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Bewildering Stories

Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Sidon

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Soldier of Sidon
Author: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Tor, 2006
Hardcover: $24.95 U.S.
Length: 319 pages
ISBN: 0-765-31664-1
What is it that makes Wolfe’s Soldier series, featuring the forgetful Latro, my least favorite of his works? I mean, I adore the man’s writing, for the most part. If I ever meet Mr. Wolfe in person, I shall either be dumbstruck with awe, or gabble something disjointed and drooling and stupid while I feverishly wring his hand, the way fans do the world over, when they finally meet The Man in the flesh. At his best, I don’t compare Gene Wolfe unfavorably to any author. Every university literature department should hand out their own Gene Wolfe classics to the dewy-eyed hopeful coeds, right along with all those dusty tomes written by dead white heroes. Move over, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, and the rest of you who purport to write great metaphysical literature! There’s a serious competitor out there who just might swipe your mantels right off your shoulders.

I suppose that part of the problem is that Latro, the narrator of Soldier of Sidon and its prequels, is handicapped in a particularly difficult way. You see, Latro has a memory problem. He wakes up every morning from sleep a clean-swiped plate, without even the knowledge of his name. Fortunately, he doesn’t forget how to write, and so he commits his personal history to a scroll, so he can read it the next morning. The story we read, of course, is that scroll, and every day we follow the adventures of this broken vessel, whose personal history leaks out of him every night, in a little death more deathly than most of us dream.

As if to compensate for this problem, Latro sees the supernatural world around him, unlike ordinary mortals. Gods, demons, supernatural beetles, and yellow-eyed, advise-dispensing black panthers, not to mention a bloodthirsty pseudo-woman (who hints of the vampires of Wolfe’s earlier science fiction series), all make themselves comfortable in his presence. All of them seem to have some hidden designs upon our hero, even if it’s only to bless him.

And I guess, this is where I start to have a problem. Latro himself is perfectly A-OK with these visitations (and ancient Egypt, site of his current outing, must be perfectly overstuffed with the supernatural, to judge by how they keep poor Latro awake).

But give us a hint here, Mr. Wolfe. Do we take these visitors on their own terms, the way straight man, ever-respectful Latro himself does? Just because a cow-headed creature says she’s a god, do we take her word for it? What is a god, exactly? How come the Egyptians can imagine the sun arriving on a boat, and the Hellenes, as a fiery chariot driven by pretty Phoebus, and Latro can see either version of good old Sol? Are the gods merely meant to be manifestations of a collective cultural consciousness, or is there some science fiction explanation (that we have yet to encounter in the series) for all these varied divinities and supernatural beings?

So that’s the problem. I’m just hanging on, hoping some future installment will help me make sense of Latro’s visions, too modern and too cynical to just take it on faith, the way the narrator does, that indeed There Be Gods With Cow and Jackal Heads. The narrator’s far too sensible (described by one and all as a good, brave, and honest man) for me to believe him crazy. Latro’s telling the truth as he sees it, but... well, I’m reminded of an interview with John C. Wright that I once read. Mr. Wright (another author I highly recommend) commented that he found Gene Wolfe a little “too deep” for him. Mr. Wolfe, I’ve followed you faithfully from the Old Sun to the New Sun to the Long and Short of it, but I’m thrashing here, really thrashing. In the next installment of Latro’s adventures, you need to give this poor dumb (bottle) blonde a hint! What the heck is going on in this story?

Wolfe’s Soldier series has been compared to the fantastic historical works of Mary Renault, so I have to end this review with a recommendation. If you haven’t ever read Mary Renault, check out The Bull From the Sea and The King Must Die right now, and dive in as soon as possible. It’s not easy to compare Mr. Wolfe unfavorably to any other writer, but I would put Renault’s best work on my shelf ahead of Wolfe’s dive into the same myth-drenched, classical soil.

For one reason, Renault’s story moves... I guess that’s how I’d describe it... in a way that Wolfe’s, with its introspective, inward-focused Latro, lack of external, real-time action, diary-like “we went here, and we went there” prose, and sincere believer take (so far) on the gods, does not. Not to mention that there’s a key mystery (which is not resolved) in Soldier of Sidon, but you may still be scratching your head about just what the mystery even is, by the end of this book...

While I’m on my soapbox, another work I recommend is Marguerite Yourcenar’s The Memoirs of Hadrian (interestingly, two of our best writers about the classical / mythical era happen to be lesbians). Not that it matters — Renault, Yourcenar, and Wolfe, happily heterosexually married minority that he is, are all awe-inspiring writers. Read all three!

Just don’t let Soldier of Sidon be the first — or the last — Gene Wolfe book you read. He’s done better. I’m hanging on, Mr. Wolfe, just a-hangin’ on, by these short pink fingernails...

Copyright © 2007 by Danielle L. Parker

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