Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

April 20, 2011 at 10:32 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Elsewhere, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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My review of Gene Wolfe’s recent novel Home Fires has been published today by Strange Horizons. This is the first review I’ve written for a venue other than this site. If something possessed you to read through the archives of this blog chronologically, it would probably be obvious that a couple years ago I tried to “raise my game” as Martin Lewis later put it. This is an avocation without a lot of obvious yardsticks for how well one’s doing, so this is a fairly gratifying moment.

This doesn’t mean reviews on this site will be any less frequent (not that they are very frequent to begin with). Expect to see an in-depth review of Patrick Ness’ widely acclaimed but in my view slightly problematic Chaos Walking trilogy here later this week.

Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe

October 15, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments
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The trouble with reading Gene Wolfe is one is never sure whose fault it is when a book doesn’t quite come off. But where most books are willing, even eager, to carefully walk the reader through what they have to offer, Gene Wolfe’s novels stand there and give you a proud, appraising look. Sometimes the challenge lies in the complexity of the story, as in the Book of the New Sun. Other times, Wolfe expects the reader to have knowledge that they may not possess. Ignorance of ancient Greece was a handicap (though not insurmountable) to enjoying the previous Latro books. This story, a sequel to the excellent previous books that essentially stands alone, is set in Egypt and may have similar requirements, although it’s quite a bit more unreasonable to expect the reader to know anything about Hellenistic Egypt’s mysticism. So what do we have here? Like the previous stories, it is a fun, swaggering sort of adventure story that is a joy to read. As always in Wolfe’s fiction, things happen that are difficult to explain, but it seems like an there is an explanation, so it’s easy to let things ride. My complaint is the ending of the book failed to provide any sort of closure. I think Wolfe intends to write another Latro book, but given his age it seems, well, not to be morbid, but a little risky to be leaving things so open. In the meantime, while this is a good book, it is down towards the bottom of Wolfe’s works and, unless an illuminating sequel proves to be forthcoming, should probably be left to Wolfe completists only.

Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe

September 1, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Gene Wolfe, at least to the extent I have read him (I have read the majority of but by no means all of his books), operates in two modes: the vast epic and the small experimental piece. His vast epics–labyrinthine, intelligent to the point of being overbearing, and concerned with the human condition–are magnificent. His “minor” works, such as Castleview, tend also to be labyrinthine and intelligent to the point of being overbearing, but are focused, perhaps to their detriment, on some peculiar quirk of narrative Wolfe wishes to explore. Free Live Free is a much longer book than Castleview, but fortunately it is also quite a bit more successful. The premise of the story is that a man with a house about to be condemned puts an ad in the paper offering free rent in exchange for helping him save the house. If this sounds a bit like “hey guys, let’s put on a play to raise that money!” then, well, it’s not. For one thing, the only people willing to occupy rooms in this decrepit old house are some of the most shiftless derelicts you can imagine. Wolfe is engaged in a sort of character study here, so each person comes from a specific type: the failed salesman, the prostitute, the fortune teller, etc.

This is Gene Wolfe, after all, so it eventually turns out much more is going on here. The plot is indeed labyrinthine. However, the prose conforms to what I can only describe as an old-fashioned aesthetic. I’m not well-read enough to identify it better than that, but the prose (by design I am sure) constantly evokes a sort of textual mustiness. I thought this was interesting but somewhat unpleasant. Likewise, reading about such a group of misfits was also relatively uncomfortable. However, I eventually got sucked into the strange story (which is, for Wolfe, unusually accessible) and rather enjoyed it by the end. It’s hardly the sort of book I would recommend to someone…if you want to try Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun or Fifth Head of Cerberus is where you should start…but for Wolfe fans it is an interesting and rewarding read.

Solder of Arete by Gene Wolfe

December 10, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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This historical fantasy is the sequel to Wolfe’s excellent Solder in the Mist. Unlike Wolfe’s other series, the Soldier books more or less stand on their own in the sense there is no gigantic cliffhanger at the end. On the other hand, it would help if you read Solder in the Mist before reading this one. For an overall summary of the character and setup, see my review of that book. This book is more of the same, which is a very good thing. That said, it is more opaque. On the Wolfe difficulty scale from one to 10 (keeping in mind the conversion factor…I don’t think Wolfe has ever written a novel easier than a 9 on a normal SF or fantasy scale) the first Soldier book was a 3 or a 4, with much of the difficulty coming less from narrative obfuscation and more from the lack of familiarity a typical reader, including myself, has with classical Greece. Solder of Arete still demands an understanding of ancient Greece I don’t quite have, but it supplements that with quite a bit of Wolfean narrative misdirection. It hits about an 8 on the scale (where Short Sun and Castleview are 10s and Fifth Head of Cerberus is a 9), I think.

Wolfe is infamous for his unreliable narrators, and Latro may set some sort of record. He is truthful, as far as I know, but there is a very, very great deal he leaves out for a wide variety of reasons. Wolfe cheats a little bit, in my opinion, in having Latro have all the habits of an ordinary person (since he wouldn’t be able to function otherwise) despite losing just about all of his memory. There’s some good reasons why this makes sense. On the other hand, Latro doesn’t have a firm idea of what is unusual, which makes the narrative quite difficult to follow at times since the unusual happens to Latro pretty much all the time, but he usually doesn’t realize it. I would think that someone who understood how to interact with people as well as Latro does would realize it is odd to be able to see and speak with people that no one else can see.

Even though there is a fair amount I don’t understand, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the ride. Hopefully the promised two sequels, when they appear, will clarify matters (but I’m not getting my hopes up…if anything Soldier of Arete muddies the waters of Soldier in the Mist). Ultimately, Soldier of Arete still comes together as a very enjoyable novel and one I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed the previous book.

Innocents Aboard by Gene Wolfe

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

Castleview by Gene Wolfe

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

The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe

April 3, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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I have always found Arthurian lengeds to be rather distasteful. Generally when it comes to such stories I err on the side of favoring the harsh, grim reality, not fluffed up fables. How can one sit back and enjoy the story of a knight tromping around trying to do heroic deeds when you know he is supported by an oppressed and illiterate peasantry and following a moral code that has less to do with morals and more to do with chaining the knight to the nobility he serves? In any case, the core theme of those stories (like the Asian equivalent underlying most martial arts movies) are the twin ideas of warrior invincibility (that a warrior cannot be defeated, ever, by a warrior of lesser skill) and a correlation of skill and mental strength (that, depending on the story, morality, strength of will, or divine favor have more than a small influence on combat ability). Both ideas seem to result from the potent combination of wishful thinking and propoganda, not reality.

So why is it that I would not only like a two book sequence that explores what it means to be a knight and the code of chivalry, but consider it one of my favorite books? For starters, it’s written by Gene Wolfe. Those who have read his work will know his authorship means a book will not only be well-written but will have a few unforgettable moments and incredible ideas. Then there’s the borrowing of Norse theology. I’m something of a sucker for Norse mythology. However, upon reflection, although it seems to play a huge role, it is really the names, faces, and places of Norse myth without the ideas, and in truth it is the ideas I find so interesting. Odin is not interesting because he is blind in one eye and the father of Thor, but because he knows he will die at Valhalla but continues to prepare and try to win. However, ultimately Norse mythology has more influence on Lord of the Rings than it does on The Wizard Knight.

This is not Wolfe’s best book from a technical standpoint. The narrative has a peculiar lack of focus, even by his standards. Characters drift in and out and emotional setups seem to often go without payoff. However, lest you think Wolfe is asleep at the wheel, the intricate plot fits together perfectly. For a Wolfe book this is a pretty accessible story, but it wouldn’t be a Wolfe book if the reader could understand everything after a single read through. As in the past, Wolfe creates a world too complex for his narrator, or the reader on the first try at the very least, to truly understand, but he always leaves the firm conviction it is understandable and there are hidden rules governing it. And while this may not be Wolfe’s objectively best book, it at least for the moment is my favorite of his, and therefore one of my favorite by any author.

Soldier in the Mist by Gene Wolfe

February 27, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Gene Wolfe cements his role in my mind as the greatest living author of science fiction and fantasy (and one of the best of any genre) with another very strong book. More so than some of his other fiction, Soldier in the Mist is a high concept character piece (at least, I think–more on that in a minute). The main character, a soldier in the Pelopennisian Wars of ancient Greece, has sustained a head injury causing him to forget everything after the battle and continue to forget everything except the past fifteen hours or so. Luckily for him he is literate, and Soldier in the Mist is the record he writes for himself so that he can achieve some sort of continuity in his life. Did I mention his condition, being similar to the blindness and madness traditionally associated with religious vision, allows him to see and interact with the Greek Gods and Godesses? Well, it does. Complications ensue.

What most impresses me about Wolfe is the way he frequently uses the first person yet every narrator comes off as a unique person. That is what I most enjoyed about this book, which out of honesty I have given four stars even though I strongly suspect I would rate it five stars if I knew just a little more about ancient Greece. I will probably pick up a lot more the second time through…whether or not Wolfe books are your favorite SF, I think most people would agree (though they might see it as a negative) that the layering of the prose rewards rereading to an extent almost unique in the genre. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who finds Greek myths or history interesting. Everyone else is also advised to read it, though they might want to start with some of Wolfe’s more famous work first.

Book of the Short Sun by Gene Wolfe

October 28, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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You should read these books. I won’t tell you to stop reading this and run out and get them, because first you need to read the Book of the Long Sun books at least, and probably the Book of the New Sun books as well as Fifth Head of Cerberus just to be thorough. However, Wolfe’s (for now at least) climax to his “Solar cycle” of books represents–so far as I know–the greatest literary achievement in English-language science fiction, and (lest this sound as though I am damning with faint praise) probably one of the greatest in the modern era. Now that I’ve stuck my neck out, further blathering will just add to the hyperbole. I don’t want to spoil anything, so there’s not much more to say. I will say that, like Book of the Long Sun, this is more accessible than New Sun or Cerberus. The narrative structure is more complex (and to my mind more satisfying) than that of Long Sun as well. As with all Gene Wolfe novels, it has a story and characters that reward careful rereading and study. Whether the reader chooses to make this effort is (for Long Sun and Short Sun) optional, but those who do will find it well worth their while.

Recommended for everyone.

Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

October 10, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 5 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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I’ll write a more verbose review of this soon but for the moment it suffices to say that this is another Wolfe masterpiece, and (perhaps this is a sign of Wolfe’s experience and greater prowess) is much more accessible than Cerberus and New Sun while still being excellent. Strongly recommended. Reading Wolfe’s other work is not necessary to enjoy this.

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