Soldier of the Mist, the first of, ultimately, three books featuring the character, Latro, represented an inversion of the situation in The Book of the New Sun. From a series set in the distant future, narrated by a hero who could not forget, Gene Wolfe deliberately turned to a series set in the distant past, narrated by a hero who could not remember.
Wolfe had form for this sort of thing. In the early Seventies, he had written a brilliant short story feeding off H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, under the title ‘The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories’ (itself the title story for a collection published as The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories: Wolfe loves his word puzzlery). When this story was misannounced as having won a Nebula Award (the actual result was No Award, but Wolfe’s story had received the highest number of votes in its category), its title was mangled. Taking this as a cue, Wolfe wrote a story under the title ‘The Death of Doctor Island’, followed by ‘Death of the Island Doctor’ and, when these three were collected as The Wolfe Archipelago, added for the collection, ‘The Doctor of Death Island’. All four stories are radically different).
So turning Severian on his head gave us Latro. That’s not his name, merely the one by which he is known. Latro, the very epitome of an unreliable narrator, is a mercenary, seemingly Roman in origin, in what will become Greece during the Pelopponnesian Wars. When Soldier of the Mist begins, Latro has just received a head wound that has deprived him of his memory: henceforth, his past will disappear behind him, as he is unable to remember anything for more than twenty-four hours.
In order to maintain any continuity of memory, Latro must write down his life every day, on one of the scrolls he carries with him for this purpose. What he does not write down effectively does not happen. Each morning, he must be reminded to read his scroll, so that he will know who he is.
There is one other aspect of Latro’s condition. As a consequence of his head wound, he can now see, hear and talk with the Gods.
In further, but inevitable contrast to Severian, whose prose was rolling and convoluted, Latro’s writings are clipped and contained. He is, of course, writing things down on a scroll, using a stylus that makes tiny marks, and he is trying to make the maximum amount of use of the surface area of the scroll. The conceit of the books is that the recent destruction of a pair of Ancient Grecian earthen jars brought the scrolls to light, and Wolfe’s position is that of translator, just as it is with Severian’s future opus.
Latro, as I said, is not a name. It means Soldier, Mercenary, Brigand and other terms not especially reputable. He is, though this has to be determined from the situation, an enemy, a mercenary with the invading Persian army that, throughout the course of the first scroll, is being forced back. Latro’s first writings concern the healer who has bound his head injury and supplied his scroll and stylus, but inevitably Latro has lost him by the second day.
He has regained his oldest ‘friend’, a black man who never speaks any of the local languages though he understands more than appears, and a small group quickly coalesces around him, though almost each day Latro mistakes the members of that group and everyone’s relationship.
These are Pindaros, a poet, imposed on Latro at the shrine of the Great Mother, to lead him to another shrine where healing might be found (Latro’s wound is sustained at or by such a shrine and his affliction is attributed to his having offended the Goddess), Io, a ten-year old girl who becomes a devoted slave to Latro and almost an exterior memory for him, and Hilaeria, with whom we are led to assume Latro has slept, and whose background we never quite learn.
Needless to say, in a land at war, this little band is soon taken captive, and for most of the book, Latro is a slave, moved between masters, a condition he accepts as a practicality but which he never allows to make him feel a slave.
In the context of the War, it is little surprise that Latro’s band is soon captured, and become slaves, transferred from one master to another. First, there is the jovial Hypereides, who in civilian life is a master of leather and who has transferred his skills and his speciality to captaining vessels for his city.
He in turn transfers Latro, Pindaros and Io on to Kalleos, who is basically a madam, though he keeps the black man. Latro becomes a ‘fancy man’, or a whorehouse enforcer.
Whilst with Kalleos, Latro encounters Eurykles, a prolix blowhard who claims to be able to raise the dead. It should be a con, especially as it is one of Kalleos’ women who will play the part, but Latro is instructed by the God to touch the dead body that has already been exposed, and she actually comes back to life!
This episode comes to an indeterminate end soon after, when Kalleos wants Latro for her bed: though she falls asleep before requiring his actual services, the experience leads to Latro ceasing to record is daily experiences, and in effect ceasng to exist as far as we readers are concerned.
In this manner, Wolfe splits his book up into four parts, each separated by lacunae that sees Latro and his little band leap astonishing distances to new sites. Such movements are complex, and each time the reader needs to re-orient himself as much as does Latro, especially as Eurykles joins the party before transforming – of which Latro seems to be the first to perceive – into a woman first ugly then glamorous, who takes the name Drakaina and who seeks to seduce the mist-driven soldier.
Add into this that Latro is writing, and presumably thinking, in a language different to that spoken around him, and that he gives place names with which we would be familiar as the translation of their name: Rope (Sparta), Thought (Athens), and the story becomes even more of a jigsaw puzzle to translate to follow, a jigsaw puzzle with a great many pieces that the reader has to draw for himself.
For a long period, the account is driven by Latro’s new ‘master’, Pausanius, who has been charged with besieging and taking Sestos and who has had a dream that Latro will bring him success. Pindaros has been allowed to return to his city by this point, his role having been taken over by Drakaina.
Nearing the end of the first scroll, Latro comes to a temple of the Great Mother where he is taken below ground by a Goddess. She gives him various options, and he chooses the one by which he will be reunited with his friends. Having broken with Pausanius, and having come once again into the company of Hypereides and the black man, this promise is fulfilled in the worst of fashions, evidencing that the Gods choose to honour their commitments in their own way: Latro is now in battle in Persia itself where he comes across a Roman mercenary who knows him, who names him ‘Lucius’. But this friend is mortally wounded, and dies almost on the instant.
Soldier of the Mist is a superb example of historical fiction. Wolfe has researched its details thoroughly, and depicts life as it was lived in this era without fanfare but with complete conviction. You can read the book solely from this perspective if you wish, and get a great deal from it, but it would take an incurious mind to ignore Latro’s predicament, the secret of who he really is – if this has any real relevance to the story unfolding – and the question of whether the Gods can override the medical science we know exists, and restore Latro’s memory to him in any significant sense.
Those who remain fascinated by this question would eagerly await the next book in the series. It would not be Wolfe’s next book.