Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Gene Wolfe goes to ancient Greece

Soldier of the Mist

Gene Wolfe

Tor Books

Reviewed by: Terry
3.5 - 4  out of 5 stars

Perhaps I’m finally growing into Gene Wolfe. There are still a lot of things about his writing that irritate me, but now that I’ve got a fair number of his works under my belt (some even read multiple times) and have a clearer idea of what to expect I am finding myself more able to accept most of these elements as challenging rather than offensive. I’ve come to expect several things from a book by Gene Wolfe: an unreliable narrator of course (this narrator tends to be a ‘hero’ with exceptional abilities granted either through birth or the blessings of the gods and is usually irresistible to the opposite sex, a bit of a pill personality wise  and often follows some version of the ‘innocent fool’ template mixed with the more traditional martial hero and who tends to be less interesting than the secondary characters around him); a puzzle-like narrative that obscures more than it reveals and implies more than it states; erudition that can be somewhat oppressive in its range and obscurantism; the encroachment upon the mundane by the supernatural in both physical and immaterial ways (often in the guise of the inexplicable interference of gods or godlike beings with an agenda for the outcome of human affairs…water gods and nymphs are an especial favourite); and finally a favourite chestnut of Wolfe’s is the inclusion of some kind of vampire-like creature and/or a shapeshifter. _Soldier in the Mist_ certainly partakes liberally of all of these.

I might go so far as to say that Latro, the main character in _Solider of the Mist_, is pretty much Gene Wolfe’s wet-dream of a protagonist. Here we get a narrator so unreliable that he has to sift through his own words each day in order to make sense of them, never mind the poor reader! In this Latro is pretty much the polar opposite of Severian, Wolfe’s hero from the New Sun series: where the young torturer-apprentice from the last days of Urth was cursed with an eidetic memory (which he still parsed to his own convenience) Latro is cursed with a loss of short-term memory that makes him unable to remember anything that happened to him on the previous day. This state of affairs was brought about by a head injury suffered by the mercenary in (as we find out through the course of events) the battle of Plataea as he fought for the Persian King Xerxes against the Greek Confederacy. The resulting story follows a format not altogether unlike the movie ‘Memento’ in which a character in a similar situation was forced to rely on post-it notes, journals, and tattoos to help him remember who he was and that he was on a path of vengeance. For his part Latro has been writing out the events of each day on a scroll and is forced, at least at those times when he is lucky enough either to be reminded by others or happens to read the injunction to “Read This Every Day” that is emblazoned on the outside of his scroll, to go back and read his own composition in order to understand where he is and who everyone around him might be. Like I said…the perfect Gene Wolfe narrator. The reader of course participates in this attempt to make sense of strange and inexplicable events at the same time as Latro does.

To add to the confusion for the modern reader (and really, it wouldn’t be a Gene Wolfe book if he wasn’t trying to confuse you now would it?) is the fact that we are placed squarely in the ancient world and Latro tells us the names of events, places and characters in a literal, and sometimes misconstrued, translation of their name. Thus, for example, Athens becomes “Thought”, the island of Achaia is “Redface Island”, and Corinth becomes “Tower Hill”. I have to admit that I found this aspect of the novel to be something that added to the flavour of the text for me as opposed to one that jarred. I suppose I felt that in adding to the strangeness of the names of places that would otherwise seem too familiar to me from other sources I was better able to approach the world of classical Greece in a new and interesting way. The final layer of confusion and obfuscation is added by the fact that in this world the gods and eldritch beings of classical mythology do indeed walk amongst men and are ever ready to utter a gnomic phrase or attempt to further their own mysterious ends by manipulating mere mortals. They are usually invisible to those who walk only in the mundane world, but as strange things begin to come visibly to the fore as we read it becomes apparent that a bizarre side-effect of Latro’s injury is an ability to see this invisible world clearly (though of course it’s always possible that Latro is just having hallucinations). Sometimes these supernatural beings attempt to aid Latro with cryptic guidance while others seem inimical to whatever actions he attempts to take. Either way it becomes apparent that he is a pawn in their great game.

In essence the story is about Latro’s quest to be healed of his malady, or barring that to at least find out where he comes from and return to his native land. Of course, even with a prophecy from the Shining God to guide him (or perhaps because of it) things are not that easy. We follow Latro across the land of the Hellenes as he attempts to follow the path laid out for him by the god with the aid of several new friends and allies he picks up along the way. We are treated throughout to a view of the Greek Confederacy during the time of the Graeco-Persian wars from the point of view of a true outsider. We also glimpse many of the gods and supernatural beings with which their country appears to be densely populated and learn that more often than not human events appear to have been driven by the will of the gods and reflect wars that, while perhaps more grand in their scope, are no less petty in their motivations. I especially enjoyed Wolfe’s characterization of the gods which seemed to be partially Graves-ian in the anthropological and geographical emphasis he placed on their names, powers, and nature, but which didn’t lose its eldritch character for all of that. These are not the relatively clear-cut (though all-too human) versions of the Greek gods most readers may be more familiar with. Beneath the veneer of civilization and regal glory the chthonic hearts of these gods are dark and dangerous indeed.  The world of ancient Greece that Wolfe presents is a fascinating one and the struggles and wars of the gods that impinge upon the world of mortals is intriguing, he seems to have a real flair for the numinous and its impact on human life. I think having just finished _The Iliad_ was a distinct advantage for me in coming to this book. Not only was I still ‘in the mood’ for the world of ancient Greece, but I was even able to see some of the same concerns (and many of the same characters) even though the events portrayed in _Soldier of the Mist_ are happening centuries after the fall of Troy. I also didn’t get the feeling that Wolfe was simply writing modern characters into an ancient setting, his characters were relatable and all displayed familiar aspects of human nature that rang true, but they also seemed to be uniquely suited to (and representative of) their own milieu. I quite enjoyed this book and dove immediately into the sequel _Soldier of Arete_. I haven’t lost all of my reservations in regards to Wolfe’s method and madness, but overall I think I’m becoming more willing to sit back and enjoy the ride…I just make sure to stop and look around a lot more than I might feel is needed for another author.

Also posted at Goodreads