Games based on books are not difficult to find. Quality games based on books… perhaps more so. Quality games based on good books? Well, you might have to dig a little deeper. Most of you were probably aware that the Witcher game series has drawn inspiration and characters from a book series, though perhaps not that many of you have read the books. Now it’s the perfect time to start, as a number of Witcher books have already been published in English over recent years. The first one to ever feature Geralt of Rivia, called THE SWORD OF DESTINY, came out in May 2015 in tandem with the hugely popular THE WITCHER 3: THE WILD HUNT, which won the Award for Most Anticipated Game during The Game Awards 2014.
THE SWORD OF DESTINY – first published in Poland in 1992 – is a collection of Geralt’s heroic and/or comic adventures. He’s joined by a host of characters familiar from the games, such as the sorceress Yennefer and the witcher-to-be-in-training, Ciri. In fact, that’s TSOD in a nutshell: Geralt navigating through complex relationships with the women and girls in his life while a few monsters get slain on the side.
The wonderful thing about books is that they often offer insights into the characters that games cannot always deliver, and TSOD is no exception. We’ll learn that Geralt is a complicated man. He’s horribly hung up on a borderline abusive woman, whom he has learned not to contradict or else they end up fighting, which wouldn’t be “the safest thing,” as he puts it, but whose quirks still keep him coming back for more. After all, Yennefer is happy to have sex even on a unicorn. Geralt also has a soft spot for the unruly “child surprise,” Ciri, whom he meets for the first time in a dryad forest. He may come off a gruff witcher who isn’t supposed to feel emotions, but Geralt fails to fool both his friends and the reader.
This is not to say the book is all feels over reals. For one, Sapkowski knows how to write fights, even though lots of Geralt’s skills wouldn’t necessarily translate to the real world. All that piroutteing in a real sword fight might just get him afflicted with a mild case of death, but in a fantasy setting you usually want to leave some room for willing suspense of disbelief. Sapkowki’s strengths as an author lie in humor and action. Unfortunately, when he veers towards more philosophical or literary writing, things get clunky. It’s difficult to hear Geralt say things like:
I’m travelling with you, Yen, because the harness of my sleigh got entangled, caught up in your runners. And a blizzard is all around me. And a frost. It’s cold.
Yeah, if you ever run out of monsters to kill, Geralt, don’t try to pursue the career of a bard. Sapkowski’s writing is a bit cringeworthy at times (don’t get me started on that sex scene), but it can be overlooked once you lose yourself in Geralt’s fight against not-so-mythical foes such as frighteners, ilyocorises, strigas, hirikkas, gryphons, zeugls, neocorises, taggirs, and kestrels – just not with a keyboard or a controller this time.
The first Witcher book is a quick read. It’s best consumed in Kindle format over a long commute, or binge-read after you’ve beaten the game and are left craving for more before the next installation. Or, if you don’t give a toss about the games, THE SWORD OF DESTINY is still a good pick for a fantasy fan. Sapkowski cleverly balances between serious and humorous, naive and world-weary, corny and down-to-earth, which makes his writing stand out. Much like the Witcher himself, the story boasts a serious face but can’t quite hide the twinkle in its eye.
THE SWORD OF DESTINY
By Andrzej Sapkowski
384 pp. Gollancz. Kindle, $13.53.