These reviews are generally going to be divided into two parts. The Last Wish has a framing story ("The Voice of Reason") about Geralt recovering from the injuries he sustains in "The Witcher". We get a bit of framing story before and after each short story proper.
As Geralt lies sleeping, a hot naked girl comes in. They bang. Her eyes are huge and dark, like a Rusalka's.
Oh hey, that was easy enough. Later bits of the framing story will be longer and more complex.
Let's move on to The Witcher. Pan Sapkowski had no previous experience as a writer when he wrote this short story, though he did do some work as a translator of sci-fi and fantasy works (which is encouraging for all us translators who hope to become world famous writers some day). He intended to win a short story contest held by a Polish fantasy magazine, and then never write again, so the story doesn't necessarily mesh (nor was intended to) with the larger Witcher universe.
Geralt of Rivia rides into Vizima, wisely avoiding spending any time in the outskirts. He chooses the worst tavern around, and picks a fight with some thugs, who really hate Rivians. He outplays them in DDR cuts them down, is arrested, and brought before Velerad, the burgomeister.
Velerad quickly intuits that the slaughter was a bit of demonstration of Geralt's abilities, and his real aim is to get paid for solving Vizima's monster problem. After a brief audience with the king, he goes through a series of interviews with court officials - Velerad, Segelin and Ostrit. Velerad is reasonable, Ostrit is an asshole, Segelin has a beard. They all combine to spill the background exposition via a series of cynical noir-ish dialogues.
Approximately 15 years ago, prince Foltest demonstrated his overt brotherly love towards princess Adda. The child was born horribly deformed, and died quickly, along with its mother. Both were buried in the palace catacombs. Six years later, the deceased Adda junior, now a horrible monster called a Striga, came out and started eating people -every night within the palace walls, and venturing outside the palace during full moons.
Some Sage had told king Foltest that the curse may be broken by someone brave enough to spend the night in the tomb with the Striga. This was enough for him to forbid anyone from trying to kill it, and for a number of would-be rescuers (including one Witcher) to become Striga food. However, top men in the kingdom might pay a professional half the proposed reward if the monster were terminally dispatched.
Geralt asks to talk to any witnesses that survived the Striga attacks. The wounds they bear tell him more than their confused accounts. The Striga is big, lethal, with huge fangs and claws.
The last survivor is accompanied by a soldier who turns out to be Foltest in disguise. There's a back and forth about court intrigues, the possibility of breaking the curse, and possible rewards. Eventually, Foltest gives Gralt permission to kill the Striga if disenchanting her proves impossible - knowing that in the body of the monster hides Foltest's teenage daughter, suffering.
Geralt ventures into the palace ruins, and Ostrit follows him there. He wants the Striga left alive, to undermine Foltests' position. Furthermore, he was in love with Adda senior, and it's entirely possible that his own curse, spoken in a moment of anger, contributed to the Striga situation(there's a bit of ambiguity there - Ostrit wants to know for sure, but Geralt neither knows nor really cares). Geralt knocks him out and waits for nightfall.
What follows is fairly faithfully depicted in the intro cinematic.
Geralt uses Ostrit as bait, fights and intimidates the Striga, and manages to break the curse. As he checks on the transformed girl, he neglects to account for her Striga reflexes.
The resulting wound basically opens his throat from side to side. He bandages it, and passes out.
He wakes up to Velerad congratulating him. His reward, silver sword and reputation are intact.
My thoughts on the story, in fairly random order:
The DDR crack was more meaningful than you might have thought. Witcher combat, as described in the stories, is all about rhythm, pirouettes, movement. Whoever goes out of step and hesitates gets cut open. In some ways, the combat in Witcher 1 is actually more true to the stories than the other two games.
There are a lot of bits and pieces that don't really fit into the expanded Witcher universe - obviously enough, as the story was written with no expanded universe in mind. For instance, Velerad claims that Witchers have only come to prominence recently, thanks to the growth in the number of monsters - which is the exact opposite of how things are described everywhere else in the Witcher-verse.
Foltest is described as scrawny, and "too handsome".
In one of the later stories Geralt claims he actually adopted the cognomen "of Rivia" as well as a Rivian accent on purpose, to belong somewhere, despite (like all Witchers) coming to Kaer Morhen at a very early age, which.... um.
Geralt probably wouldn't intentionally provoke a bar fight just to show off his murder-skills, nor intentionally sacrifice a bound human who hasn't actually harmed him to a monster in any later media.
Something that the intro cinematic (and most later Witcher media, including the stories) ignores is Geralt reaching an empathic / telepathic union with the striga, intimidating it not only with martial prowess, but also by overwhelming it with a wave of negative emotions. The Witchers don't really display a lot of telepathic talent later in the series.
I have to give kudos to the noir dialog. It's sharp, funny, to the point, and doesn't really outstay its welcome. Geralt is (playing) the stoical monster hunter, professional and to the point, but his essential humanity shines through. Even within this first, unformed story, it's fairly obvious his witcher's code is an excuse to keep his distance and a mask of impartiality. The comparisons to Philip Marlowe are well warranted.
I've been told that Sapkowski's Polish is really quite brilliant, with a lot of worldpay, allusions, and references that would do Pratchett proud. Conversely, the English translation is apparently quite dull. That being said I'm reading the Russian translation - Pan Sapkowski speaks Russian, was friends with the Russian translator, and recommends its quality. So I have to assume that ending particularly poignant moments with "X knew the answer to this question. X knew." is one of Sapkowski's own quirks, and it annoys me to no end. It shows up over and over, and it's really bad.
Less subjectively, the little "this isn't your grandpa's fairy tale, Geralt isn't going to be given half the kingdom and princess' hand in marriage" touches do get a bit much, here and in general.
This is going to be more relevant later on, but all the "Man, peasants are dumb, smelly and superstitious. OF COURSE a peasant lad isn't going to break the curse with guile and pluck" notes also get more overbearing as we go on, as they feature in pretty much every story.
Traditional fairy tales emphasized the possibility of the lowest-born members of society, such as swineherds and village fools, being heroes because they were subverting a social status that valued nobles and professional murderers (forgive me the tautology) above all. One might claim that the Witcher universe is an equal offender, insofar as everyone are equally shit, but all that shit-talking about peasants and craftsmen from a writer who (seriously-jokingly) refers to himself as a Polish nobleman in the 21st century starts to rankle a bit.
* The Aard sign, doing pretty much what it does in the game.
* Two unknown potions, one greatly increasing reaction speed, the other probably Cat, helping Geralt see in the dark? The stories make a big deal out of Geralt's ability to widen or narrow his pupils to extremes, to deal with blinding sunlight or near darkness, but apparently potions help as well.
* Feeling the rhythm.
* Telepathy (doesn't get featured again)