A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Interlibrary Loan


In 2014, Gene Wolfe published his last novel, the underwhelming A Borrowed Man. Shortly thereafter, his bibliography in Wikipedia added Interlibrary Loan, a sequel, with an anticipated release date of 2016. Time passed. The date of 2016 disappeared to be replaced with a question mark. Eventually, the title of the book disappeared itself. From somewhere, I read that Wolfe had completed/was completing the novel but that it would only be for his own satisfaction. And in 2018 he passed away, depriving the world of one of its greatest writers ever.

Now it has been published, after an inexplicable, last-minute month’s delay to the hard copy, and I own the last Gene Wolfe novel there will ever be. This is a sober moment.

The book has already been reviewed, and received well, as a subtle and fitting end to Wolfe’s career. I do not have the same reaction. Like A Borrowed Man, the novel is narrated by Ern A. Smithe (not Ernie as on his previous appearance), the reclone of a former thriller mystery writer of a couple of hundred years earlier, who is not regarded as fully human but as library property, a resource available to be consulted and to be burnt, like any other book, if the interest in him/it drops below a certain level. In A Borrowed Man, Smithe secures his future by blackmailing a murderess into checking him out once a year.

This time, he and two fellow reclones, cookbook writer Millie Baumgartner, round and homely, and romance writer, Rose Romain, stylish and curvy, are sent out on Interlibrary Loan, to the small branch at Polly’s Cove. There’s already an older version of Smithe there, an earlier edition, though Smithe will only meet his other self when the latter is killed/commits suicide.

Smithe’s been requested by Adah Fevre, mother of Chandra, the girl she sends to collect Smithe, and wife/widow to Dr Barry Fevre, who may or may not be dead. As it happens, Millie and Rose have been requested by Barry, Millie to cook and Rose to fuck.

What follows Smithe’s arrival was another of those increasingly prevalent scenes in Wolfe’s later fiction where nothing actually happens but characters discuss circumstances at great length, analysing and guessing at alternatives. Normally, I would run out of interest before the sequence was done but this time I recognised that I could not summon up any enthusiasm to begin with.

The writing was uninvolving, and the scenario, what had happened to Dr Barry and was he alive or dead, held no real interest. Smithe, just as last time, and in several of Wolfe’s later books, is not an inherently interesting writer, a writer of plain language and limited sensibility, prone to treat the account he is writing as an oral tale in a way that worked counter to the development of the story.

And it did develop. It developed in strange and unusual ways. Smithe’s older clone dies in the Library, either by way of suicide or else murder by Dr Barry. Adah Fevre turns out to be a bipolar individual, subject to sweeping mood swings, at one extreme a violent and uncaring person who treats the reclones as property that she is free to damage or destroy at will: she has already multilated the older Smithe.

Smithe prompts the checking out of Audrey Hopkins, a writer of sailing books written from a woman’s perspective, the original of whom drowned when a raft broke up on the high seas. She and Smithe enjoy a sexual relationship but of course she sleeps with Barry Fevre as soon as she gets the chance, impliedly because he is human and Smithe, like her, is not.

Barry Fevre gets a lot of sex in this book. Adah accuses him of being unfaithful to her, and his tenured professorship depends in large part on the dissection of cadavers, an almost infinite supply of which he gets from a remote island in northern waters, who practice burial in an ice cave that preserves bodies completely, and indeed enables certain of these bodies to be returned to life, as in being removed from cryogenic storage. The prime examples of this are two bare-breasted blonde beauties from several centuries before.

If you’re getting the impression that this book is a bit choppy, without a consistent narrative drive, then I would regard that as accurate. A lot of the praise for the later Wolfe is for his skilful and subtle mixing of genres, such as An Evil Guest‘s abrupt transformation from a near-future mystery into a Lovecraftian monster-horror, but I think it’s time for me to say that I am less convinced that this is all under perfect and subtle control, than I am fearful that Wolfe is losing his grip on the integrity of the story.

To complicate matters further, Barry Fevre is murdered. His murderer is an alien from an alternate planet/universe, just as was revealed in A Borrowed Man, and Smithe and a female police officer follow the killer there and kill him, without any suggestion of a motive for the killing of Barry, who does not appear to be dead anyway.

What’s more, when the story is seemingly over, and Smithe is returned to his home library, he is checked out again, for purposes that are never totally made clear, by a new patron, one who has already checked out a writer of Westerns, who looks, acts and sounds like the most stereotypical of Western heroes, for no better reason that I can discern than it allows Wolfe to go off dialect-playing again.

And that comes to an end without any actual development.

What is clear in the book, though I question the extent to which it is of actual value, is Wolfe’s exploration of the actual humanity of reclones, or the extent to which they are now, and should not be treated as property. As in A Borrowed Man, I question the use of the very term: if there is a distinction between a clone and a reclone, Wolfe does not in either book make it.

Then again, the basisc principle behind a clone is that they are, or begin as, a replica of their DNA original. Reclones are specifically not: they are physical replicas but mentally they are restricted to taking in a certain manner, and inhibited from further writing. To what extent are they human? To what extent should they be treated as if they were nothng but books of leather and paper, as opposed to organic flesh?

Wolfe’s sympathies are clearly with the reclones, since we see and hear all of this through Smithe, though the limited natures of the reclones provide a counter-argument against full humanity, leavened with better treatment of them physically. I can’t go further myself in my sympathies because, stripped of true independence, the reclones aren’t ultimately human.

But all this is a first impression, of a book that failed to involve or cohere on first reading. I will read it again, and re-read A Borrowed Man beforehand, with a view to a more coherent response.

But really it doesn’t matter if this book is good, bad or indifferent, or in what proportion it is all of these things. What matters is that it is One More. It is One Last Trip to the Well that we have all of us visited uncounted times in the last fifty years, one final chance to sit at the feet of the master and hear him spin us one more tale that no-one else could have written. And it doesn’t matter if it is less than other things before it, no more than it matters that it is raining in the dark of evening when earlier it was sunlight. We are gathered here again, and after this there is only emptiness.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Sorcerer’s House’


A note of apology: this review was written and should have been posted in January 2019 but I completely overlooked it, going straight from An Evil Guest to Home Fires. Thanks to Nigel Price for pointing out this slip.

After An Evil Guest, Gene Wolfe, not for the first time, chose to write a book that is in many ways a complete opposite. Where the one was, in structure and tone, a hard-boiled crime drama shot through with fantastic SF elements, The Sorcerer’s House is an incredulous fantasy gateway story told in that most old-fashioned of forms, the epistolary novel. By which, for those who have never come across the term, I mean a novel written wholly in letters.
Wolfe has, of course, come very close to this form this century, with The Wizard Knight and Pirate Freedom both being told as supposedly a single long letter. But The Sorcerer’s House is a succession of letters, mainly by protagonist Baxter Dunn to his estranged twin brother George, but including letters by Dunn to other parties, and letters received in response to some of his missives.
Baxter, or Bax as he prefers to be called, is a scholar, holding two Ph.Ds and other distinction, but his story begins shortly after his release from prison, after serving a sentence for what we understand as fraud, perpetrated against several parties at or around his last academic institution, many if not all of them friends and associates of his brother George.
Later, we infer, from George’s accusations when he arrives in town, that Baxter has on at least one occasion posed as George. And he admits to having legally cheated George out of a substantial inheritance, left to the Baxter twins for educational purposes: Bax remained in continual education until the entire fund had been drained, paying his fees.
Until he appears, George will have nothing to do with Bax, which hardly seems surprising, but this state of affairs appears to have existed for some time before Bax’s transgressions.
In Bax’s first letter, he is writing from a hostel where he is staying. He has no money or assets, although he is awaiting an allowance cheque which comes at intervals (not until the book’s very end do we learn this to be an allowance made by the Dunns’ adoptive mother). He says he’s not writing to ask for a loan from George, but does frame it as an investment opportunity.
The letters are not dated, so the reader has to infer from internal evidence how long the gap is from one to the next, but by then Bax has moved into the titular house (Wolfe, as ‘compiler’, claims to have presented the letters in a logical order but not necessarily the correct one). It’s old, dilapidated and empty, and whilst the word isn’t used, he’s there as a squatter. He’s left the hostel after its manager tried to forge his allowance cheque, he’s taken the house, without power or water, for a roof over his head, and is planning to offer himself to its owner as a tenant who will carry out repairs and refurbishments (bought with the owner’s money) in return for rent-free occupation.
That’s the last point at which things appear to be normal. The book then starts to develop along parallel strands, the one directly fantastic, the other in the everyday world but with its own improbable mysteries.
Bax’s house, which we come to learn is known as the Black House, both for its forbidding and spooky reputation and because its last owner was a Mr Black, appears to be some form of crossing place between realities. Bax bumps into a strangely dressed teenage boy, who drops an unusual brass device with concentric wheels and a candle that is later described as a longlight and which appears to distribute some sort of magical force called numen.
The triannular is a wishing tool, and when used the longlight needs to be lit and stay lit until the wish, which comes in threes, has been achieved. This Bax learns from the boy, who first beats him, then is beaten by him, though apparently these are different twins: Emlyn, who is the innocent one and the victim, Ieuan, the evil one.
And Bax finds himself being adopted by Winkle, a kind of talking (albeit lisping) fox, who also turns into a small, nicely-curved Japanese girl who invades his bed (rather a mattress) at night and has sex with him.
Oh yes, the mattress is stuffed full of money, and there are mysterious and unrecognisable gold coins in an upstairs drawer.
But this is, as I’ve indicated, but part of the story. Bax finds a local, independent realtor, a Martha Murrey, and from her progresses to another realtor, an attractive widow named Doris Griffin, who has been looking for him. The Black House belongs to him, deeded to him years before, by Mr Black. Baxter has no recollection of ever having met Mr Black.
Doris is very enthusiastic about Baxter. Lots of the women in this book are. Doris presses him to wear the wedding ring formerly belonging to her late husband Ted. She takes him to bed, makes it plain she’d marry him. She even produces for him a piece of valuable riverfront land, the Skotos Strip, three miles of undeveloped land currently worth three million dollars, left to him by one Alexander Skotos, who died three years ago and, yes, Bax doesn’t remember him either.
But Bax and Doris’s romantic progression is interrupted by a series of murders in Medicine Bend, women accosted alone after dark on the street and literally dismembered. The predator(s) is/are a werewolf/werewolves. Bax and Doris are attacked by a pack of them, returning from a dinner date, and Bax kills one with a silver bullet (the man is prepared), although this is excluded from any of his letters, and comes in late on in a letter to him from his interested spectator, Millie, his sister-in-law.
Without going into further detail, this is a tale of strange goings-on, and of the fantastic spilling out into the otherwise mundane. The Black House is a gateway between Medicine Bend and faerie, and Mr Black is a sorceror, and father of twins, only not just of Emlyn and Ieuan. And what other pair of twins are there in this book?
One of this pair is also a sorceror, though he doesn’t know it, and another character in the book, who remains on the sidelines for most of the tale’s duration, is his birth mother.
I’m deliberately not going into detail on so many aspects of this story, because there are so many convolutions, and for reasons I will shortly come to. The ending of the book tries to account for all of these, or as many as we need, but does so at great haste and in little space, leaving the finale rushed and as telegraphed a twist as any in any Wolfe book. There is no need for careful and thoughtful reading and re-reading to determine this one, it shouts into your face with the subtlety of an “As you know…” exposition.
But I must go back and account for George Dunn’s role in this book. After several letters setting out fantastic and implausible events, whilst constantly alluding to how George hates Baxter and derides and condemns him, George turns up in a lawyer’s office, as mad as hell, full of accusations and unprovoked violence that gets him arrested for assaulting first a secretary, then a woman cop. And he’s claiming he’s the real George Dunn at a point where no-one, least of all Bax, is suggesting Bax is anyone other than Bax.
George acts like a madman from the start, a paranoid who may have good past cause for paranoia but who, in a story told by Baxter, has no grounds for his behaviour. Once he gets bailed out of jail, he turns up once more and promptly disappears inside the Black House, having interfered where he has no business to unleash a vampire, never to be seen again.
All that remains of him is a challenge to a duel with duelling pistols, survivor takes all, and a final letter from George to his wife Millie, telling her Bax has disappeared into faerie after reconciling with George, who has turned over a new leaf and will henceforth treat his once unloved and much put-upon wife with tenderness, care, respect and love, not to mention letters that sound like Baxter wrote them. It couldn’t be more blatant under a thirty foot neon sign.
Which is why I find it hard to go any deeper into the details of this story. Because all of this, all these goings on, are things for which we only have one witness, and that is Baxter Dunn. Brother George very clearly doesn’t believe a word of it, castigates him as a liar, and as mad, and certainly if this weren’t a Gene Wolfe novel, we might think exactly the same.
And how much of what Bax writes is actually ‘real’? We have nothing but Bax’s word that any of this has happened, and he’s a self-confessed fraudster. Given that these accounts of impossible goings on, which recall the mixture of mundane and fantastic words that underpinned Castleview, draw an infuriated George to town to ‘protect his interests’ (and indulge his fury at his twin brother), how much of it is a lure to give Bax the chance to trade his life as an ex-con with that of his brother, a long-standing successful businessman?
Indeed, is any of it real at all? I confess that I believe none of it, that it is all made up, and not in the sense that all fiction is ‘made up’. It’s an entertaining and easy enough read, but it lacks my conviction and there is a lot of critical opinion that finds it unsatisfactory as well. I wish it thought better of it.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: East of Laughter


East of Laughter was the second and final Lafferty novel published by Bath’s Morrigan Publications. Like Serpent’s Egg, I found and bought it in the same Altrincham shop, the standard edition first, the slipcased Special Edition several years later. The number of copies printed isn’t disclosed this time, though I doubt it exceeded the 1,010 of the earlier book, only that the Special Edition consisted of 260 issues (ten specially bound and lettered copies were for private distribution) of which mine is no. 137, signed not only by Lafferty, but also Gene Wolfe, who contributed the essay ‘Scribbling Giant’, about Laff, to this edition.
East of Laughter was also the last R.A. Lafferty book published in hardback in his lifetime.
At different times, different readings of this book produce in me different effects. Last time, I came out of the end thinking this a poor book, a confused book, a book without any real story, just a collection of what might as well be described as vignettes. There is, just as in Serpent’s Egg, a group of outstanding persons, a Group of Twelve, named as such from before the outset and consisting of fifteen persons, of whom several die during the course of (non-)events.
There is a difference of substance in that all the Twelve are adults, and all are human (except for Prince Leopold the Great, who is werehuman and spends most of his time as a Black Panther whose body is covered by golden fur except for a band across his forehead that leads people to think of him as a Golden Panther with a black bar across his forehead). Although this is to count both John Barkley Towntower and Solomon Izzerstead, mathematicians both, as separate people when the latter is a growth on the belly of the former, a talking bellybutton that actually talks more than its ‘host’.
But that reading was of a book that just went from person to person in the Group, and from place to place, home to home, without interest. That is not the book I have just re-read, again.
Don’t ask me how this book can have changed so much between then and now: this is R.A. Lafferty. Such things may be expected to happen.
It is true that this book doesn’t explain itself, but leaps headlong into whatever it is that is going on, setting neither context nor time nor place (though we may later guess that we are somewhen towards the end of the Twentieth Century, so almost contemporaneous, except that Lafferty had written no more since a devastatingly debilitating stroke in 1984). What we take to be the story is offered to us by someone signing themselves Der Alpenreise (which translates on Babelfish as AlpineTour(?))
This is about the Pillars Who Sustain The World, and the effect on the World if those Pillars have to change. Now there are Twenty-One Pillars, divided into three sets of seven. There are Seven Saints, who are always pretty easy to replace as competent saints are somewhat commonplace, and Seven Technicians, who are only slightly more difficult because of the overabundance to choose from. It is replacing the Seven Scribbling Giants, who write all that was and is and will come, where the problem arises, and not least in replacing their chief, Atrox Fabulinus, the Roman Rabelais. Lose one Pillar, and the world rocks. Lose two, and it faces catastrophe.
And if one is murdered and the other six all want to lay down their nine-foot long goose-quills and die…
It is, or by now should be easy to anticipate that this book is about the replacement of the Seven Scribbling Giants, and that all these replacements will come from within the Group of Twelve, all fifteen of them, including Jane Chantal Ardri, who is killed early on but who is written back to life at the age of nine, growing a year a day. If you’ve read every word I’ve said about Lafferty by now, you should have expected that.
This is indeed the book I read this time, jauntily swinging from place to place across a nine day week (if you were not anticipating that, you are definitely not amongst the about a million people in the world who know about and enjoy the Eighth Day of the Week, and even such a clod as yourself will understand that you are not amongst the about a thousand people in the world who know about and enjoy the Ninth Day of the Week).
(It is probable, but we cannot say for certain, that these about a thousand people have come to this knowledge by reading a copy of East of Laughter and that if only you had petitioned the publishers of this book to increase its circulation by enough to permit you also to have purchased the same, your embarrassment might have been spared).
Each day is spent at one of the far flung homes of a member of the Twelve, and which has its own incidental music, specially composed and named for the day and the place, but scored for different sets and numbers of instruments.
There is, naturally enough, the same symbolism as in Serpent’s Egg as to the Group of Twelve, irrespective of its irregular number, which is supplemented by one of that Twelve playing Judas. There is a balancing between the wonderful forgery, better than the original, a forgery for which there was no original, the statue of the Laughing Christ, and the last replacement Scribbling Giant, who is the Riant, or Laughing Giant, who can only come into his Giantship because of the actions of the Judas.
And, for once, we are not left to forge an outcome for ourselves, for the Change is completed and the World is once more full and the quills of the new Giants begin to scratch away.
Instead of a dull and meaningless rote, as last time, we have a buoyant, irrepressible redemption of the World and Men. The difference is astounding. Maybe I am now reading the Earth-2 version? How would I tell?

Terminus Est


Ladies and gentlemen, we have lost a master.

It doesn’t matter how much we may have expected it, for he was 87 and had not published a book in four years, it still comes as a deprivation from which it seems impossible to recover, that it has been announced that Gene Wolfe has died.

He leaves us his stories, and we should be content for those stories contain not just worlds but Universes, and not just Universes but trickery and puzzles and things that go bump a long way beneath the surface of the words you are reading. Wolfe never explained. And now he never will explain, and we are left to use our own imaginations and intelligences to try to divine what exactly he meant in hundreds of cases.

He leaves us whole books, concealed with the pages and the lines of books we have read, and as long as one unguessed at secret remains unpenetrated, he will not die. He will live a very long life that way. And we will thank the God in which he believed so deeply that we shared those years in which he wrote, and not an era in which such things did not exist.

Terminus Est.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘A Borrowed Man’


The most recent of Gene Wolfe’s novels, A Borrowed Man, published in 2015, is another first-person narrative, tending towards the incapable writer approach of which I complained last time. This is told by Ernie A Smithe, a reclone. The difference between reclones and clones is never explained, but as set out in the book, they appear to operate on a similar basis as Vanessa Hennesy in Home Fires, save that the reclones are grown before having a brain scan impressed upon them.
Reclones appear to only be writers. They have no individual legal status in a society that has all but foregone paper books. In effect, the reclone is the book, and is stored in a Library from which they can be checked out. Literally, they live on shelves, in small and spartanly-appointed ‘apartments’.
Ernie, or the original, flesh and blood Ernie, was a writer of mystery stories, unsuccessful in life, his books all but disappeared. He rarely gets borrowed, but then not many reclones do get borrowed, and it seems he is on the path towards eventual withdrawal from circulation which, just like an unwanted physical book, involves burning.
The world of the book is very different to ours, and as usual Wolfe makes few direct references to the distinctions. According to the book jacket, the story takes place in the Twenty-Second century, and humanity, at least in the equivalent of America, lives in towns of presumably smaller size, whilst the cities are ruined and abandoned.
We’re told that the Earth’s population is now about a billion, as opposed to the 57.7 billion of 2019, but that people still believe that to be too high and want to reduce it to half that size (Wolfe, a devout Catholic, makes no outward sign of disturbance at this). Reclones do not count in this number: they are property, not people. They are forbidden possessions, any form of independent life and, worst of all, given they are all writers, they are barred from writing: mental regulators prevent them from doing so.
Ern, or Ernie or Smithe, however you call him, exists 137 years after the life of his original. ‘He’ was once married to, then divorced from, poet Arabella Lee, who he still loves, and two contrastingly-behaving reclones of whom he meets during the story. Which starts with Ernie being borrowed by Collette Coldbrook, an attractive young woman with violet eyes to die for. She’s the daughter of financial wizard Conrad Coldbrook Senior, who has recently died naturally, and the sister of Conrad Coldbrook Junior, who has even more recently died unnaturally. The only thing in Conrad Senior’s highly secure safe, when it was opened, was a copy of (original) Ernie’s book, ‘Murder on Mars’.
Collette wants Ernie, as a former writer of mystery fiction, to unravel the secret the book contains or represents. There are other parties interested in the secret, and at various points Collette and Ernie are attacked in Collette’s apartment and stripped naked, Collette is abducted, and Ernie borrowed by a pair named Payne and Fish, who beat him for all manner of answers about the Coldbrook family.
When it comes to Ernie’s book, it appears that not only may no other copy of it exist, but that it’s existence has been wiped completely from all consultable records.
Once Collette is apparently abducted – though this turns out to actually be taken into custody by Dane van Patten, another official ‘tough guy’ whose role is less cop than Tax Collector – Ernie obligingly checks himself back into the nearest library, before being sent back to his home Library. Payne and Fish borrow him, out for all manner of information on the Coldbrook family.
Ernie eventually escapes, and goes on the run, so to speak, picking up a couple of drifters along the way, Georges (a pseudonym for a former Police Captain) and his mute companion, Mahala who, if taken, will be committed to an institute because she cannot speak: apparently, the world requires protection from the sight of imperfect people.
Ernie takes them to the Coldbrook family home where, without ever taking them properly into his confidence, he uses their skills to investigate the murder mystery. In an awkward twist, the mystery turns out to be that Conrad Senior has discovered or created a spacial portal to a distant planet, which he keeps in an upstairs room, where he has discovered an emerald mine. It’s simultaneously a stretch to incorporate such a notion, impeccably SF though it may be, into a dystopic future-Earth milieu, and actually a bit banal.
Unfortunately, and especially once Ernie, Georges and Mahala get together, there are yet more and more pages of conversations assessing means, motives and evidence for and against theories about what other people have done, or may have done. I was tired of it in The Land Across and my receptivity to it has not increased in A Borrowed Man, which is also a rather more lightweight, and shorter piece of fiction than its predecessor.
Along the way, and typically without attention being drawn to it, it becomes apparent that Conrad Coldbrook, Junior died before Senior, and not after, as Collette had led Ernie to believe. The book’s ending has Ernie explaining whodunnit, not to the cast in the Library, but to the murderess on her own: Junior thought Senior dead and went into his Laboratory, the angry Senior strangled Junior in front of Collette, who then poisoned him.
In order that this reveal not be exposed to the authorities, all Collette has to do is check Ernie out for a couple of days, once a year. That way, he’ll be kept indefinitely, and not burned. And so it ends.
A Borrowed Man was Wolfe’s 31st and, it appears, last novel. Soon after it came out, his Wikipedia entry was referring to a sequel, Interlibrary Loan, for publication in 2016, but that disappeared a very long time ago. A couple of years back, I heard that Wolfe was writing it, but not for publication. There are no new references to it online.
Gene Wolfe is now 87. He’s undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery, and lost his wife of sixty years, Rosemary, first to Alzheimer’s then to death. It does not appear that he will write anything more.
What we have is good enough for any one man’s lifetime. If some of the books towards the end are weak in comparison with his major works, if I’ve been critical of books that, for various reasons have not worked for me, everything Wolfe has written is worthy of investigation. He is at the least intriguing, and even in the weakest book, there are hidden puzzles for the reader to tease out, puzzles that Wolfe will take with him, unconfirmed, when we lose one of the greatest writers we have had.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Land Across’


The Land Across was Gene Wolfe’s penultimate novel, which I have in an attractive limited signed hardback edition that isn’t signed and wasn’t promoted as signed. This replaced the hardback first edition that arrived just in time for Xmas.
The book is another first person narrative, this time from an American travel writer named Grafton (no first name ever disclosed). Grafton has ambitions to write the first comprehensive travel book about an unnamed East European country, impliedly a former Iron Curtain country, whose only geographical clue is that it is beyond the Mountains (which mountains? Don’t be silly).
The Land Across is a secretive place, almost impossible to get into and, as Grafton quickly discovers, next to impossible to get out of. Grafton is searched on the train, has his passport and visa taken and is arrested for not having a passport. So far, so Kafka. He is imprisoned in a private citizen’s home, in a city named Puraustays, where he can get his ‘gaoler’, Kleon, killed just by not spending the night there. Kleon’s younger, sexy wife Martya, persuades him into renting a deserted house in which treasure is supposed to be hidden but the first thing they find is a mummified dead woman behind a mirror.
That’s just the start. The story progresses in a herky-jerky manner, with abrupt changes in circumstances for Grafton and long delays that often are only mentioned in passing, such as the year Grafton spends in prison, sharing a cell with fellow-American Russell Rathaus.
I’ve read the book three times before, and generally enjoyed it, but this time I found it tiring and tiresome.
I think this is because I’ve just hit the wall on Wolfe’s unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they can’t write. Able in The Wizard Knight, Chris in Pirate Freedom and now Grafton, supposedly a successful and respected writer of travel books in The Land Across, who is completely incompetent at telling a narrative. And Grafton doesn’t even have the excuse of supposedly writing a letter to an intimate: Grafton is writing a story for public consumption.
All of them are writing as if this is a face-to-face conversation and that anything left out has to be told later, instead of just going back and rewriting to fit it in where it applies.
I know this is not merely a consummate professional writer but a highly experienced and skillful writer at work, but the more accurately that Wolfe impersonates a guy with no narrative ability whatsoever, the more the book is a story told by someone with no narrative ability whatsoever, and ultimately the effect is the same as reading a crap writer. It’s tiring, offputting and has the effect of detaching the reader. or this reader at any rate, from the story itself.
And it’s a deliberately ragged story. I have never actually read any Kafka, but this is decidedly Kafka-esque as I understand it. The Land Across is a hotbed of official and unofficial paranoia. Foreigners disappear into it with no recourse to their home countries, who seem not to care. People don’t even believe Grafton is American, or rather Amerikan as it is constantly put, they believe him to be German (German is the most commonly spoken and understood language after the native tongue) and ignore him when he says he’s not.
As I said, the initial set-up is that Grafton must sleep in Kleon’s house each night, or Kleon will be shot, but he rents the mysterious house, The Limes, where treasure is supposedly hidden. However, Kleon beats him up and throws him out after Grafton and Martya take too little care o conceal that he is shagging her (or, to use her original and rather charming euphemism, ‘tiring’ her).
Grafton spends two unchronicled months at the Limes before abruptly being kidnapped by the Legion of the Light, a quasi-religious, quasi-political revolutionary group that believes in eschewing Change. Grafton has to read their radio sermons/message, the idea being that an American apparently adopting their beliefs will bring support from America. After an undisclosed period doing this, Grafton gets to drop a clue as to where they are into one of his broadcasts, drawing down a Government raid.
He is shot, painfully but not threateningly, and put in prison without trial, sharing a cell with another American, the aforementioned Russell Rathaus, age 65, seller of Voodoo dolls (don’t laugh), who has been arrested along with his Rosalee (who we later learn is forty years younger than him, blonde and beautiful). Grafton and Russ share a cell for a year, before Rathaus escapes by a fantastic means.
Grafton is promptly released into the custody of Naala, a senior JAKA operative, they being the secret police, to aid in investigating how Rathaus got out, where he is, what he’s doing, and how much he’s involved with The Unholy Way. Is this making sense as logical progression yet?
I have, so far, not mentioned that Grafton frequently sees a man dressed in black that no-one else seems to see, who never speaks, who helps him from time to time and who bears a strange resemblance to this guy Grafton keeps seeing on posters (we infer him to be the country’s Leader, and we will be correct in this assumption: he also resembles Grafton’s father).
Unfortunately, all this set-up leads to a prolonged investigation, conducted at exhausting length, with much deduction as to motives, actions, relationships and whereabouts. It kills all momentum in the story dead, and gives the impression of being interminable. During this part of the book, my weariness with Grafton, and his self-satisfied modes of speech and his inability to tell anything like a straightforward story, boiled over from weariness into outright irritation, further dulling my ability to deal with the book.
Which has now developed a fantastic aspect. A dead hand, a woman’s hand that appears to have been used as a Hand of Glory is presumably satanic rituals, is taken from the Archbishop by Naala for examination. Despite her being about twice his age, Grafton is now shagging her, when the hand comes to life and tries to strangle Naala. It goes into hiding then reappears in Grafton’s coat pocket, acting of its own accord. Grafton accepts this as nothing unusual, keeps it secret and basically becomes its ally.
Naala and Grafton attempt to use Russell Rathaus’s also-imprisoned wife, Rosalee (age 24, blonde and beautiful, Grafton wants to make her) to get him out of hiding, but they’re a bit too clever over how they manipulate her and when a prisoner closely resembling her is killed in the dormitory – for no related reason – Rosalee takes flight and runs. Needless to say, Grafton finds her, though he won’t turn her in to Naala.
More deduction as to motives, actions, relationships and whereabouts determines that it is Martya who brings the hand to the priest, Papa Iason,that she’s done so on behalf of Russell, and the Russ is Iason’s out-of-wedlock father.
Grafton’s now committed himself so deeply to working for the JAKA that he’s made an Operator himself, with a silver badge and his own gun. Ultimately, his running around locates Rathaus, though this is actually only a voodoo doll of him. Finally, and I am leaving out a lot of detail I didn’t even want to try to solve, he and Rathaus between them shoot or capture most of the Unholy Way, but not their leader, the Undead Dragon, whom Grafton then works out has to be the Archbishop himself.
When he confronts this very old man, the Archbishop commits suicide by throwing himself off a bell-tower he climbs every day.
As a consequence, everybody is taken to meet the Leader, who is the man in black that Grafton keeps seeing where nobody else sees him, who he keeps referring to as the third border guard. Russ and Rosalee get to go home, Naala gets a medal, Martya gets returned to Puraustays to reunite with a pardoned Kleon (if anyone can actually catch him to pardon him), but she does get her third share of the treasure when Grafton uses the disembodied hand to locate it at the Willows.
Grafton gets a medal and his passport back, but stays an overseas employee of the JAKA. He decides not to write his travel book but to write this book instead, which is a very suspect decision.
I love Gene Wolfe’s work, and perhaps on another occasion, in isolation, I will have more patience with The Land Across, and be able to approach it with a more coherent analysis. I am not able to do so at this moment. This will have to suffice at this point in this long blog series, with only one book remaining.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Home Fires’


Whatever their other flaws, these latter-day Gene Wolfe books are far easier to read than the overlaid, multi-character, multi-dialect series of the Nineties and early Two Thousands. In the case of Home Fires, that’s only up to a point.
The book is closer to hard SF than anything Wolfe has written since his unregarded debut novel, Operation ARES. It’s set in a recognisable American setting, recognisable in being populated by familiar figures acting in ways that are recognisable to us, but in a future removed from us by a great gulf of time. It’s told mainly from the point of view of Skip Grisom (and that’s his real name), a middle-aged lawyer, who lives and practices in South Boswatch, which is part of the NAU or Northern American Union.
In a 1984-esque set-up, the world is now made-up of three great power-blocs, the NAU, the EU (hah-hah!) and Greater Eastlandia, who are engaged in a non-shooting war with each other. There is also the SAU, which is apparently negligible, being at war with itself.
The planet as a whole is engaged in an interplanetary war with aliens known as the Os (who do not directly appear), the two protagonists constantly on the search for habitable planets and fighting to be first to find, take and keep them.
At home, the NAU appears to suffer from over-population, massive unemployment, increased stratification of society, and, in the NAU at least, a much more draconian penal system in which there is an imperative to find accused people guilty and sentence them to execution so as to reduce the population. Nice world to live in, I don’t think.
The beauty of it is is that Wolfe’s world-building is deliberately sketchy and offhand. It hews to the refusal to ‘As you know’. Grisom lives in this future and refers to things in it as givens, in passing, just as we do not constantly tell our friends, neighbours, colleagues and loved ones that, for instance, Britain is a Monarchy, or that our governing body is called Parliament. The effect is impressionistic, avoiding detail that would bog the story down, and giving us a skeleton on which to build our own flesh.
Grisom is a very successful attorney, intelligent, astute, combative, instinctively given to analysis and cross-examination over the least little thing, a professional skill now turned into a lifelong habit. Twenty-three years ago, he and his girlfriend Chelle Sea Blue (pronounced Shell, and implied to be short for Shelley) were poor students. They came to a deal: he would build up a successful legal career and become rich, or at least well-off, and she would join the army, fight off-planet and, when rotated out of combat, due to time-dilation and FTL flight, she would return, still young and beautiful. They became contractors: a legal binding relationship that sits beside and has virtually replaced marriage.
Twenty-three years have passed on Earth for Grisom, three on the planet Johanna, or Gehenna as Grisom at one point miss(?)-calls it. Now she’s due back.
Grisom’s still very much in love with Chelle, but he’s equally aware that he is old compared to her, flabby, balding and off-putting physically. Though she left joking about returning a young contracta with a rich (sugar daddy) contracto, Grisom from the very first moment sees himself as bound to lose her. He isn’t attractive enough and, to put in with a crudeness Wolfe never uses, he’s too old to fuck her as often as her appetite will demand.
Nevertheless, he prepares for a wonderful life with her, a penthouse flat for them to live in, a long sea cruise on which to rediscover themselves and, as a special gift, Chelle’s mother, Vanessa Henessey.
There are complications that require explaining. Firstly, Chelle divorced her mother (and her father, Charles Blue) before enlisting. Secondly, Vanessa died five years after Chelle left Earth. This is another part of Wolfe’s future, Reanimation. Essentially, because everyone gets regularly and routinely brain-scanned, a person can be brought back from death by erasing the brain-patterns of a willing volunteer, and scanning a dead person onto their brain.
Vanessa Hennesey believes herself in every respect to be Vanessa Henessey. That her physical body once had an existence of its own (as one Edith Erkhardt) is merely an intellectual concept. But not to people who had dealings with Edith Erkhardt and attempt to kill her body.
Chelle isn’t aware of the truth abut her mother. She believes implicitly that that’s her, and the fact she hasn’t aged anything like enough years is down to her mother having been in space, inferredly as an Earth spy.
There’s a second complication, for Chelle is not wholly Chelle. She was caught in an explosion, seriously wounded, had to be rebuilt. Part of her is surviving tissue from someone called Jane Sims: Chelle talks in her sleep about Jane’s former lover, Don. Jane was a physicist, and some people believe that they can extract from Chelle secrets that Jane possessed.
One other thing: Grisom has not been faithful to his contracta (and it’s a stone-cold certainty that Chelle hasn’t been faithful to her contracto, though whether the concept of fidelity is as important in a marital-substitute relationship is a point on which Wolfe offers no clues). For the last nine years he has been having it off with his confidential secretary Susan Clerkin, who’s now in her mid-thirties, deeply in love with Grison and faced with the Damoclean sword of being dumped as soon as Chelle gets back ceasing to be a theoretical future.
That’s a lot of set-up, and this just covers the principal issues. Grisom and Chelle go on their cruise and, despite Chelle’s enthusiasm for his body, despite his fears, she quickly gets into a blazing row with him over her misimpression about Vanessa’s youth, and gets drunk and fucks someone of her own age in their stateroom.
Then they make up after discovering that Vanessa is no longer missing, feared dead, but has transmuted herself into Virginia Healey, Social Director on their cruise ship.
The book then transforms itself into its second phase, where it becomes a fast-paced action thriller. Grisom, Chelle and Virginia travel to meet a voodoo queen, who supplied the two women with guns. They return to find the ship has sailed early, and when they catch up with it, learn that this is because it has been hi-jacked (shades of Iain Banks’ Canal Dreams). Grisom becomes an unlikely leader in the fight back that eventually reclaims control of the ship This section too is sketchy, and the narrative continuity is disturbed by periods when Grisom is asleep, or unconscious.
At the end of this phase, Grisom is wounded in the head and unconscious for three days. Once he recovers, he starts cross-examining everyone he can speak to, reconstructing details of what happened whilst he was out, and indeed everything that he’s not personally seen. One of these things is that Chelle has hopped into bed with Mick Tooley, Grisom’s junior associate, a very resourceful lawyer, and another element of this partially-seen world given that successful young lawyers with a future ahead of them progress thanks to their ability to go all Die Hard Bruce Willis.
This, however, is where the book runs out of momentum and, indeed, collapses under its own weight. Everybody’s got secrets, things they’re not telling about, and Grisom’s determined to come up with explanations for everything. The last third of the book is not much more than a string of cross-examinations and speculations, until instead of the story growing clearer and more lucid, it is buried under skeins of conspiracy.
I’ve not yet mentioned one aspect of the book’s literary structure. It alternates between full-length chapters in the third person, built upon Grisom’s viewpoint, and brief interludes, headed ‘Reflections’, that are Grisom’s internal responses and thoughts about what the most recent events may involve.
But in the penultimate chapter, back in the NAU, showing off the penthouse home they’re not, after all, going to occupy, Grisom tells Chelle the truth about Vanessa. It provokes fury and revulsion and the end. The last chapter and the last Reflection are seen from Chelle, who has run off to Mick Tooley, and who reveals that her relationship with Skip was never one of love. It undermines everything the story has been about, and it impliedly places Grisom on a par with the parents Shelley Baines divorced.
And it doesn’t answer or divert the last twist, as Grisom joins the Army, as an attorney in the Judge Advocate’s Department. He’s going off-planet now. By the time he gets back, he and Chelle will be roughly the same age again…
This review has been substantially longer than many of my more recent Gene Wolfe essays, and yet there is an incredible amount of detail that I have left out. The story is, in myriad ways, much more complex than I have made it out to be, to the point where some of its connections begin to stretch plausibility. It is a good, impressionistic sketch of a future society relatable to ourselves but differing into uncountable ways, made up of constructions we put in place ourselves. It is a fast, impressionistic action thriller. But it is weighted down by a complicated and increasingly dull over-extended coda that burdens it with minutiae alien to the temper of the rest of the novel, and far too full of Wolfe’s Analytical Man, building true scenarios out of gossamer evidence and being conspicuously clever whilst claiming to be ignorant, and that is what relegates this book to the ranks of the final, fading works.

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.

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.