Blog – Posted on Wednesday, Dec 18
The Ultimate Guide to The Witcher Books
Many of us have been counting down the days to the release of Netflix’s new adaptation of The Witcher. It has every potential to be a smash success for the streaming platform, a binge-worthy successor for everyone disappointed by the ending of Game of Thrones.
But if you think The Witcher is just a hot, new TV series, think again! The origins of this story actually go all the way back to the 1980s, when Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski entered a short story called The Witcher into a contest run by the magazine Fantastyka. Placing third, that entry spawned a collection of short stories that then inspired the publication of a five-novel series, the Witcher Saga.
The Witcher focuses on Geralt of Rivia, a man with supernatural abilities that enable him to fight beasts and monsters. The novels primarily revolve around his goal to protect Ciri, a young princess of a recently conquered country, who’s been prophesied as having the power to change the world, but of course it’s also so much more than that. These are stories that hit hard — by turns sweeping you up in the adventure of slaying monsters, wringing you through the epic tragedy of war, and breaking your heart with the perfect redemption romance. All the while, they draw you through the world with characters who become the living, beating heart of the series. Through tragedy and carefully-placed humor, through epic battles and terrifying escapades, this series takes the shiny world of magic and shows you just how gritty it can really be.
Note: For anyone familiar with the popular video game adaptations, please bear in mind that the books follow a different storyline, and there are many changes in characterization and the use of magic and abilities.
Now, it’s true that there are only five books in the series, but with all the different short stories published at different times, and everything being translated and published in different orders in different languages, you might find yourself going: Okay, so what’s the best reading order?
Luckily for you we’ve done the homework already, so all you’ll need to do is dive in and enjoy!
The Last Wish (short stories)
While it may be tempting to jump straight into the novels, you should really start here. This short story collection contains the roots of the Witcher series, and will provide you with background information and character details that will be important once you get into the full-length books.
The Last Wish contains seven stories. The first one serves as a framing device, showing an injured Geralt seeking shelter in a temple; as such, it’s actually broken up into smaller sections and scattered between all the other stories. The remaining six are memories that he flashes back to while recuperating, each one with its own narrative arc. Together, they allow us to really get to know Geralt in all his complexity. The stories are clever, epic, and daring — perfectly setting the stage for the novels to come.
Sword of Destiny (short stories)
While the English edition of Sword of Destiny was published after the first few novels were released in English, the stories within actually take place before the events of the series. That’s why we’d recommend you pick up this one next.
Unlike the first collection, Sword of Destiny follows a much more straightforward timeline: we’re treated to six more amazing stories in roughly chronological order. Many of them provide context for major characters in the main Witcher Saga, including the introduction of Ciri. In fact, one of the stories serves as a direct prequel to Blood of Elves, showcasing events from shortly before that book begins. If you’re looking for a full picture of the Witcher storyline, this is a vital book to add to your list.
Blood of Elves
And now the series begins in earnest. Blood of Elves is set about a year after the downfall of Ciri’s kingdom. This tragedy sets off a hunt for the missing princess, with factions on all sides vying to get their hands on her. Unfortunately for them, young princess Ciri has fallen under the protection of one of the most famous witchers alive.
Taken to safety to learn how to hone her skills, the rambunctious and headstrong Ciri wants nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of Geralt, the man she admires so much. But as her powers grow, Geralt is compelled to mend bridges with his long-lost love, Yennefer of Vengerburg, for help. Yennefer’s skills as a witch are exactly what Ciri needs to hone the power she’s destined to wield — but as Yennefer and Ciri’s bond grows, so too does the evil that seeks Ciri out.
After the breakneck pace of the short story collections, some readers might find this book a bit of a slow start — but don’t let that fool you. There is plenty of adventure to be found in Ciri’s struggle to grow up, and in the subsequent books, the payoff for all this setup will absolutely be rewarded.
Time of Contempt
Time of Contempt picks up where Blood of Elves left off. Ciri and Yennefer set off for the city of Gors Velen. Yennefer hopes to enroll Ciri in a magical academy there — but of course, even the best-laid plans can go awry. Between an incident involving a Wyvern, Ciri’s own rebellious escapades, and a long-overdue reunion with Geralt, there’s more than enough for Yennefer to keep track of as she attempts to protect the wayward princess.
But the book is also much larger than that. Here, the pace of the series jumpstarts, as all the major plot threads in the rest of the series ignite. This huge book is a wild ride, with everything from spies and betrayals, to seductive sorceresses and unicorns, to the very real danger of a war erupting. It’s a story about vulnerability and control, about humility, about chaos breaking out across the world. The pacing leaves you breathless, unable to escape the need to find out what happens next.
Baptism of Fire
This is the midpoint of the series, and Geralt is certainly in the thick of things by now. In Baptism of Fire, war continues to rage on, and all sides are growing increasingly determined. In the aftermath of events from the previous book, Geralt is recovering from injuries — but how can a protector protect if he’s unable to fight?
Geralt’s determination drives much of this book, as he rallies and gathers allies in an effort to reach Ciri before the rumors of her impending marriage can come true. It’s a complex, nuanced book that explores what it means to be a “monster.” It tears old bonds apart as Ciri takes a turn down a darker path, and it throws Yennefer against terrible odds as she’s imprisoned and struggling to reunite with her family. The slow tension draws you along, never once allowing you to let your guard down.
The Tower of Swallows
Ciri returns to center stage in The Tower of Swallows. Everyone is hunting her, but she’s retreated into an anonymous life of banditry and killing... until fate intervenes, and her life is changed once again.
Much of Ciri’s recent story is told in recalled flashback, similar to the framing story of The Last Wish. Some of what she experiences at the hands of a chilling new villain may be difficult to read, but they’re important to understand the depths of her torment and the lengths she will later go to for exacting revenge.
Meanwhile, Yennefer and Geralt deal with situations on their own: she’s seeking out old allies in her quest to find Ciri, and he ends up seduced by someone he probably shouldn’t have allowed himself to fall for. The pacing here returns to the slower setup of a few of the previous novels, building for the payoff of the final book. But it’s still thoroughly engrossing, as Ciri processes her recent past and learns what she’ll need to in order to strike out at those who’ve caused her pain.
The Lady of the Lake
All good things must come to an end. For many authors, it’s a struggle to figure out how to write an ending to such an epic fantasy series, but Sapkowski is more than up to the task.
The Lady of the Lake finds Ciri trapped on an elven world, alone and cut off from the people she loves. But where others may fall into desperation, Ciri faces her challenge with the determination we’ve grown to expect from the former princess. Meanwhile, Geralt and Yennefer continue in their adventures as they search for the young woman they’ve grown to see as a daughter. Readers will ache to see if the “family” will ever be reunited and get the happy ending they so richly deserve.
We’re not going to say more for risk of spoiling the many surprises this concluding book takes. What we will say is that it’s loaded with cleverly plotted twists and turns, and features appearances by pretty much every character that’s been introduced so far. This book is a thrilling wrap-up to a beloved series.
Season of Storms (standalone)
Although Season of Storms was the last Witcher book to be published, it actually takes place after most of the stories in the first collection, but before the novels.
So why did we list it last? Simple: although the timeline is earlier, it ties directly into a major conflict that takes place in the previous five novels. Reading it beforehand will be less interesting without the context — and it spoils several moments from the other books.
For those who have read the rest of the series, however, this standalone prequel will be a welcome dip back into the world of The Witcher, as we follow Geralt on a quest to regain his lost signature weapons. A satisfying dessert to follow the incredibly rich meal that was the rest of the Witcher Saga.
Last, in addition to the Netflix series and video game franchise, The Witcher has also been adapted into graphic novels. A couple of times, in fact! And while the earlier series have not been translated to English, Dark Horse Comics started a Witcher series in 2014 based on the storyline from the video games.
Written by Paul Tobin, with art by Joe Querio, this comic series has covered four different story arcs so far. They’re currently available in a trade pub bind up (as well as a single-volume collection of the first three arcs), and make the perfect addition if you finish the books and find yourself wishing to spend just a little more time in the Witcher universe.
And there you have it — everything you need to know to dive into the rich and engrossing world of the Witcher Saga. Pick them up today, and you’ll be ready to laud your spoilery knowledge over all your friends as they wait for season two to drop on Netflix.
Image credits: Netflix