The Witcher, a new Netflix fantasy saga the streaming service has positioned as the next Game of Thrones, has similar literary roots. The show is based on the fantasy book series of the same name—six novels and two story collections by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski that develop a rich setting and unforgettable characters that have drawn in millions of readers the world over. The eight-episode first season debuted December 20 and stars Henry “Superman” Cavill as Geralt of Rivia, a monster-hunter, as he gets embroiled in political intrigue, doomed romances, and a lot of bloody battles.
Here’s a look at the trailer, which promises decent production values, a lot of action, and a lot of glaring:
But what if you are unfamiliar with the Witcher’s adventures and want to catch up before (or after) binging? Below, we offer a primer on the Witcher franchise and a suggestion for where to get started—and you’ll certainly want to, if only to prepare for season two, which is already in the works!
What’s it all about?
Geralt is a witcher (sometimes called a “hexer”, depending on the translation). Witchers are monster-hunters, specializing in tracking down and slaying (or banishing) a variety of creatures, monsters, and supernatural entities. Witchers start their training at a young age, from within the stronghold of Kaer Morhen. They are given a cocktail of drugs, potions, and powders that grant them an expanded lifespan and greater stamina, skill, and speed than the average human. However, the process irrevocably changes them, leaving them with strange and distinctive eyes. Witchers face prejudice for their unusual appearance and abilities, and often disparaged as “mutants.” Despite this, their services are in constant demand as the Continent is frequently troubled by monsters and the undead.
Geralt is famed as one of the most skilled and experienced witchers of his age. He also has a knack for finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, attracting the unkind attention of kings, generals, and sorcerers. Although witchers are supposed to be apolitical, Geralt often finds himself embroiled in political intrigue and military matters, especially as tensions rise between the independent Northern Kingdoms and the vast Nilfgaardian Empire to the south.
The books and the forthcoming adaptation also focus on characters other than Geralt. The other major characters of the saga include Yennefer, a powerful sorceress and ally of Geralt’s, and Ciri, a young princess whom Geralt takes as a ward. Geralt’s closest friend is the bard Jaskier (known as “Dandelion” in the video games; see below), who chronicles Geralt’s adventures (and gets embroiled in them himself).
Geralt’s adventures take place in a world that seems like the stuff of standard fantasy, but that’s only true superficially. Yes, there are humans, elves, dwarves, and other familiar nonhuman races. But the world is harsher than many others: the elves have suffered grievous losses from the encroachment of humans into their lands and now many have banded together as guerrilla fighters, desperate to retain their freedom; sometimes, they overstep the mark are carry out acts of terrorism.
The books are suffused with European myth, history, and folklore. Several of the Witcher stories recall familiar fairy tales viewed in a different light: think Snow White as a ruthless killer. There are vampires and werewolves and dragons, and a mysterious spectral force known as the Wild Hunt. There are also other worlds and other times, and some people can visit them through sorcery.
The main setting—the Continent—is also the home to more mundane nations and kingdoms: Redania, Temeria, Cintra, Toussaint, and Nilfgaard are some of the more notable ones. Great cities such as Vizima and Novigrad play key roles in the story. From the towering peaks of the Blue Mountains, where the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen can be found, to the snowswept Skellige Isles, the witcher’s world is one of adventure, heroism, tragedy, beauty, and war.
The Witcher is unusual in that although it started as a series of books, it found true international fame through a video game adaptation by Polish developers CD Projekt Red.
Since 2007, CDPR has released a trilogy of best-selling computer roleplaying games and two digital card games based on the franchise (which has also expanded to include a mobile game and a board game available). Although author Andrzej Sapkowski does not consider these games as part of the canon as established by the books, they do expand on the story and offer one version of what happens to Geralt and company after the end of the series.
The meat of the story is certainly found in the eight books in the saga, published by Sapkowski between 1991 and 2012 in Poland, and in English in the U.S. between 2007 and 2018. For now the story has concluded, but Sapkowski has hinted that it may continue…
The eight books that make up the Witcher Saga consist of:
- The Last Wish (1993/2007; a reprint of The Witcher, released in 1990, with new material)
- Sword of Destiny (1992/2015)
- Blood of Elves (1994/2008)
- Time of Contempt (1995/2013)
- Baptism of Fire (1996/2014)
- The Tower of Swallows (1997/2016)
- The Lady of the Lake (1999/2017)
- Season of Storms (2013/2018)
The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny are collections of linked stories. They introduce Geralt, his allies, and his enemies, and establish the political situation in the world, all through the medium of standalone adventures in which Geralt takes down monsters and allys (if inadvertently) with the rulers of powerful nations.
The novels Blood of Elves through The Lady of the Lake form a continuous, five-volume saga in which Geralt and his friends have to deal with a foreign invasion and the strange powers growing within Ciri. Season of Storms, the most recent Witcher book, is a prequel taking place very early in the timeline of the saga.
The video games pick up a year or so after the events of The Lady of the Lake and offer one version of what happened to Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri after the events of the books. As Geralt starts the games suffering from amnesia, familiarity with the books isn’t required to play the games (although it definitely helps!).
Where to start
Though it isn’t, strictly speaking, a novel, The Last Wish is the perfect starting point for the saga, containing both the chronologically earliest stories from Geralt’s career, setting up important characters such as Yennefer, Ciri and Jaskier, as well as introducing the world and the major kingdoms—and hinting at things to come.
What did you think of Netflix’s take on The Witcher?