Castleview by Gene Wolfe

May 14, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Castleview has a certain formulaic tendancy to it that makes it at times feel like a writing exercise. This is not a compliment, but within its formula it is fairly effective. Gene Wolfe is nothing if not an effective author…he communicates exactly what he wants the reader to know. This is a dangerous way to operate since the reader doesn’t always make the same associations and connections as the author, so the surprise with Wolfe is not that in Castleview we have a failure to communicate, but that it hasn’t happened more frequently. For nine tenths of its length, Castleview reads as a very compact, very brisk ghost story, and a good one at that. The breathless pace keeps the reader’s interest through a ruthless tangle of characters and situations that build and build until a revelatory climax.

Anyone familiar with Wolfe’s more famous work will know Wolfe is something of a puzzle writer. His books can be read on many, many levels and frequently at the end of a book the reader won’t know what to think. However, it is just a matter of doing detective work through the narrative to figure out what is going on. While some aspects are amazingly obscure, most of the meaning is not so deeply buried that an observant reader won’t pick it up in less than two read-throughs. In Castleview, it is clear to me that Gene Wolfe has, knowingly or not, written a book that is only understandable to a reader armed with a thorough knowledge of the myths and archetypes Wolfe is exploiting. Just reading the book is not enough, and as much as I like Wolfe, the book should stand alone. In other Wolfe books it is at least comforting that often the main characters are in a similar state of ignorance to the reader…they don’t understand their world either. But by the end of Castleview the protagonist, who does have a knowledge of the myths and archetypes, understands what is taking place, leaving the confused reader behind. Whatever point Wolfe was making about courage or valor is obscured in this confusion. It’s too bad, because Castleview is a fun little book until the end, since no one is better than Wolfe at conjuring the feeling of irreality so important for a ghost or fairy story. I give it three stars, barely, because it is so engaging until the end and because I suppose it is possible there are clues I missed, but I don’t recommend it for anyone besides big fans of Wolfe’s other work.

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