You may have noticed the internet is all in a tizzy over that Witcher 3 thing. Even Conan O'Brien got in on the action, being the most informative game critic out there today. He says it's good because he had sex on a unicorn.
But for those of us who already regularly have sex on unicorns, the Witcher games have been pretty lackluster. Convoluted controls, overlong cutscenes - masquerading as "gameplay" with some dialogue options for the same taciturn frowney-face protagonist - and run times that rival Dragon Age for "Get on with it." Put simply, these games are shit for everyone except the cretinous gamerbros who need gobs of jiggling fanservice as it's their only sexual experience.
Which is a shame because the source material is goddamned brilliant. Created by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski nearly thirty years ago, the Witcher stories and novels are the most interesting thing to happen to the genre since Tolkein named his angelic entities "wizards." While a vast and complex cosmology of converging spheres and dwindling elves fills out the setting, the stories remain largely focused on Geralt of Rivia and his interactions with very common people.
Not just commoners, but "common" in the sense that their motivations and failings are entirely human. A king who loves his possessed sister too much to have her put to death properly, a village that wants to keep the troll under their bridge because it does all the upkeep and collects tolls - despite a standard high fantasy setting, Sapkowski populates his world with very small and familiar dramas. Geralt himself is largely just a glorified exterminator, clearing away bothersome critters and not getting himself involved in any epic goings on. For the most part.
This allows for much of that gray morality that's so popular in sword and sorcery these days. But rather than just an excuse to get lost in high seriousness and graphic rape, this moral ambiguity forces the reader to question the usual genre assumptions. In one instance, Geralt happens upon a gloomy old castle where he is greeted by a charging, snarling monster. The monster, seeing that it cannot scare off Geralt like other interlopers, resignedly invites him in for a drink and regails him with the story of how a witch's curse gave him all the tusks and hair.
He keeps regailing Geralt, telling of how he tried to get into the spirit of being a monster. When an unweary merchant stumbled into the courtyard, the monster demanded "Your daughter or your life!" The merchant protested that his daughter was only eight, creating a very awkward situation where the monster sheepishly withdraws and hands the poor man a sack of gold out of apology.
Which of course leads to merchants showing up from all over with daughters to ransom to the monster. About here is where most "dark" fantasy would stop, asking you to recoil at the callous greed of these merchants. Sapkowski is better than dark, and goes on to show the relationships between the monster and these ransomed daughters - one of whom even rides on his back like a warrior queen, naked, as they joyfully raid caravans together. These memories go on for page after page, the titular Witcher not even figuring into the tale until the very end.
Sapkwoski is a good enough writer to create a basic, taciturn hero as a vehicle into his world for the reader. With that accomplished, he goes on to turn traditional fantasies and folk tales upside down, challenging the reader's assumptions about society and morality in ways few "serious" literature can manage these days.
"The Lesser Evil" highlights all of these qualities in what the reader will gradually recognize as a remixing of the classic Snow White fairy tale. A girl prophesied to bring terror to the land escapes the woodsman hired to cut out her heart and hides out with seven gnome bandits for a couple years. She emerges as a mercenary queen, bringing just as much terror to the land as prophesied, though whether due to demonic possession or the cruel circumstances of her own life is a distinction Sapkowski does not make, leaving the interpretation to the reader.
Finally, there are the elves. You can't pitch a brick without hitting the pointy-eared buggers in this genre but Sapkowski again does something unique and thought-provoking. His elves are just as doomed and diminished as Tolkein's and just as persecuted by the more successful human kingdoms as in The Riyria Revelations, but unlike in previous works - and much like Snow White - it's given them a real chip on their shoulder. These aren't the high alien creatures of Middle Earth, somberly accepting their fate, but active people with a violent will to survive. They frequently attack humans, and Geralt, but rather than making them villainous this only highlights their desperation. When captured and interrogated by an elf chieftain, Geralt sees that even though they are superior to humans, they are still dying out and are already lost. This isn't a triumphant revelation for him, but something sad and melancholy. And he, the sword and sorcery hero, can't do anything to change their fate.
However, they are not victims. Far from it, they're terrifying forces of the wild, kept in check by the weak walls of villages and the humans' higher birth rate. Though Geralt - and Sapkowski - feels their pain, no one is about to bear their neck to an elven blade. It's a situation reminiscent of the Indian Wars in 19th century America, where the encroaching white men are certainly now seen as the villains of history but that doesn't make the Sioux or Apache necessarily nice. Wars of extermination have no good guys, just survivors. It's a harsh, unsentimental view of history but one Sapkowski embraces and manages to convey in rousing pulp adventures.
Because that's finally what makes the Witcher stories so good - they're just plain fun. From getting drunk with the monsters to talking down a psychokinetic princess, Geralt's life is never dull. That Sapkowski manages to weave such complex and literary themes into rollicking good fantasy yarns places him in the upper echelons of the craft, alongside Jack Vance and Philip K. Dick.
The Witcher stories are some of the most thoughtful and creative work by any writer alive today. Shame everyone only knows it for those video games full of scowling and tits.