A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Soldier of Sidon’

After the multiple-volume complexities of the respective Books of the Long and Short Suns and The Wizard Knight, it was a refreshing change to read a Gene Wolfe novel complete in a single volume of little more than 300 pages. Except that Soldier of Sidon is not complete, and neither is any Gene Wolfe novel uncomplicated. In relative terms, at least.
As the title immediately gives away, Soldier of Sidon is a sequel to the two volume Soldier ‘series’ of the mid-Eighties. The setting is completely different, in that the story takes place in what we now know as Egypt, as opposed to Greece, and Wolfe does establish, in his introduction, that there is a single scroll, and that it is strongly believed to be that of the Latro of the earlier works. The contents bear that out entirely.
To me, Soldier of Sidon is the last of Gene Wolfe’s novels that can be regarded as great. What follows are inevitably lesser work, though that is only in comparison with his previous standards. And in saying that, I’m flying in the face of a substantial portion of Wolfe’s following, who think the book unfit to be bracketed with its earlier companions, though it did win the 2007 World Fantasy Award.
I was surprised twenty years earlier when Wolfe terminated Latro’s story after only two books, though that may have been my assumption that, as his situation was a direct reversal of Severian’s, it would also be a four book series. Soldier of Arete ended abruptly, with Latro leaving Greece with the aid of the sea captain Muslak.
At the start of this latest book, we learn that Latro – though he refers to himself in the early stages by the name those around him use, Lewqas, a corruption of his real name, Lucius – is in Sidon with Maslak. In between times, Latro has returned home, which we only know to be on the other side of the sea but, presumably, somewhere in Roman lands, and has farmed this with his wife. But almost as soon as the scroll is commenced, these details vanish and the man without a memory does not refer to these again on any occasion he reads his papyrus.
The book is much simpler in structure and more focused, at least in its first half. Nuslak has called on Latro only to discover that his memory, which appears to have been through a manageable stage, is as bad as ever and he must be conveyed to Riverland in search of healers. On arrival in Kemet, a healer gives Latro his new scroll, commencing the story. Muslak’s boat, the Gades, is hired by Prince Achaemenes to travel down the Great River (Nile), as far south as possible, on a surveying mission that will take them to the neighbouring kingdom of Nubia.
Latro and Muslak hire ‘singing girls’, or ‘river-wives’, effectively temple prostitutes for the voyage, paying for them with a ‘gift’ at the end of the voyage. Latro’s is Myt-se’reu (Kitten) and Muslak’s her best friend, Neht-nefret. Latro soon forgets his wife back home, developing a genuine affection for Myt-se’reu that is reciprocated and which remains with him over gaps in the scroll.
The expedition is led by Quanju, and includes Thotmakef, the scribe, and Sahuset, a magician. Sahuset brings with him a woman who appears only to Latro, not because she is a goddess who is visible to him because of the head wound that has destroyed his ordinarymemory. She is Sabra, an artifica, a woman of clay, shaped and animated by Sahuset, but who is also activated, unintentionally, by Latro. Sabra demands blood – preferably female blood – to live independently.
In addition, there is Latro’s slave, Uraeas, who is a sacred cobra in human form.
The party travels south, with no apparent urgency, though this may be a function of Latro’s memory, which does not retain motive force and so begins each day in a state of inertia. As with the first two books, we see Egyptian life and culture of the period through Latro’s eyes, with a constant sense of passive wonder.
But at about the midpoint of the book, there is a substantial change of course. News comes of a young man, the King’s son, who has been taken and is being enslaved in mines off the route. Latro leads a force of men to raid the mines and recover the prince. It’s treated as if success is a foregone conclusion.
Instead, the raid is a failure. How and why we do not know, because Latro is deprived of his scroll for sufficient a time for his memories to vanish. When he resumes his account, he is a prisoner, a slave, and he remains in that state, traded from owner to owner, for much of the rest of the story.
At least he remains with Myt-se’reu: even through his fog, Latro is aware that he loves her, and insists that he will not be bought and sold without her accompanying him. Seeing that he is obviously very competent at killing, his successive owners decide that discretion is the better part of valour and treat the pair as a package.
Eventually, and by a coincidence that Wolfe pulls off mainly because he has the reader’s faith in him, Latro and Myt-se’reu are delivered from slavery after a meeting with the Nubian king, Seven Lions, whom the reader rather than anyone else identifies as his ally, the black man of the first two books.
Latro travels south into Nubia to come to Seven Lions’ capitol, where the two settle for a time, and Latro can meet Nubian as opposed to Egyptian gods, but all the while Muslak and the Gades has been searching for him, having gotten ahead of the mines raiding party (which does succeed in freeing the captive Prince, leaving us to assume, from his having taken such a step later on, that Latro was captured whilst acting as rearguard, to prevent pursuit).
Despite Wolfe having made plain, in the foreword, that there was only a single scroll, the ending is disappointingly open. Latro’s capture in the unexplained attack on the mines sees him lose his sword, Falcata, which is as much a part of him as any of his native instincts and feelings. He is determined to recover it, though he seems to take no notice of Sabra’s warning that Sahuset, the magician, has it and will not return it. All his friends agree to lend their aid in his quest, though when Latro refuses Seven Lions – who has come north again with him for this purpose – his vengeance when his queen has her blood drained, he loses the black man’s friendship.
But then the Gades sails away, with all on board, and Latro left behind, minds clouded by Sahuset to ‘see’ their friend aboard. Latro’s scroll, which he has now filled, and hands over to Sahuset, goes with them.
There had to be another sequel, everyone decided, me amongst them, though ‘finding’ a fourth scroll in a third different location would involve a dreadful contrivance. There was no sequel, and with Wolfe now 87, a widower and the survivor of double heart bypass surgery, with no new books since 2015, it seems we have come to the end of Latro’s story.
And such a bleak ending. In twenty-four hours time, he will awake with no memory of who he is, what he is, where he is, and no-one who knows him to remind him of anything. The man who has seen so many Gods and Goddesses, and who has always striven to carry out the tasks they have set him for, will cease to be in any meaningful aspect. He will not return to his wife, his farm, his family. Not even to Myt-se’reu, whom he loved, but who at the last was eager to leave him and return to her life.
Yet Wolfe’s ending, cruel though it is, has to be seen as inevitable. Latro has been cursed by a Goddess, to life without knowledge of himself. He has fought the end of that as any proficient mercenary would, and with greater strength than most, in his own cause, but Gods and Goddesses, if you accept them, cannot be beaten off forever. We can only hope that human kindness may still surround him.
Like the first two Soldier books, Soldier of Sidon is at its heart an historical fiction, immaculately researched, that places the ever-receptive Latro in the midst of a culture long gone, in which people think and act according to the times in which they live. There are no transplanted Twenty-First century opinions and activities, and with one exception, no ironical foreshadowing of what lies many centuries ahead. Even the gods and goddesses of Latro’s perception have no great quests or tasks in mind. The story takes place in Kemet, not Egypt, though it’s the obvious reference point for the reader.
Soldier of Sidon won the 2007 World Fantasy Award. Though a later book would receive a nomination, it was the last of Wolfe’s books to be recognised thus. It is the last of his major works. Though the books that follow are all of interest, and are all typically Wolfean, they do not reach the level of the works I’ve reviewed to date. Let us begin the coda.

2 thoughts on “A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Soldier of Sidon’

  1. I definitely agree about the pacing, and the space for a sequel we all expected (sadly), and the abruptness of the ending, but I think the ending isn’t quite as bleak as you say. I think the scroll Sahuset has is not Latro’s narrative scroll but a different one they were directed to look for by the gods. And at the end of the book, Myt-se’reu (who didn’t fall for Sahuset’s deception, and is really in love with Latro) finds him again (after she left the ship to search for him) and resolved to help him look for his sword. And there are various prophecies about him and her that imply he will find it, and that she’ll make it back to her home but not stay there. So although the ending is abrupt it’s not bleak and hopeless.

  2. I take your points and when I next re-read the book will look at the ending with these in mind (I am currently working on R A Lafferty and his novels). I would still very much rather have had a fourth novel/scroll, and I would have preferred that to any of the last half dozen novels, even the best of them.

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