This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Reviewing the third book in a series is always difficult. Soldier of Sidon is Gene Wolfe’s follow-up – seventeen years after everyone had assumed the story had finished – to Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, most commonly available these days compiled as Latro In the Mist. So, first I am going to do a quick introduction to the series so that people can see if they want to plough through Latro before getting onto Sidon. Then a spoiler-free review of the book for Latro fans who want to know whether they want to read it. Lastly, I’ll share my thoughts on the book in a spoiler-filled conclusion.
New Readers Start Here
The Latro novels are historical fantasies, in which Gene Wolfe allows himself free reign to indulge his Classics geekery. They centre on the pseudonymous “Latro”, a Roman mercenary from the 5th Century BC; Rome has only recently become a Republic, and is an obscure city off to the north and west of the major players on the world stage: the city-states of Greece and the Persian Empire. The Greco-Persian wars are in full swing, and Latro has come to fight as a mercenary captain for the Emperor of Persia; in a battle on the front steps of a temple, he is struck on the head and falls unconscious. When he awakes, he has been brain damaged – cursed by the gods – with the loss of his short-term memory. Anything that happened more than a day a go he forgets – unless he writes it down in a manuscript he keeps with him at all times. The novels are Gene Wolfe’s “translations” of Latro’s diary.
As Latro is told time and again in the books, to be cursed by the gods is to be touched by the divine, and if you’re touched by the divine there is something of the divine about you always; Latro can see the gods and spirits of ancient Greece, and if he touches them other people can see them too. For the first two books in the series (written in 1986 and 1989 respectively), the emphasis is on Greek mythology and history, as Latro tries to find his way home; in Soldier of Sidon, the action shifts to Persian-controlled Egypt, as Latro and various companions are sent on a mission south to scout out Nubia for the Persian Emperor. As the novels continue Latro sometimes remembers to read his scroll in the morning to remind himself of where he is and who the people around him are, and as such his behaviour and attitude towards them changes and shifts.
The question lots of Wolfe fans are probably asking is “is this book really necessary?” I’d give that a qualified “yes”; qualified, because we’ll only really know the answer when the fourth Latro book comes out – Wolfe is already planning it. I suspect this fourth book will conclude a lot of the strands begun in this one, considering his tendency to work in pairs (the first two Latro books, the Wizard Knight two-part series) and quartets (The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun). At the same time, I think a couple of the threads running throughout the book reach a conclusion by the end, though you have to pay attention.
And that’s the thing with the Latro books – so absolutely does Wolfe stick to the central schtick that you need to pay close attention. Latro, as narrator, is in no position to remind you of what’s going on, since he’s confused and disoriented much of the time, although he repeats himself enough that an attentive reader can keep things straight. And again, as with the rest of the Soldier series, Wolfe uses this to play games with the reader.
Things happen in this book, important things – Latro’s nature changes, his quest to regain his memory progresses, old friendships are renewed and wrecked as the story progresses. While you’re in the middle of reading the book, however, sometimes these things aren’t so apparent. In retrospect, this was a pretty fine book, but you have to sit through all of it to see and appreciate the whole picture. This was true, to an extent of the earlier Soldier books, but is more apparent in this book. Then again, I read it over the Christmas season and had to set it down for a while – if I was able to give it my full attention I might have enjoyed it more. In the end, that’s the problem with this series – if anything external makes you put the book aside for a few days, it’s too easy to lose the thread of the story.
Continue reading “Book Review: Soldier of Sidon”