard fantasy series, and mixes in longer term villains, plots, and threats. However, the author never fully commits to a linear plot or standard characters or story telling tropes. The PoV character will change frequently, and the titular Witcher becomes steadily less central as the books go on. The last book in the series is the most bold in this structure, and gradually takes the main river of the story and disperses it into dozen of different streams and deltas. In this way it reminded me of Hellboy, another series with a strong protagonist that could have become overbearing, and which gradually shifts the focus of the story to different and often lighter characters who serve to leaven the main character. So you gradually have more tales from the PoV of the Witcher's companions or former companions, from his enemies, from his neutrals, from his "child", from history books, from memories, from memoirs, from prophetic visions, from dreams, from dreams from different worlds, etc. One particularly neat part of this is that one of the main stories becomes the Witcher and his companions raising and training a kid. It's a bit like if the Fellowship of the Ring was bringing a teenager along, and each of the members had time to train and influence the kid. It's not something you usually see in the fantasy genre.

Hmm, what else can I say about these pages. The stories are a good deal more cynical than their typical Western counter parts. I've heard the Witcher series called the Polish LoTR, and that's kind of accurate. But where the LoTR was influenced by the author's victorious WWI experience, the Witcher's stories borrow a lot more from the Eastern European experience in WWI and WWII. Which was not good. So rather than sharp battle lines between orcs and humans and Rohan's Riders and whatever, the Witcher books are instead full of racial tensions between humans, elves, dwarves, halfings, etc, cooperation and pogroms, intelligence agents and purges, guerrillas and partisans, massacres, betrayals, ethnic cleansing and refugee caravans. At no point is a king or ruler ever depicted as just or honorable, instead they tend to be the most terrible monsters in the series. Another, somewhat brighter item I'd note were the mages, which I thought were consistently well done. Each mage is completely confident in themselves and their own frame of reference, and steadfastly refuses any encroachment on their world view or any interpretation of facts that could put them in the wrong. Later in the series there is a round table of 12 powerful mages, and their scenes together were always great. I would have loved to see more of that, just these really distinct and powerful personalities clashing and arguing.

So, the Witcher series. Come for the vampire hunting, stay for the unicorns, elf princes, and cocaine.