Mini-Review: A Bit of a Fixer-Upper…

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 maybe The 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.

Continue reading “Mini-Review: A Bit of a Fixer-Upper…”

Weer-ed Tales From Wolfe

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?

Continue reading “Weer-ed Tales From Wolfe”

Freedom to Pillage!

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.


There is another thing I ought to say about pirates. Last night I saw a movie on TV about us, and it got a lot wrong…

More known for his multi-volume series than for his stand-alone books, Gene Wolfe hasn’t written a non-series novel in 16 years. Pirate Freedom bears the proud distinction of being a Sci-Fi channel “essential read”, as far as I can tell because it happens to have come out in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean. The publishers are happily going along with this and have made sure that the guy on the cover bears a vague resemblence to Jack Sparrow. To be fair, as a response to the increasingly irritating Pirates franchise, Pirate Freedom does a good; it manages to be historically accurate and avoids whitewashing the subject, but at the same time avoids going too far the other way; Wolfe understands that a good pirate story should be fun and exciting, not po-faced and grim.

However, Pirate Freedom isn’t just a response/tribute to Johnny Depp; it’s also Wolfe’s meditation on his own religious beliefs. The main character (and narrator) is Father Christopher a kid from the near future who moves to Cuba with his mafioso father after the fall of the Communist regime. While his dad opens up a casino, Christopher is shunted off to a monastery that doubles as a private boarding school, and eventually becomes a novice there. At some unspecified age – I’d guess 16 or 18 – he decides to leave, but when he does so he isn’t in the mid-21st Century but the late 17th, when the monastery was built.

Continue reading “Freedom to Pillage!”

The Sayings of Chairman Wolfe

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.

Fans of writers aren’t like fans of movie stars or musicians, and in turn writers aren’t dragged out into the public eye to the same extent. I am not aware of anyone who has a poster of Stephen King adorning their bedroom wall. So far as I am aware, FHM have never asked J.K. Rowling to do a photoshoot for them. Teenage girls do not mob Garth Nix as he walks down the street, and nobody daydreams of patting Gene Wolfe on his egg-shaped head and gently sniffing his walrus-like moustache.

No, what really excites the fans of writers is the opportunity to get their hands on more words of wisdom from their favoured writer, whether this is in the form of an interview or a speech or a letter. For devotees of Gene Wolfe, Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe On Writing/Writers On Wolfe offer all three. The first segment compiles all the major interviews Wolfe gave between 1973 and 2003; the second, much smaller segment, is a small collection of short essays and transcription of speeches composed by Wolfe on the subject of writing, books, and the literary world in general. By far the biggest treat are the short pieces which seem to be by-products of various writing classes Wolfe has given over the years, which give us a chance to learn at the feet of “balding, avuncular Gene” and hear his thoughts on characterisation, good writing habits, and the special problems of writing science fiction and multi-volume novels.

Continue reading “The Sayings of Chairman Wolfe”

The View From Wolfe Country

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.

Something must have been in the water in 1990 – at the same time as David Lynch unleashed Twin Peaks, his soap opera about murder and danger in a tranquil American small town influenced by otherworldly forces, on a TV-viewing public, Gene Wolfe published Castleview, a meditation on a very similar topic. The town of Castleview in Illinois is named for the ethereal castle which can sometimes be seen at dusk in the distance. Of course, it turns out that this is no optical illusion, but a symptom of the recurring presence and intervention of a strange otherworld in the daily life of Castleview – an otherworld which explodes into frenzied activity with the murder of factory foreman Tom Howard and the arrival of the Shields family.

This is one of four novels set in the modern day that Wolfe wrote between 1984 and 1990 – the others are Free Live Free, There Are Doors, and Pandora, by Holly Hollander. Raging Wolfe fanboy as I am, I’ve been slowly reading and reviewing each of them – partially because they’re frequently overlooked pieces of the Wolfe canon. In the case of Free Live Free and Pandora this is probably justified – Free Live Free fizzles out, and Pandora seems to have been a misguided attempt to try and write for the young adult market.

Not so for Castleview. Whereas Free Live Free and Pandora represent Wolfe at his most straightforward, Castleview harks back to the engaging obliqueness of his early novels The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Peace. The first three quarters of this book are by far the best, and depict a series of apparently-unconnected accidents and events that happen over the course of a single day – the links between which swiftly become apparent. The fairy intruders into the small town thrive on coincidences, misunderstandings, and near-misses, and work their evil deeds in the spaces between accidents; Wolfe does an excellent job of keeping his protagonists confused but keeping us relatively up to speed (although he does pose a number of problems for readers to work out in their own time), and most of the time the tower of accidents seems entirely believable. Wolfe also allows his knowledge of folklore and mythology run riot in a way which he didn’t in, say, Free Live Free, and he seems to be enjoying himself a lot more than when he was writing that one; he would serve up another the blend of fairy lore, Norse myth and Arthurian legend (with tenuous connections with the modern world) in The Wizard Knight.

However, Wolfe enjoys himself that he builds the house of cards a little too high – Katy Howard, the suicidal sister of Tom’s wife, seems entirely surplus to requirements – and the last quarter of the novel the pacing goes a little askew. Since the majority of the novel takes place in a single crazy night, it wouldn’t have taken that much work to complete the story in that one night. Instead, Wolfe slackens off the pace abruptly before the excellent final confrontation. That said, Castleview does offer an original take on the fairy myth, especially in the way that the “fairies” seem to have no form beyond those they borrow than us. Just as they spend a lot of time mimicing real people and animals, living and dead, there’s nothing to say that they’re not also mimicing our mythology when they take on the form of fairies and gods and figures from the Arthurian stories. The concept of a race of beings who have no shape except those that we give them comes up again and again in Wolfe’s writing – from The Fifth Head of Cerberus to The Book of the Short Sun to The Wizard Knight – so any Wolfe scholar will want to read Castleview to trace the evolution of this theme. (It also depicts Wolfe’s unabashed love of small-town America, in contrast to – say – David Lynch’s brutal dissection of it in Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet.) Casual readers will also enjoy it, but – like the other books in Wolfe’s mid-to-late 1980s quarter – it’s currently out of print. Pick it up if you can find it second hand.

(In more Wolfe news, they’re apparently publishing a one-volume compilation of The Book of the New Sun – under the title of Severian of the Guild – very soon. Anyone who’s not already on the New Sun bandwagon, now’s your chance…)

Book Review: Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe

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.

It sounds like the first line of a joke – an unlicenced private detective, a self-proclaimed witch, a past-her-prime prostitute addicted to alcohol and binge eating, and a failed toy salesman live free of rent in a condemned boarding house. Ben Free, their ancient landlord, wants them to help him stop developers from tearing his house down; they put up a valiant fight, but soon enough the house is wrecked and Free has disappeared. Before the eviction, however, Free drops hints that he once lived in a place called the High Country, and that somewhere in his house is hidden a treasure that could restore him to that lofty place. Motivated in equal parts by concern for Free and desire for his treasure, the four companions begin tracking him down…

Free Live Free occupies an odd place in Gene Wolfe’s body of work. It is one of only four novels he has written set in modern-day America – the other three are the fantasies There Are Doors and Castleview and Pandora, by Holly Hollander, a straightforward detective story packed with classical allusions and an engagingly naive narrator. The bulk of Free Live Free is a detective story, but there are liberal doses of conspiracy thriller and science fiction added to the mix, as well as some ambiguously supernatural could-be-fantasy elements. The constant shell game Wolfe plays with genre in this book works to its advantage, since the reader is forced to constantly reappraise their assumptions about what the High Country might be.

Continue reading “Book Review: Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe”

Book Review: Soldier of Sidon

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.

Spoiler-Free Review

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.

Spoiler-Full Conclusion

Continue reading “Book Review: Soldier of Sidon”