The Witcher books: reading order and beginner's guide

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With Gwent singleplayer and The Witcher TV series in our future, it's a pretty good time to check out The Witcher books. The Netflix show is a little way off, according to the creators, but it’s likely to be a success as fans of Game of Thrones will be looking for a new dark fantasy show to watch. It helps, of course, that the series has already established itself nicely with a load of books and hours upon hours of great RPGs by CD Projekt Red. 

If you're wondering where to start with The Witcher books, we've got you covered. The series is the brainchild of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski and follows a man named Geralt who happens to be a witcher—someone attuned with supernatural abilities and trained from childhood to battle beasts that threaten the public. Of course, the books are about more than that: there’s plenty of drama, sex, politics and even some comedy, but the central arc follows Geralt as he protects Ciri, a princess whose country has been conquered and becomes a witcher-in-training. 

If you want sword-wielding action and grotesque monsters, you’re in the right place. The series started as a set of short stories in the '80s for a Polish fantasy magazine, and the initial tale came third in their competition to find new ideas and writers. The stories were so popular they then went on to spawn full-length novels, which began in the '90s, and eventually became the games we all know and love. 

If you're new to The Witcher books, where should you start?

With so many books and short stories set within the universe, it’s tricky to know where to start, especially as some were only released in English after the series reached a certain level of success. You’ll want to start with The Last Wish. While it was published later on, it features stories set before the first full-length book and establishes the Continent as a backdrop. It also introduces the reader to Geralt and the basics of what a witcher is and what one does. You’ll read about Geralt fighting beasts, indulging in bar room fights and his bedroom escapades.

This set of stories introduces everything you’ll see in the games. Sapkowski tells of Geralt’s silver sword with which he kills the monsters of magic, he depicts the often-corrupt governments that reside throughout the world, and we meet an ensemble of characters. These include Dandelion, a poet friend of Geralt who is hearing these tales we’re experiencing, Yennifer, a sorceress with whom Geralt begins a troubled relationship and Triss, also a sorceress, a friend of Geralt but also the third point of the Geralt, Yennifer and Triss love triangle.

The second short story collection, Sword of Destiny, must follow because it’s here we meet Ciri and each story takes place directly before the main novels.

What's the reading order of The Witcher books?

So, you’ve read the short stories and you’ve got a taste for Geralt and those around him. You’ve discovered more about the world he inhabits and the wars between human, dwarves and elves—the humans were victorious and now the other races are seen a lesser species—and now you want to sink your teeth into the proper saga. You would think it's best to read the rest of the books in the order they were published, but a recent release, Season of Storms, actually takes place within the stories of The Last Wish. To be honest, it’s only worth reading Season of Storms if you want to experience everything The Witcher has to offer, as the events that take place are not integral to the main arc, but it does sow some seeds of what’s to come in the rest of the series.

Otherwise, read the books in the order they were released: Blood of Elves, Time of Contempt, Baptism of Fire, The Tower of the Swallow and The Lady of the Lake.

Away from the novels, it’s also worth reading The World of the Witcher, which is a compendium of information created directly by CD Projekt Red. It’s a beautifully illustrated addition to the series that contains everything you’ll want to know about monsters, weapons, people and places. Be warned, though, it does feature spoilers for the games and the books.

Is there anything else? You bet! Graphic novels from Dark Horse Comics. While not written by Sapkowski, the graphic novels do a great job of adding extras to already released stories and creating some extra content on the side, plus they look great as the art evokes the gritty and dark themes of the books and games.

Why should I read them if I’ve played the games?

They’re good books, and this is the way the story was intended to be told. They’re generally quick reads as the action keeps the pace up and it’s interesting to see how CD Projekt Red adapted certain scenes to make them interactive. Of course, it depends on your personal tastes, but generally the novels and short stories are good fun. It would be easy to say “well, much like films, the books are better” but that isn’t generally the case here, as the games give you a better view of the action within this setting, while still delivering a genuinely great story.

Reading the books will, however, give you a better sense of the world, flesh out more of the cast and create a stronger bond between yourself and the situations in the lore. Places will become more familiar, characters are drawn with more depth and although much of the plot will be known to you from playing the games, the books fill in small gaps here and there.

How faithful are The Witcher games to the books?

Very. Only so much of the books was directly brought to the games. CD Projekt Red went to great lengths to bring Sapkowski’s witty, wry and strong Geralt of Rivia to players of the games. Due to the branching narratives of the games, the plot is “based” on the books, rather than a direct retelling. Everything you’ve seen in the games, however, from runes to weapons and monsters are featured in the series of novels. 

There’s an interesting divide between how Sapkowski sees his world and how it was translated to games, but readers will notice only small differences here and there. Coming to the books from the games brings a certain spark of life to the battles and fights. Geralt tracing runes through the air holds more gravitas when coming from the games, and seeing how CD Projekt Red animated the effects of spells makes the translation of The Witcher’s abilities feel even more exciting.

It's worth noting though that a game, especially one of the quality featured in The Witcher series, is designed to bring excitement and danger. This can make some sections of the book—mainly the political discussions—rather dull in comparison. The games, because they deliver the story in bitesized chunks between the killing and hunting, offer the most accessible way to consume the tale of Geralt. Let's see if the TV series can top it.