A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘An Evil Guest’

Though I’d still call it a minor work overall, An Evil Guest (whose title comes from a quote by Simonides of Ceos, that gold is the kindest of all hosts when it shines in the sky, but comes as an evil guest too those who receive it in the hand) is much the most easily readable book in Wolfe’s oeuvre since at least Pandora by Holly Hollander.
It’s another third person story, but the profusion of accents and dialects that filled Wolfe’s last third person books, The Book of The Long Sun, are not present. The story is set in America, a hundred years into the future, with some technological advances, but otherwise in a recognisable society, and with pretty much contemporaneous language. The biggest and most relevant change is that Earth has connected with an alien race, and has links with the planet and society of Woldercan, whose technology is sufficiently advanced that they apparently have a process for manufacturing gold. An evil guest.
Wolfe introduces us to Dr Gideon Chase, a University Professor, a multi-talented man, an investigator who solves the hardest of puzzles. Chase was born on Woldercan, when his father was the American Ambassador there. He is highly intelligent. He’s obviously the hero, to the extent that he is wounded by a bullet to the leg and this has to be amputated. Wolfe suffered polio as a child and there is a running theme that his heroes at some point or other are left limping.
And Chase is being sought by the President and the FBI to investigate William (Bill) Reis, until recently the Ambassador to Woldercan. Reis is also very intelligent, not to mention impossibly rich and very powerful: complete dictator material. The President wants Reis investigating because it’s believed he’s learned how to manufacture gold, and also because wherever Reis goes, Government secrets are being stolen by some incalculable means.
In order to help himself pursue this case, Chase contacts thirtyish actress Cassie (Cassiopeia Fiona) Casey, a reasonably attractive redhead, a fair but undistinguished actress, currently appearing in an ensemble play about to close after one more performance. Chase wants to enlist her aid in locating Reis. To win her assistance, and to further his plan, Chase intends to unlock Cassie’s star quality, by some quasi-magic means that he insists is only activating something already in her.
The effect is instantaneous and overwhelming. Cassie becomes the most beautiful and in demand woman in the world, a commanding presence on stage who cannot do anything less than excellently. She is the bait to attract Reis to where Chase can get a handle on him, and she is immediately successful. Under the name of Wallace (Wally) Rehnquist, Reis attends Cassie’s last, stunning performance, and immediately signs up her Director, India, to direct a musical play, “Dating the Voodoo God”, with Cassie as its star. Wally/Bill has fallen in love with her and is determined to win her for herself.
But Cassie is the real centre of the book, playing a faux-naif role in which her new found success is a constant surprise to her. She’s forever downplaying her own abilities, not accepting that these have been enhanced, and continually deprecating about her appearance, accusing herself of being fat, and far too fat for bikinis, when it’s apparent that men will walk into walls when she’s fully dressed, let alone when she’s in swimwear.
Wally/Bill falls in love with her and, at some undefined point in the book that is never telegraphed, she falls in love with him. Gideon Chase is hunted, pursued and wounded early on, reappears under a magical disguise, by which time he’s working for Reis as well as the Government, then slides out of the book, in effect, winding up at the very end as Ambassador to Woldercan.
As well as his manipulations, all of which more or less he explains prosaically, Chase proclaims himself in love with Cassie, not just the enhanced Cassie but the lesser woman from before. Reis’ increasing and increasingly direct involvement with Cassie pushes Chase out of the way, as if the story can only accommodate one male lead at a time. Cassie ends up in love with Reis, making love with him, and removed to the South Pacific, the Takanga group of islands, where she is acclaimed as its High Queen, to Reis’ off-stage High King.
Which is where things start to go off-kilter.
Because An Evil Guest is, and is heralded by prestigious names such as Neil Gaiman as, a genre-hopping book, a book that plays with various genre style, smoothly and evenly. It begins in an SF mode, and Reis’ abilities to manufacture gold remain a strand throughout the book. But it plunges deeply into hard-boiled crime, with a number of organisations threatening Cassie in order to get at and kill Reis (her dresser, Margaret, is kidnapped, one of her fellow cast members is shot dead next to her to demonstrate how serious things are and how easily she could be killed), some vampiric aliens appear at her window, a werewolf (another Wolfean trope) hypnotizes and eats her divorced second husband when he turns up on the side of the devils, the book swings between genres with an admirable flexibility whilst Wolfe maintains an even and consistent narrative tone.
But there’s one genre shift that I cannot take with Wolfe and Cassie. It’s foreshadowed by the musical, ‘Dating the Volcano God’. Cassie’s been installed as high Queen, living a life of luxury and utter colonial native worship. She’s fallen in love with Bill/Wally, and had sex with him, though I can’t decide that this is real and is not the luxury he is determined to lavish upon her overwhelming Cassie.
But the High King has an opponent, the Squid King, also known as the Storm King (nothing to do with the Foglio’s Girl Genius). And this is an alien who has been in Earth’s seas for millennia, a Lovecraftian monster out to kill Bill Reis, and Cassie is forced through a ritual in which the Takangan’s manipulate her as ordering Reis’ ritual sacrifice, by having his head crunched in by a ritual staff, in front of her eyes.
This one is just too far outside the hard-boiled crime/espionage milieu that envelopes the majority of the story for me to accept it, coming as it does out of the leftest of left-fields in the last fifth of the book. Until then, the book is an intact experience. Now, Reis’ death is immediately followed by apocalyptic storms, destroying the Takangas. She is left stranded as a beach refugee, living off the land, until she is finally and reluctantly rescued, an indeterminable time later, almost by force, and eventually repatriated to America.
By now she is grey-haired and homely, skinny as a rake, under-nourished. All her friends are dead or gone, though her dresser, Margaret, is briefly seen. How much of this is a genuine transformation from her experiences and how much Cassie’s harsh self-assessment can’t be determined. The men she speaks to about her appearance contradict her, but out of truth or chivalry is not discernible.
The ending is very strange. After re-establishing herself in an anonymous life, and made rich by one of Reis’ manufactured gold gifts, Cassy tries to contact Chase and learns he’s now on Woldercan as Ambassador. She heads out there. Because of peculiar time dilation effects, his invitation in response to her question arrives before her question. But the story ends in mid-journey, with Cassy looking at a talking picture of a teen Bill Reis, and then collapsing in sobs asking Wally to come back.
It’s abrupt and unsettling, and not in the sense of when a skilful author leaves a story suspended to create the very effect. Wolfe is that skilled author, and he’s more than good enough for that, but from Reis’ execution onwards, the story as seen through Cassie’s eyes loses all concreteness, and becomes a kind of semi-abstract dream, so that the ending loses all substance.
It might, of course, be that Cassie doesn’t survive the storm, that all that follows is indeed a dream, and is not subject to any circumscription of logic, and I’m just not perceptive enough to read that. But in a book that for fully four-fifths of its length to be solid to change into something anti-realistic, without proper foregrounding renders the complete experience a disappointment.


A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pirate Freedom’

Though it can’t be compared in length, density and complexity to the earlier work, Pirate Freedom has a lot in common with The Wizard Knight. And it has enough elements in common with Soldier of Sidon for it not to be inaccurate to paint it as a hybrid of its two immediate predecessors.
Pirate Freedom, like Soldier of Sidon, is primarily a work of historical fiction, dedicated to an accurate depiction of the great era of Caribbean pirates, as carefully researched as the Egyptian book, and presented honestly through the eyes of an outsider, absorbing and reflecting the culture revealed.
And at the same time, Captain Chris, Crisofero, Father Christopher – the man has several names depending on where and when he is – is another unreliable narrator in the mould of Able of the High Heart: naïve, removed from his ‘natural’ world by some never explained means that dumps him in a world to which he has to become used, in which he proves to be implausibly successful, and, especially like Able, can’t tell a half decent story worth a damn.
Chris, like Able, tells his story via the medium of a long letter, this time to a stranger. He’s awkward, prone to lose where he is and writes as if he’s talking to someone and has to continually keep interrupting himself to tell his listener that he’d better tell him things.
But he’s not merely a retread of Able, because Gene Wolfe doesn’t do retreads, but also because there are significant differences between the two: Able/Art was a contemporary boy, from a ‘real’ America, translated to a mythical universe, whereas Chris comes from a near (early Twenty-First Century) future, who travels back into the past.
Chris’s story, after a short introduction, setting up that he is telling this story to an acquaintance who has asked him for it, begins with the Communist regime falling in Cuba. Chris’s father moves to Havana to (shades of the Battista era) a casino, and places his son in a monastery for his education (and safety?) Dad never comes back, Chris studies with a view to becoming a priest but decides not to remain in St Bartolomo.
And there’s a casual, solitary mention of Chris being extra tall because his father had engineered him that way (very Beaker Parrish from Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller).
But that’s the only SF reference in the book, unless you count Chris’ translation in time. He leaves the monastery to walk into Havana but by the time he gets there, Havana’s not there because it hasn’t been built yet. Chris has gone back in time, without explanation or rationale or any better purpose than to drop him into the age of piracy, where, for no particularly detectable purpose, he lives several years as a pretty good pirate.
And at the end of the book, and after having the development telegraphed several times over (by which I don’t just mean telegraphed by Gene Wolfe’s standards but actually telegraphed), Chris goes back to his own time by the same unexplained and purposeless means.
In between, Chris recounts his progress into piracy and captaincy, not to mention his relationship with Novia, one of several women who dote upon him and want to do it with him all the time. There’s a housemaid and her mistress and a couple of native women and, to be honest, Wolfe renders the question of who is who so densely that, apart from her being Spanish, I can never entirely be sure which one Novia is.
Either way, this Roman Catholic novitiate, who kills a lot of people, does it very frequently with Novia (and the others), represents Novia as his wife though they have undergone no religious or legal ceremony, and fathers a baby upon her out of anything but their own personal wedlock. Wolfe is himself a very devout Catholic, so there is a great deal of musing upon what is owed to God or what we wishes us to do, but this is bending the principles more than somewhat.
Meanwhile, Chris, like Able, is stronger and harder than those around him, though not strong enough to resist two gang-rapes on his first voyage. Furthermore, like Able, he is a much more than competent strategian, tactician, analyst, whatever word you choose to use, than anyone around him.
Chris’s account of his piratical history is continually punctuated by interjections as to his life back in his own time as Father Chris, and how he practices his faith (there is one point at which Chris gives an opinion on the thorny subject of Priests abusing young boys where he or Wolfe goes very much too close to victim-blaming, saying that the boys should have been taught to fight back: that Chris acknowledges that he can be accused of that very thing doesn’t alter the fact that it is victim-blaming, and that Chris is unrepentant of his views).
He’s also forever punctuating his account by pointing out how real piracy and real pirate ships and crews went about things totally differently from what we have seen on television and in films. Between this, overly didactic approach, and Wolfe’s deliberate awkwardness in telling the story through Chris, I found things very frustrating, and despite the different subject, entirely too much like The Wizard Knight for my reading comfort.
And the absence of any mechanism for Chris’s two time jumps I found very disappointing. Wolfe is a far better writer than that, so I can only put it down to a deliberate decision. Of course, the standard response to any ignored information in a Wolfe novel is to immediately start working out what lies buried beneath. After all, Chris does mention late on that his surname is almost impossible for anyone else to pronounce, impossible to shorten and beyond the capability of signal flags, which is an open invitation to Wolfe scholars to discover it.
But I am no Wolfe scholar, as you may well have surmised by now. Chris’s name, the mechanism for his time jumps, are mysteries that remain mysteries because they are too far detached from the purpose of the story. And like high fantasy, I an not enough of an aficianado of pirates to ultimately want to know that badly.
This book is the true beginning of the slow decline. There is still interesting writing to follow. But the great books, the ones of legend, have been written.

Dan Dare on Mars

I never expected to get to read this book, given that it is rare, in demand among Eagle fans and usually bloody expensive. But a copy in decent nick came up on eBay in the ruin-up to Xmas, with a cheap starting price and very little interest. Including the P&P, it cost me less than a tenner.

The book also doesn’t have a high reputation as either a Dan Dare adventure or an SF novel in general. Having read some of the criticisms, they are valid, but I did enjoy it and I have a better impression of it than the run of Eagle fans.

Basil Dawson was the real name of Don Riley, who received a one-week billing when he took over the writing of Dan Dare during ‘Operation Saturn’, when Frank Hampson’s second lengthy illness took him away from his artboard. Hampson had originally envisaged at anti-eugenics story, but all elements of that disappeared and the serial proceeded along more conventional lines.

Dan Dare on Mars was Dawson’s only novel. It’s set in 2002, after ‘Operation Saturn’ and before ‘Prisoners of Space’. That it didn’t come out until 19656, by which time Dan was on Cryptos, deeply involved with the Phant invasion, suggests to me that the book was held back for some time after its completion before being issued.

The book’s been described as basically a detective story (Dan paraphrases Sherlock Holmes’ most over-quoted line at one point) with a few, unimportant technical details added to make it appear SF. Whilst elements of that are true, I think it shortchanges the book to describe it thus.

The story starts with an utter disaster on Mars: all airtight domes are cracked open and the entire human population disappears, presumed dead. But there is a more serious problem over and above the colossal loss of life: apart from a few, decreasing sites on Earth, monopolised by the World Helenium Corporation, Earth’s major source of helenium are the mines on Mars. As Dan succinctly puts it, without helenium, there are no impulse waves, and without these, no fleets of ships bringing food from Venus daily.

Dan leads a task force to restore the mines and investigate the disaster. The civilian helenium experts are led by Torval, the senior engineer at the World Helenium Corporation. Right from the start, Torval rubs Dan the wrong way up, but only he suspects the man of active obstructions, despite a number of improbable events, including a messenger from Dan’s archaeologist Uncle, Ivor, still digging on Mars, being killed in the Chief Pilot’s office, nobody takes his concerns seriously.

Sir Hubert Guest is a background figure, and Professor Peabody (referred to only as Peabody throughout the narration) has a substantial supporting role as the liaison between the Spacefleet and civilian sides, but otherwise this is a two-hander for the Old Firm, Dan and Digby: there’s not even a passing reference to Hank or Pierre. And naturally, Dan turns out to be completely right about Torval’s motives: the man is out to render Mars helenium inaccessible permanently, in order to create an expensive monopoly and consequent overwhelming political power for his company.

The solution involves a decently clever insertion into Dan Dare’s continuity, albeit one that remains forever non-canon. There is a surviving race of Martians, the Pleons, who have been underground for the last 200,000 years. The Pleons were the smart Martians, the ones who saw the Red Moon coming and nipped underground to get out of the way.

Torval and co have been trying to whip the Pleons up into a war-like frenzy against the rapacious, militarised earthmen, coming to steal their planet and enslave them, and it takes all Dan’s efforts, aided by Uncle Ivor and the emollient Peabody to avert all-out planetary war, and reset things back to zero.

Not massively brilliant by any means, but better than a lot of the weaker Eagle serials (unlike Eric Eden, Dawson at least knew how to handle an ending). I liked Dawson’s handling of the military and planning aspect of Dan’s task force, and I thought his handling of the relationship between Dan and Dig to be on the mark. He’s obviously no great literary stylist, but I found him proficient.

And of course this is a novel aimed at Eagle‘s junior readership, written in the 1950s and shot through with the attitudes of the time, not to mention references to people like Gilbert Harding. The worst you can say of it is that, given its context, it’s no better than you’d expect, but even from my vastly different perspective, I found it pleasant and not insulting light reading, and I welcome it from more than the completist’s stance.

And the next one, please!

Writing can be weird at times. For several years, I went through a period where I simply could not organise my thinking to write novel-length fiction. I made a fair few starts that all petered out at various stages, because I could not maintain concentration.

By transcribing and re-writing a thirty-year old first draft, I seem to have rediscovered those skills.

With that has come an increasing obsession with writing, and with writing every day. Sometimes this manifests in posts for my blog – I currently have four regularly scheduled series and two irregular ones, not counting the increasing number of responses to people dying I find myself have to write – but the novel writing has once again asserted itself as my personal imperative.

2018 was the year of the eventually titled And You May Find Yourself, a sequel to that recovered thirty year old novel. At first, it wasn’t a book project: I just found myself imagining what happened in the future of my fictional counterpart in Love Goes to Building On San, until I’d got so many mixed scenes it was clear there was a narrative here.

I have still more scenes in their ongoing future, but without a narrative, some overarching story, to link them, they’ll only remain in my imagination.

Over Xmas/New Year, I had a major push on And You May Find Yourself. I finished the Third Draft, I did a Fourth Draft revision on certain chapters, I collated a print copy version ready to upload to Lulu.com and I tweaked it so that everything was correct. One way to tell that you’ve finished a book completely is when you get thoroughly sick of going backwards and forwards through the damned thing. On that basis, And You May Find Yourself was finished on the evening of Wednesday, 2 January.

Which meant that I woke up on the morning of Thursday 3 January feeling empty and directionless, without anything to write. Seriously. I had no blogposts I can work on, no novel in my head, what was I going to do?

There was only one answer: as I said above, I had three or four books in differing stages of being started. When I had taken October off to let And You May Find Yourself breathe before I started the Third Draft, I’d picked up one of those, and used the month to rewrite the first, extant, seven chapters and drive the story along to a cliffhanger point. And, after a few minutes mentally improvising some subsequent dialogue, I started work on the next novel. A page or two at the start of the next chapter, some comprehensive notes covering a near future scene, I am back in business. Let’s try to finish this one in six months.

A Lycanthrope in Wolf’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.

A Lycanthrope in Wolf’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Wizard’

The Wizard is the second half of The Wizard Knight and in many ways is just a continuation of it: more of the same, only different. yet it is different from its predecessor, though not to such a degree that I find it more engaging.
When it starts, Sir Able of the High Heart is believed dead, having disappeared twenty years previously, by passing into Skai, the third world, that which is above Mythgarthr as Aelfrice is below it. In Skai, Able has had his memory of below removed as he serves the Valfather, and this is only returned when he is released to return to Mythgarthr. Time passes at different rates between the various levels of this seven-story world: it has been no more than a week in the world below.
The two main differences in The Wizard, largely in the first half of this book, is that firstly there are several scenes narrated that Able is not present to see, and only learns of later from a participant, usually his servant and follower, Toug (which are narrated in the third person, including copious dialogue). And secondly, there is a more cohesive and purposeful story for much of the book, albeit with a long aftermath period covering more than the last hundred pages of the story.
That story involves an expedition into Jotunland, a land of giants, led by Lord Beel, whose daughter, the beautiful and highly intelligent Idnn, is to be presented to their King as his Queen (a mind-boggling prospect given the massive difference in size between the human girl and the King’s, ah, member alone.)
The expedition fails and the Osterlings retaliate by a prolonged attack on the humans of Mythgarthr, leading to devastation and destruction and ultimately requiring Able to act as the titular Wizard, breaking his oath not to use the powers granted him in Skai by the Valfather. Ultimately, these powers enable him to turn his beloved Disiri into a human woman, and the pair retire to Aelfrice in peace, where Able is able to compose his 900 plus page letter to his brother Ben, back home in America.
He even signs the letter with his ‘real’ name, Art. Or Arthur Ormsby. Arthur, eh? Who’d have guessed?
So the second book feels more integrated and less episodic, to its credit, although the subject matter remains high fantasy, with decided overtones of Norse and other mythologies, interlaid with Arthurian notions of chivalry and honour. The problem is again mine, that I don’t find myself responding to these in the way that many others do.
I came into Fantasy via The Lord of the Rings, without any kind of hinterland in what, to me, always feels like cheap, formula heroic fantasy. The older works, the likes of Eddison and Dunsany, have never struck me as palatable: I literally couldn’t read Eddison, whilst the little I have read of Dunsany was readable but remained distant, accounts of things taking place at some point above to which I was unable to relate.
The subject of The Wizard Knight is not to my immediate interest. The things this kind of fantasy is concerned with are outside my normal sphere: I can’t help but draw a contrast with The Devil in a Forest, whose milieu is similarly medieval, but which concerns itself with the realistic lives of the lowborn rather than the stylised machinations of the seemingly highborn, and those who aspire to stand alongside them.
Like the second and third instalments of The Book of the New Sun, and in particular The Book of the Long Sun, Wolfe chooses to cast his story with multiple speaking parts, each distinguished by a separate accent, brogue or mode of speaking that enables any of them to be identified from dialogue alone. Yet like that series, the sheer profusion of characters is itself a problem, in that at least one reader finds it wearying having to deal with so many different voices over and over again, especially those who require a more extreme form of prose to specify their speech. And after a certain point in both books, the feeling creeps in that, rather than this being essential to the story, it’s an exercise in technical proficiency for its own sake.
This is especially the case with those characters, like Sir Able himself, who are prone to verbosity, and to the sin of over-explaining and over-over-explaining until there is little or no momentum in events and the story does not so much lag as encamp for a fortnight.
We’ve seen this on a minor scale in earlier Wolfe books, the competent man who reads situations and correctly analyses them from subtle cues, but who then insists upon explaining them at a length that isn’t always brief or wanted. It’s grown to massive proportions with both Silk and, in The Wizard, Able, but in this instance it’s compounded by the number of people around him who are guilty of the same failing.
Both volumes of The Wizard Knight were published in 2004, by which time Wolfe had been a professional writer for thirty five years, and was himself in his Seventies. The collected work is a book of just over 900 pages, a massive achievement for someone of his age, and simply by its weightiness, must be accounted a major work, whatever my personal response to it.
Ahead of him lay a further seven novels, only one of which I consider to be sufficiently substantial to class along Gene Wolfe’s major works, although in that I am again at odds with a considerable number of Wolfe fans and scholars who think it a major falling back from his standards. Certainly, all the rest are at best middling works, each with their merits, but not really to be set against the works of Wolfe’s prime.