Things are rarely simple with Gene Wolfe. Take his Castle of Days – there’s not one castle, there’s two of them. The first castle is a physical book – a compilation which reprints his second major short story collection (Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days), a rare pamphlet he put out about his process of writing The Book of the New Sun (The Castle of the Otter), and the second Castle of Days, this being a brace of essays on other topics.
What you get here, then, is a triptych, comprising one short story collection and two essay collections, each of which is a shade over half the length of the short story collection. It’s the sort of edifice you’d want a floorplan to navigate – so here goes…
Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days
As the title implies, this has a calendrical theme, with each short story being associated with a particular holiday, anniversary, or other annual occasion. There’s even a bit of microfiction in the introduction – a cautionary tale about the danger of misusing libraries – to mark “Date Due”, and to reward people who don’t skip author’s introductions.
Our first full story marks Lincoln’s birthday with How the Whip Came Back, a scathing bit of social commentary about a near-future UN conference which plans to reinstate slavery – specifically in the form of penal reform, so that convicted prisoners could be “leased” to paying members of the public. Originally published in 1970, this would have hailed from when Wolfe regarded himself as more of a doctrinaire libertarian, so there’s some cracks about how Church and charity have withered away because people have been happy for the state to take on those roles instead, though equally Wolfe doesn’t take the usual libertarian route of arguing that charity can step into the compassion gap – indeed, the main character is a woman who works for the charity sector for social clout, not because she sincerely cares about the causes in question.
The story can seem incongruous, because the US prison-industrial complex is an infamous Constitutional loophole which keeps a form of modern-day slavery going anyway – but on reading up on this I found out that prison labour in the US expanded massively after 1979 legislation created lots more opportunities to use it, and in particular removed restrictions on prison-manufactured products crossing state lines. To that extent, it’s hard to disagree with the central pillar of Wolfe’s position here – something not unlike what he was afraid of has in fact come to pass.
That said, I am not sure that the background details like expansive government welfare programs or the decline of religion necessarily point to the root cause of this evil; private corporations, a force notably absent in the story, seem to be the main beneficiaries of the US prison-industrial complex, and many hard-right US leaders have been able to resolve the contradiction between avowed Christian values and support for harsh treatment of convicts.
The depiction of a shabby, declining Catholic Church – where the last nun recently died, the priests have given up all their traditional trappings, and the Pope knocks about in a cheap suit smoking cheap cigarettes while trying to wake up people’s consciences – is perhaps something Wolfe legitimately worried about at the time (he strikes me as someone who’d have felt it was a shame that Vatican II gave up on the Latin Mass because Latin is pretty), but also incongruous given the Church’s apparent ability to keep the lights on and the bills paid despite an entire half-century of fiscal corruption and mass rape elapsing between the story’s composition and now. If that can’t crash the popularity of Rome, what can?
I’ve reviewed a fair number of Gene Wolfe novels and series and short story collections on here (and back in the Ferretbrain days), but I’ve held off on trying to tackle his longest and most elaborate series – the Solar Cycle, comprising the constituent series of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun novels. I did that because I was seriously intimidated about the prospect of tackling it.
The first series in the cycle – the New Sun novels featuring Severian the torturer, is particularly challenging. The series uses a lot of archaic language – though less neologisms than you may think, and generally speaking you can get a rough sense of what the unfamiliar words mean from context. It is presented from the perspective of an unreliable narrator who doesn’t seem to be purposefully trying to trick you, but doesn’t always understand what he is encountering. And its setting superficially appears to use a lot of standard fantasy tropes, only to be revealed as a far stranger science fantasy affair as matters progress.
Still, I think it’s high time I tackled it, not least because the longer I spent prevaricating about reviewing it, the longer I was putting off re-reading it, and I loved it when I last tackled it over a decade ago. Let’s see how well it’s aged – and how much I can get out of it on a second read-through.
The Shadow of the Torturer
It is a staggering number of years in the future. The Sun has dimmed and begins to turn red; the Moon was terraformed long ago, and so rather than being silver it is green; and the Earth (or, as it is now known, Urth) has become a cosmic backwater. Here and there evidence can be found of its inhabitants travelling among the stars – flora, fauna, and visitors from offworld crop up here and there, and ancient towers may prove to be decommissioned starships.
One such tower sits in the Citadel of the vast city of Nessus; known as the Matachin Tower, it is the residence of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence… otherwise known as the Guild of Torturers, tasked with the excruciation, interrogation, and execution of the “clients” the authorities commit into their care. Like the rest of the innumerable guilds of the Citadel, the Torturers have accumulated a mass of traditions, rituals, and their own curious internal ethics over the long years of their service to the line of Autarchs who have ruled over this portion of the world (the Commonwealth) since time immemorial.
Severian was, as tradition demands, adopted by the Guild when a small child, having been a foundling. He has been raised among his brothers in the Guild; he knows of little else. However, one day on a night-time jaunt outside of the Tower, Severian gets separated from his friends and encounters Vodalus, an infamous rebel against the Autarch, and Vodalus’ partner Thea. Later, as Severian rises through the ranks of the apprentices, the Chatelaine Thecla – the sister to Thea – is confined to the Matachin Tower, in what is rumoured to be a bid to exert leverage on Vodalus.
Tasked with the care of Thecla, Severian falls in love with her; complicit in the first of an extensive schedule of tortures to be inflicted on her, Severian leaves his knife behind in her cell on purpose, allowing her to commit suicide to escape the rest of her mandated punishment. To save face, the Guild decide to send him away – members of the Guild have on occasion been called on to act as executioners outside of the capital, and the northern town of Thrax is in need of just such an official. But with Nessus so vast it takes days to merely walk out of town, there is plenty of opportunity for Severian to encounter danger before he even leaves the city. Danger, and perhaps also miracles – but will he recognise the latter when he sees them?
It is the Middle Ages; the exact year and location is not specified, both geography and history being far from the interests of most of the characters in our tale; there’s signs that we’re probably somewhere near Prague, but there’s enough blending of the setting that the story could plausibly take place anywhere in the Christian portions of Western Europe. Our locale is a village by a deep forest which clusters around the lower reaches of a mountain; nearby, the legendary fountain of St. Agnes is a popular pilgrimage site, which enriches the local village both spiritually in terms of being a sacred site and financially thanks to the business opportunities which arise from providing shelter and supplies to travelling pilgrims.
Or at least, that’s how things used to be. Of late the infamous outlaw, Wat, has lurked in the forest and waylaid travellers, and that means custom has dried right up. The murder of a travelling peddler is the last straw – and the local priest (who the narrative only refers to as “the abbé”) has a plan. The last time the local lord’s soldiers came to try and root out Wat, it came to nothing and they were nothing but a burden on the village – but the locals know the area better. Why not form a little militia and deal with Wat themselves?
The orphan Mark lives a simple life; he’s two years off the end of his apprenticeship to Gloin, the village weaver. Mark and Gloin are part of the new militia by the abbé’s invitation – but Mark isn’t wholly sure of this. The local charcoal burners seem to have much nice to say about Wat, the eccentric, witchy Mother Cloot has her own perspective, and besides, Mark’s more interested in his mutual flirtation with Josellen, the daughter of the local innkeeper. When Mark and Josellen creep out for a nighttime tryst, they end up unexpectedly encountering Wat – and Mark finds his loyalties tested under the influence of the charismatic outlaw.
But Wat is not the only danger. Mother Cloot has her own agenda, and Wat and his charcoal burner allies are part of that; what’s more, a troop of vicious soldiers have been sent on a sweep to seek Wat, and frustrated in their goals and suspecting the villagers of working with Wat (a guess which isn’t wholly untrue) are throwing their weight about. Who has the right of it, and who doesn’t? Mark had better figure it out quick – for the Barrow Man, the ancient pagan king buried in the nearby tumulus, is stirring, and the conflict in the forest may give him fresh tools to work with…
Gene Wolfe has a bit of a reputation for being impenetrable as an author, not least because his magnum opus, The Book of the New Sun, involves a truly bizarre far-future setting coupled with an unusual vocabulary. The Wizard Knight, a two-book sequence published in 2004 as The Knight and The Wizard (and also available in an omnibus edition titled simply The Wizard Knight), at first seems like the opposite of that: it’s set in a fantasy world based on mythological references that innumerable previous quasi-medieval fantasy worlds have relied on, and it’s told in fairly plain English.
As anyone who’s read Wolfe knows, though, it’s when he seems to be at his most straightforward that he’s at his trickiest. The Wizard Knight has a fairly strong reputation within Wolfe’s bibliography – it’s fairly widely recommended as being one of his best works – so let’s see how it stands up nearly 20 years after its original publication.
The first half of the story introduces our protagonist, and sees him gradually forged into the knightly figure we’ve been told right from the title page he is going to become. He’s a teen from America who has found himself in the world of Mythgarthr, having fallen into the hands of the fair folk of Aelfrice. As he exits the land of the Aelfs into the world of mortals, he encounters a seer who bestows upon him the name Able of the High Heart, after which he sets aside his old name. Further adventure finds him encountering Bold Berthold, a forest hermit who, having suffered a terrible head injury at the hands of the Angrborn (raiding giants from Jotunland), believes Able to be his lost brother, also called Able and also believed to have been taken by the Aelf-folk.
After a time spent living in the woods with Bold Berthold, Able encounters Sir Ravd, a knight who inspires him to seek knighthood himself – and some time after he encounters Disiri, a queen of the Moss Aelfs who transforms his body so that he is now taller, stronger, and more powerful… or perhaps she simply restores to him the years he spent in Aelfrice which had been held back from him. This latter seems more and more likely, as Sir Able – a knight in spirit, and soon enough a knight in reputation and by the acknowledgement of his peers – discovers hidden reserves of wisdom and insight, as well as certain abilities and capacities not accessible to ordinary folk. Able seems to have a way of stumbling into other worlds fairly often, and a knack for reaching understandings with curious entities; as his journeys continue, he gathers an expanding retinue of supernatural entities who have attached themselves to his service.
Though in his deeds he tries to fit the mould of a knight, Sir Able is a curious one indeed – for he knows things and is able to work wonders from a distance through the assistance of his retinue, he does not have the cultural background to really fit in within the social parameters of the kingdom of Celidon, and he has a way of coming and going as his strange adventures take him on wilder and wilder tangents. (This is where the wizard portion of the whole “wizard knight” thing comes in.) Nonetheless, having become infatuated with Disiri, he has his heart set on obtaining the sword Eterne which she spoke of as being appropriate for him – so much so that he refuses to use any other sword until he has it in his grasp. But to obtain Eterne, he will have to face Grengarm, the dragon that guards it…
It’s fair to say that Wolfe spent much of his career writing fantasies with fairly niche concepts; The Book of the New Sun might be the oddest fantasy novel ever to become widely regarded as a genre classic. You might be forgiven, glancing over the above synopsis, for thinking that The Knight would be similarly straightforward. After all, it’s got all the hallmarks of much more conventional fantasy: a broadly medieval setting, a good dose of Norse mythology, and an all-American lad whisked off to a magic world in search of adventure having a bit of a coming-of-age story.
Then, when you start reading the book, you realise that it’s a deeper than average example of this sort of thing; the authentic mythic tone to the whole thing in particular puts me in mind of Poul Anderson’s fantasies like The Broken Sword or Three Hearts and Three Lions, the latter of which Wolfe makes a deliberate tip of the hat to. By the time you get to the end you realise that you’re dealing with a much trickier prospect than it seemed at first.
Let’s take the framing device: the book is written as though it is an account intended for Ben, Able’s brother in America; Able never expects to return, but believes there’s a way (not explained here) he can get this manuscript to Ben, and wants to give his brother some closure. So far, so good, but there’s fairly clear indications that something was off about Ben and Able’s relationship. We glean from the occasional aside that Ben was significantly older than Able (enough so that the prospect of him being their father’s son from an earlier marriage is on the table), that their parents are not in the picture any more, and that Ben thought Able was “in the way” and so was inclined to leave him alone at the family cabin in the woods, which is where Able was when he wandered off and fell into the hands of the Aelfs.
That Able doesn’t seem to realise how fucked up that is suggests an upbringing where neglect was common enough to seem unremarkable. One could detect further issues. Able is quick to strike out at people he perceives as disrespecting him, but within very particular parameters; his violence is essentially directed at violent men, or men he infers are about to become violent. In some respects this is helpful – there’s multiple instances of Able having a conflict with someone, apparently talking them to a satisfactory resolution, and then (at least according to his telling) being obliged to come after them harder anyway when they try to renege on the deal. There’s at least one instance, however, where he comes hard after someone who merely gave the impression of disrespect – specifically, a warden from the dungeons of Castle Sheerwall (of which more later). This character trait of his makes me think that he’s simply used to sudden, arbitrary violence – and not from his time in Aelfrice, because he’s not on a hair-trigger so much around the Aelfs.
One also wonders if Able is neurodivergent in some respect; he’s more at home hanging out with his talking dog and cat or talking to people one-on-one than he is in regular society, and some social cues seem to slide past him entirely – for instance, he doesn’t quite seem to understand why the “wardens” (almost certainly torturers) of Castle Sheerwall are so mistrusted, or why they’re so insistent on not allowing others to explore their dungeons.
Able’s status as someone who had some years taken away from him and then given back puts him in an interesting spot: the fact that he feels like he’s still a confused teen inside, if anything, makes him seem more like an authentic adult than if he thought he was truly an unstoppable badass: for many people, the moment you become an adult isn’t when you’re sure of yourself, it’s when you realise that you aren’t sure of yourself and nobody else entirely is either. Perhaps one of Able’s most endearing and positive traits as a character is his willingness to directly state what he perceives as his limitations or gaps in his expertise, rather than trying to brashly cover for them, but this if anything comes across as more genuinely mature than many of the knights he encounters.
Wolfe doesn’t strike me as having been the sort of guy who’d use the term “toxic masculinity”, but some of the behaviours Able describes on the part of lesser knights fits that description perfectly, and some of the behaviours he exhibits or is tempted by suggests that he has his own issues there (but is doing a little better at working past them). Svon, Ravd’s dirtbag squire who takes against Able from the start, is a particular case in point – even though Able seems to have his own violence issues they’re more flash-of-temper-in-the-moment things, Svon is the sort to go away and stew a bit and then do something deeply dishonourable when he thinks he can get away with it.
Despite having a very human personality, Able clearly has inhuman qualities to him; over the course of the novel these get teased out more and more, largely through his encounters with individuals of Aelfrice and other worlds either investing him with these abilities or awakening them in him (you can have your own theories as to which). Between this and his tendency to deeply impress those he encounters and win their loyalty (at least according to his account), he’d come across as a bit of a full-blown superhero, which it’s why it’s good that he has as many character faults as he does, and suffers as many twists of fate as he does into the bargain.
In particular, Able has a knack over the course of this novel of promising to do stuff and then not doing them – not because he deliberately went back on his word, but because some bizarre tangent happened which made it impossible, or because some crisis happened which demanded his immediate attention. Some of these issues are resolved within the span of the book, but many are left up in the air at the conclusion. This puts me in mind of the sort of story structures you see in de Troyes or von Eschenbach, in which the story picks up more and more threads as it goes until it hits a tipping point and things start getting resolved as the tale moves towards its conclusion.
This parallel in structure is not the only respect in which Wolfe nods to his source material; the names of notable knights from the chivalric troubadour poems rattle forth at one point, and older myth besides pervades the book. Though Norse mythology is most apparent, as the novel progresses it’s not only apparent that this is a syncretic universe where one can infer that the Christian God exists in some Prime Mover capacity in the highest of the worlds (the Archangel Michael shows up at one point and everything), but also that we aren’t solely dealing with Norse myth here; bits of Greco-Roman mythology crop up here and there, such as a passing mention of a goddess who is the daughter of the Valfather and is associated with the moon and archery, a description which fits Artemis/Diana much better than any figure in Norse myth.
This requires interpreting the Valfather as Zeus, not Odin (as the Wild Hunt associations of Gylf, the Valfather’s dog who Able adopts for a bit) for the purpose of this comparison, but a) the Romans had a way of defaulting to calling foreign deities Mercury a lot, it was a go-to option based on the assumption that however far you travelled, Mercury would have got there before you, and b) in the book the Valfather seems to mostly fly around in his flying castle, which feels distinct both from Zeus presiding on Olympus and Odin travelling on the roads incognito but on the other hand has a note of both rulership and travel which makes for a nice mix. Mapping Wolfe’s concepts here directly and simplisticly to any particular source is a mistake, he has fun with his source material and very much puts his own spin on things. (The ideas here about the interactions of humans and Aelfs is quite interesting.)
In addition, of course, some aspects of Arthurian myth crop up here and there – but because of Able’s uncanny aspects, there’s more of the Green Knight than Gawain to him – rather than being the sort of worldly knight with worldly capabilities, interests, and faults that Gawain is often presented as, he’s the sort of guy who’ll so up, do something almost incomprehensible, and set a story into motion that way. (This impression pays off in an aside in The Wizard.) He also has a Percival-like aspect in the sense of being someone who lives out in the woods and then is inspired to become a knight by an encounter with a knight, and in The Wizard he’ll become a sort of inverted Lancelot – like Lancelot, he’ll be the best knight of the court, but unlike Lancelot he will be suspected by the King of infidelity with the Queen which has not and will not happen, whereas Lancelot of course does have an affair and King Arthur is usually depicted as suspecting nothing (or pretending not to notice until overt accusations are made by others).
Some may find some of the romance aspects of the book and the overall presentation of women shaky, though Wolfe does at least throw some suggestion in that the gender roles here are a feature of the culture and not The Way Things Should Be. There’s a bit where Able says that both men and women will need to fight the Angrborn, for instance, because ultimately the giants are much stronger than humans anyway, so any question about a distinction between men and women’s capacity for combat is ultimately overshadowed by the disadvantaged any person has going up against the Angrborn anyway.
The Angrborn, indeed, represent the most troubling aspect of the book. They are very much in the Humanoid People It Is OK To Kill slot, and that’s a concept which is troubling. Even Tolkien, in later life, had reservations about how he’d presented the orcs in Lord of the Rings – though I would expect Wolfe as a passionate Tolkien fan to know that – yet in this stretch of the book we hear nothing about the Angrborn that’s good. There’s a particular plot point about them capturing and raping human women and then mistreating their half-giant offspring which is particularly gruesomely presented, though a woman who has suffered this fate is encountered at one point and is given the opportunity to tell the story from her perspective, which is at least a step above just running the whole “barbarous foreigners Want Our Women” plot 100% straight without foregrounding the experiences of the women themselves, which is how it too often goes.
Still, Wolfe has an entire volume in the duology left to show a different side to all this, and it’s rarely a good call to take something in a Wolfe story 100% at face value, so I’ll reserve judgement on this plot point until after I have tackled the rest of the story…
At the end of The Knight, Sir Able won possession of Eterne, and won his way to the castle of the Valfather in the upper-world of Skai. Some twenty years passed there for him, or thereabouts – but because time flows differently in the different worlds, when he became dimly aware of his unfinished business in lower realms the Valfather permitted him to return to Mythgarthr a thin slice of time after he left. In his time as a knight in that lofty court, Sir Able has gained wisdom to go with the strength he was invested with by the Aelf-folk – but having won the status of an Overcyn, the locals of Skai (of which the Valfather is king), he’s set apart from other mortal folk, and the Valfather places a requirement on him to prevent him arbitrarily using his full capabilities.
In his absence, Able’s friends have gone deeper and deeper into peril, for through one route or another they have become embroiled in affairs in Jotunland. Duke Beel has been sent by King Arnthor as an ambassador to King Gilling, ruler of the Angrborn, to try and persuade Gilling to cease attacks on Celidon. Beel’s daughter, Idnn, is intended to marry Gilling to seal the peace; Able thinks well of both Beel and Idnn, and several allies of his past are present are found either in Beel and Idnn’s retinue or enslaved by the Angrborn. With rebellion brewing in Jotunland and tensions rising in the Celidon delegation, Sir Able will have his work cut out for him – and because Able is delayed by other obligations, Idnn, Able’s squire Toug, and others will need to discover hidden reserves of heroism to see the crisis through.
Eventually, Able is able to set things aright and resolve the various obligations he took on since his arrival in Mythgarthr. Now there is only one thing to do: to deliver to King Arnthor the message the Aelf-folk had sent him to deliver, whilst concealing his memory of it. Yet the politics at the King’s court and the festering jealousy of the King may make this harder than you think – and then an invasion by the cannibalistic Osterlings throws all into chaos. It seems Sir Able has one last task to accomplish. Will Celidon live to see the end of it? Able knows that he himself will not – for no knight joins the Valfather in Skai unless they are already dead…
There simultaneously is and is not a time skip between The Knight and The Wizard: little time passes for Able’s companions, but much time has passed for Able, which means that whereas in the first book he was recalling events as they occurred to a boy-man dragged into maturity without warning, here he is recounting incidents he experienced from a perspective of greater maturity. He’s catching on to more, and he’s got a better handle on what’s going on, and he has much more certainty about what he needs to do.
However, even as Able is coming into his full potential, the expanded cast are scattered. As a result, Wolfe stretches the epistolary novel format a little here; the conceit is still that this is a missive by Able to his brother in our Earth (whose place in this cosmology is somewhat clarified here), but whereas The Knight was 100% rooted in Able’s own subjective experiences (and therefore incorporated nothing that Able did not himself witness directly), here he starts to incorporate entire chapters that are related to him second-hand by other characters in order to fill in the parts of the story he wasn’t personally present form.
This is a nice conceit because it allows Wolfe to establish just enough distance from Able to illustrate both how he has affected other characters through his actions, and to build them up more as characters in their own right. Toug, Able’s apprentice, gets a fair bit of viewpoint chapters, but the character who perhaps benefits the most from all this is Idnn, who over the scope of the story not only becomes a badass warrior in her own right, but also skillfully navigates matters in Jotunland, making good on the commitment to marry King Gilling but timing that until after he is incapacitated and is effectively helpless.
Much of the first two thirds or so of the book are taken up with the Jotunland expedition, which gives Wolfe ample opportunity to flesh out the Angrborn, both in terms of their place in the cosmology and in their personal depth. They’re still a dangerous people, but one gets the impression that this is as much to do with a dysfunctional culture as their origins; they are clearly not wholly irredeemable (otherwise they would reside in a far lower place on the cosmological scale), but they have particular burdens which makes it easier to understand why they are the way they are. Struggle against them is still worthwhile, but only in the sense that they are aggressors, and if they were not acting aggressively it would be best to leave them alone to their own devices.
If anything, it’s the Osterlings who take on the role of “humanoids it’s OK to kill” here. Mentioned in The Knight, the Osterlings are not quite fully human and need to eat human flesh in order to cover the gap. Given some of the features of the cosmology of the setting, this might be intended to mean they are actually partially Aelf-folk or other denizens of lower regions of the cosmos who have somehow ended up in Mythgarthr and use cannibalism to maintain a foothold there.
That said, whilst this is clearly a bizarre feature of theirs which does not easily map directly onto real human cultures, at the same time it also has the side-effect of demonising them even further, which makes those parallels with real-world cultures they do exhibit all the worse. There’s plenty of clues which are meant to nudge the reader into thinking of them as a Middle Eastern culture (a “wazir” who seems to have a vizier-like role), or perhaps a Mongol analogue (they are led by “Caans”, for instance), which feels like a particularly galling analogy for a book coming out in the mid-2000s.
That said, Wolfe gives himself something of an out here. There’s signs that “Celidon” is in fact a parallel North America – there’s trees in Celidon which are indigenous to North America in our world, and at one point in the Osterling invasion Able’s forces are able to gain reinforcements by encountering a party of “Lothurlings”, who it soon becomes apparent have a quasi-Chinese culture and come from the west, across the sea. This’d mean that Jotunland is somewhere up in Canada, and the Osterlings probably come from somewhere between the Midwest and the East Coast. (They reside on the other side of a mountain range out east – the Mountains of the Dawn – so the extent of their realm may depend on whether those are the Rocky Mountains or the Appalachians.)
Wolfe’s done this trick before – in The Book of the New Sun the “Ascians” are, if you read between the lines, evidently locals to North America, even though some cultural signs would initially suggest to the reader a sort of far-future dystopian take on Maoist China. One also thinks of Wolfe’s Seven American Nights in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, in which a USA fallen into terminal decline is visited and described in similar terms to which American travellers might talk about nations in a similarly distressed state today.
Depicting a mythic North America with no sign of Native American peoples feels off in some respects. It’s a well that Wolfe has gone to before – see, for instance, the use of Irish folklore in Peace, though several plot points in that entail a criticism of colonialism. One wouldn’t expect the author of The Fifth Head of Cerberus to be entirely oblivious to the implications here. That said, to reduce Mythgarthr to “fantasy North America” would be reductive; there’s geographic parallels, but there don’t seem to be many obvious cultural parallels. Perhaps Wolfe is making a wry comment here on how much American fantasy seems to be intent on repackaging European mythology with a shallow understanding of it, and presenting a much deeper mythos as a worked example of how it can be done, or maybe the weaving-together of different mythological strands is a statement about how immigrant populations in North America ended up gaining a sense of overlapping common identity (as well as senses of division).
More specifically, one of Wolfe’s recurring themes is the danger of America sleepwalking into taking on the worst aspects of those cultures it considers to be enemies or inferiors, and perhaps the Osterling thing is another example of that. That said, I have reservations about exploring such a thing by recapitulating various other “evil foreigners from the East who have funny ways who just want to wreck our civilisation for kicks” angles from lesser writers.
I’d have even more reservations about it had it not been fairly well established during the courtly intrigue-and-tourneys section of the book that Arnthor is a tyrant and that something is deeply rotten in the state of Celidon – indeed, seeds of this have been sown previously, like with the murky role of the wardens in the dungeons of Sheerwall. I mentioned previously that Able ends up here as a sort of inverted Lancelot, and Wolfe indeed has a lot of fun turning a lot of the Arthurian archetypes on their heads whilst still keeping them in broadly the same role.
The Guinevere counterpart is still a queen who has not managed to give a child to her King and is suspected of infidelity, but far from being the picture of propriety she courts scandal out of desperation whilst actually being entirely innocent, and the reason things don’t get on well with her and the King is that the King is frightful. The Morgana le Fay equivalent is a sister of the King who does spooky, spooky magic and behaves strangely, but all the spooky stuff is for show and she’s specifically acting a role for essentially good reasons, rather than being a genuinely evil witch. The Arthur equivalent is a King who falls out with the best knight in the land over the Queen and ends up dying in a battle in which he ends the enemy’s power by slaying their leader as he himself is mortally wounded, but he is a specifically unjust King who acts out of jealousy, and who has failed to be an inspiration and model to those who should be able to look up to him.
(The true Arthur-figure in the duology, in the sense of being in a similar niche and actually living up to the archetype rather than proving unworthy of it, is actually the Valfather. His halls are less a Valhalla of noisy vikings having a riotous booze-up – which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily what the Norse were thinking of either – so much as it’s a sort of cosmic Camelot, complete with knights who may well be the very ones from the chivalric romances. At the end it is hinted that Able, too, is a sort of Arthur-figure…)
The really clever trick Wolfe pulls off here is that he does all of these inversions whilst still making the whole thing hang together: despite all of the characters having personalities and agendas at odds with their Arthurian counterparts, the social structure of the court feels entirely plausible, and the interactions and stories have the ring of genuine myth to them even though the original myth has been entirely turned inside-out.
This attention to structure applies to the book as well. Whilst The Knight was all about Able, and begins with this fairly constrained narrative of limited scope until it becomes broader and broader and broader, The Wizard begins at the point of maximum narrative breadth in terms of the scope of the matters under the microscope and the cast of characters involved and the level of detail with which things are depicted and narrows, with the sections from other viewpoints tailing off about halfway through and the last quarter or so of the book providing the broad brushstrokes of the war and the major emotional beats. As well as being somewhat like the chivalric romances, as I have said, this also matches the cosmology, with the highest and lowest worlds being the most constrained (since the lowest world must by definition contain only the basest corruption and the highest only the purest perfection) and the middle layer being so vast as to accommodate multiple universes.
As with any of Wolfe’s major works, you’re likely to come away from The Wizard Knight with a different impression each time you read it. By and large, I would say the trip is worth it, with The Wizard largely making good on correcting some of the things I was unsure of in The Knight but not completely. (There’s still some startling references to the mechanics of Angrborn having sex with human women, but the only really blatant example of this involves a character specifically trying to shock and outrage Toug the squire to get him to do something rash.) In true Wolfean fashion, it suckers you in making you think you are in for Wolfe’s take on a fairly generic fantasy concept, only to come out the other end feeling like nothing else in the world is like what Wolfe has done here, and yet at the same time it touches on such a vast range of past texts it will remind you of a million different things, and afterwards a million different things will remind you of it.
Gene Wolfe’s death in 2019, a few weeks before what would have been his 88th birthday, was in some respects the opposite of a surprise. He was, after all, on the high side of his 80s. He hadn’t published a novel since 2015, an unusually long break in what had previously been a fairly steady career, despite alluding to writing a new book in a late 2015 interview – but making sure to give the caveat that he might not finish it.
However, as lovers of literary SF and fantasy mourned the loss of Wolfe, the great man’s good buddy Neil Gaiman brought glad tidings: Wolfe had finished his final novel and sent the manuscript to his publisher right before his death, completing his final dyad of novels – chronicling the unusual investigations of a strange sort of amateur detective, a crime novelist experiencing a dreadful sort of afterlife…
A Borrowed Man
In the 22nd Century, the world population has reached a stable level of a billion or so, the environment is in a good state of repair, and aggression between national governments has tailed off. The population quite likes these last two factors, and attribute them to the first: they therefore have grave reservations about the process of “recloning”, in which a dead person has a new body grown from their DNA and their mind imprinted on the brains of that body from a scan taken when they were alive. After all – if everyone got to come back, the population would shoot back up again.
Reclones, therefore, are not full human beings under the law of the Continental Government of North America – much as slaves were not considered full human beings in America’s past. Indeed, reclones are essentially slaves – they can be purchased, they can be destroyed on a whim, they cannot own property of their own, in a legal sense they are very much property. Owning your own reclone is expensive, of course – imagine the cost of care and feeding. Hence the library system. Many people are interested in interacting with authors from the past (though reclones can’t go back further than the 21st Century, when the mind-scanning technology was perfected), and so libraries keep a supply of recloned authors to loan out from time to time.
Ern A. Smithe is a reclone of the original Ern A. Smithe. The original wrote beloved crime novels. The reclone does not – recloned authors are not permitted to write books of their own, since that would make their old classic works seem less special. The original wrote and thought like a regular guy. The reclone still thinks the same – but he talks in the slightly stuff style of Smithe’s narration in his books, because people expect authors to talk like their prose. And Smithe knows that if people don’t check him out or consult him frequently enough, he’ll be killed to make space for someone else.
One day, Colette Coldbrook walks into the Spice Grove Public Library, where Smithe lives on a shelf, and checks him out for a ten day stint. Coldbrook explains that her father died suddenly recently, and when her brother popped open the old man’s safe he found nothing except a copy of Murder On Mars – one of Smithe’s books. And her brother has been murdered. Coldbrook is a real classy dame – the sort a reclone could get used to being on extended loan to, especially if you could parley it into a regular thing. But Smithe has written enough hardboiled detective fiction to know that such dames mean trouble…
Somewhere in the late 21st or early 22nd Century, the invention of the hopper – a type of space-warping travel device – has not only made near-instantaneous worldwide travel easy, but also enabled contact with the Wolders, an alien race who live on far-off Woldercan. Bill Reis, a former US Ambassador to Woldercan, has returned from this world and gone into business for himself – exhibiting astonishing abilities and amassing incredible wealth. The President, needless to say, is worried. Gideon Chase is a scholar, wizard, and problem-solver to the rich and powerful – and the son of a previous ambassador to Woldercan. He’s the natural person for the President to go to with his problem, but he’s interested in investigating Reis for his own reasons.
Cassie Casey is a modestly successful actress, currently appearing in The Red Spot, a play currently running in Kingsport. One day, Gideon Chase steps into her life and offers her a deal – he’ll awaken the mostly-dormant charisma in her and turn her from a good actress into a crowd-drawing star overnight. All she has to do in return is help him lure in Bill Reis. Sure enough, Bill becomes aware of Cassie with remarkable speed – and after The Red Spot closes, he steps in to finance a new play, a cheesy musical about a missionary family in the South Seas called Dating the Volcano God.
Chase and Reis both in their own way love Cassie – and Cassie finds she loves both of them. But a mere love triangle is the least of their worries. Other government agencies are beginning to put the heat on, Reis and Chase show sinister capabilities, and Reis turns out to have bigger foes than Chase. For Reis has used his wealth and skills to make himself the high king of Takanga, an archipelago of South Seas islands… and Takanga is the closest land mass to R’lyeh, and Cthulhu is far from a friendly neighbour…
An Evil Guest finds Gene Wolfe in a playful mood, weaving into the story an absolute morass of sly references ranging from classical myth to classic SF and fantasy to Cory Doctorow stories. (Reis being a guy who’s gone to an alien world for a while and come back different in a slightly sinister fashion – and indeed might not actually be as human as he was when he left – feels very like Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.) For much of the book, however, the main framework he’s working in appears to be pulp, with elements of pulp detective fiction, pulp romance, pulp science fiction, and pulp horror all mingling together.
Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne are a double planet system, originally colonised by a French-speaking administration which at some point lost power under circumstances not clearly explained. Some of the colony’s technologies are futuristic, whilst others – due in part to its limited industrial base – are more reminiscent of the late 18th Century or early 19th Century, in the time period just preceding the Industrial Revolution and widespread use of the steam engine. Life is far from Utopian; work camps exist, a secret police exists, slavery exists (with some slaves being subjected to various forms of surgical enhancement), children can be sold into indentured servitude.
The colony’s darkest secret, though, concerns the original residents of Sainte Anne – referred to as “abos”. The accepted history is that they all died out in the colonisation process; people dislike to use the term “genocide”, but that’s very much the implication. However, the mysterious Dr. Aubrey Veil has circulated an intriguing hypothesis; she thinks it is possible that the residents of Sainte Anne, possessed of incredible powers of mimicry, saved themselves by killing the first wave of colonists and taking their place. But if the impersonation were truly perfect, would they recall that they had done this?
Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus is one of the greatest science fiction critiques of colonialism and its aftermath. That’s saying a lot considering that it has peers such as Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip and Ursula Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest; indeed, it’s something of a peer to the latter, since both were first published in 1972. It’s sort of a novel, sort of a linked triptych of three novellas; the title story was written first, and was published separately initially, but overwhelming positive feedback prompted Wolfe to complete the other two stories.
It’s intensely difficult to offer any sort of meaningful discussion of the book without getting into spoilery details, since to meaningfully convey what each novella is about something of the interconnections between them must be revealed. Here, then, is a non-spoiler summary before I get into any deep dives: The Fifth Head of Cerberus is an extended meditation on the impact colonialism has on identity, sense of self, social hierarchy, paternalism, and so on and so forth. It’s something of a puzzle box, but it avoids becoming entirely dry thanks to Wolfe’s vivid depiction of the characters’ emotional states and inner lives, his playful and varied storytelling techniques, and the fact that the answers to each of those puzzles offer not so much definitive conclusions as possibilities.
In particular, if you want to have hope for the indigenous Sainte Annese, you can find reasons to believe they have survived. Some think they have thrived and almost every character in the story is one of them in disguise; I cannot quite bring myself to have that much hope for them, and think they are in a much more precarious state than that. Sometimes I think they are extinct, save for some strange residual echoes here and there, and perhaps even those echoes are more delusion than reality, a folklore invented by the colonists to fit in the gap left by the atrocities their ancestors committed in coming here.
In a way, in telling you the story, Wolfe makes of you a storyteller, since he leaves these gaps and spaces for you to fill in with your own conclusions. He will guide you in one direction or another – but you have the freedom to put your own reading on it. In this way Wolfe accomplishes his own version of the Sainte Annese confusion of identity; Wolfe may be the author of the text on the page, but how much is he the author of your personal interpretation, and how much is down to you? It is impossible to say. It is a magnificently accomplished book and, precisely because it lends itself to personal interpretation rather than imposing one particular worldview as being inherently correct within the narrative, is something I feel will date much less than other works of a similar vintage.
(I will, however, give the caveat that the third novella is not at all appropriate for listening to in an audiobook version, since it really depends on giving the reader a change to flip back and forwards easily and quickly and compare different points in the text to figure things out.)
1980 was a landmark year in Gene Wolfe’s writing career. For one thing, it saw the publication of The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume in The Book of the New Sun, itself the first part of the Solar Cycle which was Wolfe’s magnum opus. It also saw the publication of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories – that’s not a typo, one of the stories in it has the title The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories – his debut short story collection, containing the cream of his short story from 1970 to 1978.
In fact, Wolfe had been writing for quite some time prior to this; his first published story was The Dead Man, published in a 1965 issue of Sir! magazine, and the collection Young Wolfe includes early works (a good chunk of which never before published) from as far back as 1951. That said, it’s the 1970s when Wolfe can really be said to have started firing on all cylinders. Those early stories were, by and large, not widely reprinted (indeed, Young Wolfe is the only source of some of them), and Wolfe’s 1970 debut novel Operation ARES was enough of a disappointment to Wolfe retroactively that he gently discouraged reprints of it, the last edition listed on ISFDB being a 1979 German translation.
This was Wolfe being a good judge of his own work; he would admit later that Operation ARES was in part based on “doctrinaire conservative” political convictions – his words – which he no longer agreed with, and which lent a rather polemical aspect to the novel. Admittedly, the state the book ended up in was not entirely Wolfe’s fault: its last three-quarters or so was subjected to a ruthless editing process, not by Wolfe’s own hand, which made it somewhat disjointed, and which delayed its release by 3 or 4 years from the time it was originally written.
Even so, I don’t think anyone denies that there was a massive quantum leap in Wolfe’s quality of writing between penning Operation ARES in the mid-to-late 1960s and the emergence of The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1972 and Peace in 1975. The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories represents the perfect opportunity to examine that artistic evolution in progress.
Gene Wolfe didn’t spend much time in the here and now in his novels. A clear majority of them are set in other worlds or other time periods, and if you asked a Wolfe cultist to recommend you some of his work they’d probably cite Latro In the Mist, The Book of the New Sun or The Fifth Head of Cerberus (and maybeThe Wizard Knight) over any of his rare modern-day books, with the possible exception of his early career highlight Peace. The present didn’t really seem to be one of his interests; until The Sorcerer’s House, he hadn’t set a novel in the current era since 1990’s Pandora By Holly Hollander, and most of his modern-day novels were published in short breaks between major projects.
Just such a break presented itself in 2010, a point when Wolfe had completed The Wizard Knight and tacked another volume onto the Latro series, and sure enough he’s paid a brief visit to the present day in the form of The Sorcerer’s House, which has the worst cover I’ve ever seen on a Wolfe novel but might be the best novel he’s ever done in a contemporary setting since Peace.
Alden Dennis Weer is alone, rattling about in a house built from his memories, with nobody living in any close proximity to him, the little town of Cassionville having fallen into terminal decline over his lifetime. At first we think he’s sick – he had a stroke recently – but as the recently-deceased Gene Wolfe’s Peace unfolds, one of the more obvious secrets it gives up is that Weer is in fact dead, his house being the sort of “memory palace” built from his experiences.
But with close attention and further readings – for what Wolfe story ever gave up all its treasures on a first pass? – the situation seems even more disturbing than that. Take the matter of little Bobby Black – who falls down the stairs at Weer’s fifth birthday party, eventually dying of his injuries, prompting a certain amount of social awkwardness which nudges Weer’s parents into an extended overseas excursion, with Weer left in the care of his aunt Olivia, who we can detect in the prose a certain incestuous affection for which might have been reciprocated. (If it were not, it’d be certainly odd for Olivia to have Weer as a teenage boy attend on her whilst she’s bathing.)
It’s very easy to miss it on a first reading, but Weer mentions struggling with Bobby at the top of the stairs – and mentions doing this because he knew that if Bobby were allowed into the upstairs room he’d throw an apple and spoil an old painting and Weer would take the blame for it. This is an astonishingly specific thing for a five year old boy to anticipate – but is, perhaps, the sort of thing you might expect someone looking back over the course of their life and gifted not just with the knowledge of how it went but how it might have gone to be aware of. And since Weer shows some capacity to step into and take control of his past selves – he uses this to try and get his favourite doctor’s advice on his stroke a decade or two before he has the stroke – the mind-boggling possibility arises that, far from resting in Peace, Weer is extraordinarily active, directing the course of his own life from his private afterlife to direct it to the end he desires.
But if that were the case, what are we to make of the terrible culmination of Weer’s life – as corporate overlord of an industry which is sucking the life out of the very soil around Cassionville, and (it is implied) ultimately makes the town vulnerable to a disaster which prompts everyone to leave? What are we to make of it that Weer is so frequently around death? If this is the life that Weer has chosen over all alternatives, is he really the sweet, charming Midwestern soul he presents himself as, or is he a silver-tongued devil, the entirety of Peace a bid to persuade the reader to overlook Weer’s crimes even as it also acts as a sideways confession?