Innocents Aboard by Gene Wolfe

August 28, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

Gene Wolfe is a writer of difficult but surpassingly wonderful novels. Even at his most accessible, he is too indirect to ever really achieve the popularity he deserves. Unusually in this age when it is not unfairly alleged that established writers write short fiction just to win awards, he is extremely prolific when it comes to writing short stories. With any other author, I would interpret this as merely evidence he or she has a lower standard than most. But this is Gene Wolfe, the most intimidatingly sophisticated writer in the genre…he wouldn’t lower himself to churning out mediocre stories to make a quick buck, right?

Well, apparently he does. There’s no other way to put it. This is billed as a fantasy collection, but in truth most stories are either short folk tales or horror stories. Now, there’s nothing wrong with folk tales or horror stories, but these are really your stereotypical folk tales and horror stories: The former are cute but specious and the latter are an exercise in cheap thrills. Wolfe turns out to be very much into ghost stories, and it doesn’t help that I am not, but for the most part there’s nothing remarkable enough to be worth reading (or, I would have thought, worth writing). It’s humorous that even many of the people who are turned off by what they would say is the purposeless complexity of his novels will here be turned off by a lack of complexity.

This is still Gene Wolfe, so there are a few caveats for this mostly negative review. First, the writing is for the most part extremely sharp. No surprise there. I just wish he was writing about something I can bring myself to care about. Second, this book was headed for two stars until I hit some relatively strong stories in the second half. It starts with “Houston, 1943”, a story which was confusing and bizarre the way Wolfe’s novels are, but (for me at least) without the rush of understanding towards the end. It doesn’t help I could barely understand what the characters were saying. Nevertheless it seemed like something was lurking under the surface. Then, a couple stories later, “The Night Chough”, which was the best story of the collection, but I am willing to admit much of my enormous enjoyment came from its connections to Book of the Long Sun. Finally, the book closes on a very high note with “The Lost Pilgrim”, which was–in tone, not literally–a longish (by this collection’s standards at least) cross between the Latro novels and the Wizard Knight books and quite fantastic. Not sure that two or maybe three stories justify purchasing a collection…perhaps not, but I gave the book three stars anyway. If you do really like simple ghost stories, run, do not walk, to your bookstore to get this. Otherwise, think about grabbing it from the library for the stories I mentioned.

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