If you want to read the books that inspired the Lord Of The Rings movies or Game Of Thrones, it’s pretty easy: you just read the books. It’s a little more complicated with Netflix’s The Witcher, which is based on books—specifically, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series—but not all of those books are serialized novels telling one continuous story.
Five of the eight books are connected, but the first two, The Last Wish and Sword Of Destiny, are largely stand-alone short story collections about the adventures of Geralt Of Rivia (portrayed by Henry Cavill in The Witcher) before he gets into the main ongoing plot of the series.
In its second season, the Netflix Witcher series has started exploring that main plot, and you should just read the novels if you want more of that before the show returns. But that leaves a number of excellent Geralt adventures on the shelf that offer additional stories with the central Witcher cast.
First, though, we should note that a number of the short stories, like “The Last Wish” (where Geralt meets the sorceress Yennefer for the first time), “Something More” (where destiny finally brings Geralt and Ciri together), and “The Lesser Evil” (where Geralt becomes “the Butcher Of Blaviken”), were adapted into episodes in the show’s first season.
The Beauty & The Beast homage “A Grain Of Truth” also inspires an episode from season two. Those are all worth reading, but, for the purposes of this list, we’re going to look at stories that haven’t been adapted yet.
Second, in the English translations of the books and video games, Geralt’s bard friend is named Dandelion. The Netflix show uses his name from the original Polish, Jaskier, which actually translates to “buttercup.” They are meant to be the same character, though.
This is sort of a cheat, since “The Voice Of Reason” provides the framework that runs throughout The Last Wish, so it would be weird to read it and not read the whole book, but it does a good job setting up who Geralt is before he meets Ciri and gets all caught up in a big war that he couldn’t care less about.
The story takes place at the Temple Of Melitele, a location he and Ciri visit in season two of the show, with Geralt healing from a wound and reflecting on various adventures.
The best part, other than Geralt outsmarting a bunch of annoying knights, is his continued refusal to let one of the temple’s priestesses use her meditative abilities to see his future… until she does it by accident and very much regrets it, foreshadowing the many prophecies of doom that eventually follow Geralt and Ciri.
The romance between Geralt and Yennefer is hugely important to the Witcher saga, second only to the father/daughter relationship between Geralt and Ciri, and “A Shard Of Ice” could stand on its own as a romantic tragedy without any connection to a larger fantasy saga.
Geralt, itinerant monster-slayer, has begrudgingly settled into domestic bliss with sorceress Yennefer in a boring small town while she works on some mysterious project involving an old lover, Istredd (played by Royce Pierreson and given a much bigger role in the Netflix show), and a talking bird that’s been trained to deliver a message.
As Geralt becomes increasingly jealous, Yennefer insists that she loves him even though she knows that the two of them might not ever be able to provide exactly what the other needs, so they should just accept that and be together while they can. After they have a serious conversation about their relationship, Yennefer reveals a second talking bird trained to give a message that she can’t give in person. (A hint that Geralt does not immediately pick upon.)
Frustrated, Geralt confronts Istredd, who says that Yennefer actually loves him and that they’ve been sleeping together this whole time. The two men decide to fight to the death to prove which one of them is worthy of her, but when it comes time to fight, Istredd shows up with one of Yennefer’s birds and is clearly just hoping Geralt will kill him because of what the bird’s message has said. Geralt refuses to help Istredd attempt suicide and leaves, now knowing—based on his last conversation with Yennefer—that there’s a bird waiting for him as well.
A running joke of sorts in these stories is that Sapkowski will occasionally lift plot points from famous fairy tales and see how they’d play out in the more cynical and sarcastic world of The Witcher. In “A Little Sacrifice,” Geralt and Dandelion are hired to act as mediators between a local duke and the mermaid he has fallen in love with.
Dandelion theorizes that they can’t be together because Sh’eenaz, the mermaid, would have to give up her voice in exchange for human legs, but his suggestion is immediately rejected: It’s not that she can’t get legs, it’s that her human lover hasn’t offered to turn himself into a mer-person. Why should she be the one to give up her life?
At the same time, Geralt and Dandelion are invited to a fancy party where another bard, a woman named Essi Daven, is set to perform. Essie is Dandelion’s rival, with the two of them having a sort of brother/sister relationship, and she’s so fascinated by Geralt that she joins the two men in dealing with their mermaid drama (plus a mystery involving a previously undiscovered race of intelligent sea people, which makes for some very spooky imagery).
Dandelion recognizes that Essi is smitten with Geralt, but the witcher is unable to reciprocate. He’s still in love with Yennefer and can’t be the person Essi wants him to be—mirroring the relationship between the duke and the mermaid. That story has a happy ending, while the one between Geralt and Essi does not. The way it plays out, with Dandelion writing a ballad about his two friends that he refuses to ever perform, is one of the most devastating twists in a series with a lot of devastating twists.
Though elements of “Sword Of Destiny” made their way into the Netflix show—namely Ciri staying with some dryads in the magical Brokilon forest—the bulk of the story features a big shift from the timeline of the TV series.
It takes place before Ciri’s homeland of Cintra is destroyed, with the young princess having run away so that her famously intense grandmother can’t marry her off to some boy. Geralt and Ciri are united by destiny, though, and so the two of them happen to cross paths in the forests (though neither realizes who the other is, or the fact that they’re united by destiny, until later).
Like “The Voice Of Reason,” “The Sword Of Destiny” is about Geralt’s refusal to accept that there is some higher power shaping his life, and backs up his personality as a fantasy hero who thinks being a fantasy hero is stupid. He insists that he just travels the world, killing monsters and not having any emotions about anything, even as everyone he meets can tell that that’s not true.
Meanwhile, Ciri sees two potential fates: one in which she lives the boring life of a princess and one in which she’s claimed by Geralt and can live the thrilling life of a witcher.
Geralt takes that choice away from her for now, leaving Ciri behind, and his refusal to let her into his life even after seemingly random events bring them together is an important part of his arc.
Though the initial publishing dates are a little off for the English translations, the canonical order of the Witcher books is: The Last Wish, Sword Of Destiny, Blood Of Elves, Time Of Contempt, Baptism Of Fire, The Tower Of The Swallow, The Lady Of The Lake, and Season Of Storms.
The first two are short story collections, the next five are novels about Geralt and Ciri, and the final book is a stand-alone story that’s set before the novels but has an epilogue that takes place after the novels.
The video games, while deeply indebted to the mythology and events of the books, are set after the novels and (without saying too much) are not strictly in keeping with what happens in them. That means that if you’ve played the video games, you don’t necessarily know everything that happens in the books, and if you’ve read the books, you don’t necessarily need to play the video games to find out what happens next.
The Witcher show on Netflix is also not strictly adhering to the novels, with plot points being moved around or given to different characters, so reading the novels might not even give you a clear impression of what will happen on the show. So, again, if you want more of The Witcher but don’t want to read all of the books, the short stories are the way to go—they’re also better than the novels, unless you really enjoy keeping track of the complex names and political motivations of the series’ many sorceresses.