Blood of Elves is the “sequel” to The Last Wish, which is the first book in the series which spawned that most excellent computer game, The Witcher. It’s by a Polish writer called Andrzej Sapkowksi.

Unfortunately – and I knew this before I bought it because a Polish girl warned me but I forgot the warning – Gollancz sci-fi have done the dirty and released the English translation of the third book in the series without releasing the second. The inner sheet on the book even acts like Sapkowski has only written the two books, but he hasn’t, he’s written at least 3. I got several chapters in before I started thinking “there’s an awful lot of assumed knowledge here” but because the first book had a lot of unstated or implied information (see below!), for some time I assumed the “second” book was doing the same. Sadly, it wasn’t, and now I know everything that happened in the second book even though I don’t read Polish. This is a Bugger. However, the book is excellent so I shan’t stop.

The Last Wish is essentially a set of fractured fairy tales, fairy tales with a twist or revision to the original story. The central character is a Witcher who runs around the world protecting people from Monsters, which in many cases are the Monsters from the Fairy tale; but sometimes the humans involved are the real monsters. Often the Witcher drops into the fairy tale after the original story is over. But the book really doesn’t bash you over the head with its fairy tale element, so for most of it you just feel you’re reading a set of vaguely related short stories about a washed up Polish rock god with mutant genes[1]. I liked the character, I liked the world and I liked the stories, and I liked the subtle element of fairy tale revisionism built into them[2].

Blood of Elves is a much less literary effort, using a standard fantasy trilogy-style narrative structure, less special fairy tale references, and occasional shrek-style references to modern ideas. Geralt (the Witcher) is on a quest, it’s simple, it goes from beginning to end (so far). It’s also got more of that desperate sense of struggling against the darkness. However, it still has the key elements of the original – some very dry cynical wit[3], Geralt is the same, the sense of a world on the cusp of modernity but surrounded by magic and evil powers. It’s very fun to read, alternating between dry humour, satire, dark emotional depth and good old-fashioned fightin’ and lovin’. It also has a much better depiction of inter-racial conflict (between elves, dwarves, humans, etc) than many other fantasy stories, and the central conflict in the book seems to involve issues of racial harmony very strongly[4]. I do wonder if this part of the book reflects Polish cultural debate about Europe, though I don’t know enough about what’s going on in Poland and their attitudes towards Europe, history or modern race relations to be able to make a judgement.

This is part of what I enjoy about the Witcher, actually – there are hints of cultural references I don’t quite get that make the whole thing a tad more mysterious than it might otherwise be. But mostly I like it because it’s funny, dark and well written. I should probably advise waiting for the books to come out in the proper order but, hey! We all enjoyed the Firefly series despite this sort of philistinism on the part of its producers, so hey – go and read it! Screw the linear time thing! If you had to sit through distorted narrative structure in the whole of the first book, why stop now!?

[fn1] That’s just what he looks like – you’ve all played the game, you know what I mean!

[fn2]: My partner, who is really into fractured fairy tales and studied them at University, was not so impressed; she is a much better judge of literature than me and a much harsher critic. So maybe my opinion is best taken with a grain of salt. But you knew that.

[fn3]: of course when I lived in Australia I knew nothing about Poles; but since I came to London I’ve met and worked with many, and they do seem to have a wickedly dry and cynical humour in general, more fatalistic and biting than the British without some of the worst of the ascerbic rudeness that comes with British sarcasm.

[fn4]: I’m not entirely sure what the outcome of this discussion of racial harmony will be. I think it might be something like “we’re all fucked anyway, so can’t you just get over it?” but I’m reserving judgement.