Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Soldier of the Mist

Gene Wolfe
Completed 12/23/2022, Reviewed 12/23/2022
3 stars

This is one of those books that people seem to love or hate.  Interestingly, I found myself somewhere in the middle.  I liked the conceit, a “barbarian” soldier in ancient Greece with short term memory loss searching the countryside for healing by the Great Mother.  Besides the memory loss, he can see and interact with gods and demigods.  What I didn’t like was that Wolfe doesn’t use any of the names of the places and gods that we are familiar with.  I don’t know if it was part of the conceit of memory loss, or if it was a style choice, but it made it difficult to follow.  Still, I enjoyed a lot of it though I was also often confused.  This book was nominated for the 1987 Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.  I read it because the third book in the series won the WFA and so is part of my personal challenge to read all the WFA winners.

The plot is crazy.  I guess this book could kind of be called a travelogue because the main character Latro journeys from place to place in a quest to get his memory back.  He writes in a journal so that he can remember what has happened.  He basically has amnesia and cannot retain new memories.  He discovers that this affliction is from the Great Mother for some unknown transgression.  Latro must atone for this transgression to be healed.  The problem is he doesn’t know what he did in the first place.  Along the way, he meets people who befriend and help look after him, as well as people who enslave him, passing him around from owner to owner.

My main problem with this book was that it felt like it meandered.  Latro goes from place to place, more or less at the whim of the gods and the luck (or really the lack of luck) of the draw.  I often felt like I had lost the momentum of the book because we took another detour on the journey.  There is also a lack of continuity because the story is the journal.  It is only as accurate as Latro was in remembering the events of the day.  And it becomes clear that he didn’t write in the journal every day.  This is the epitome of the unreliable narrator.  I have to say Wolfe is a master of this style, but I didn’t quite care for it in this form.  

My other problem with the book was that none of the gods, goddesses, or cities are named.  I put a few things together, which I later confirmed in Wikipedia, like the city of Thought was Athens, Rope was Sparta, and one of the gods was Hades.  But I was lost with everyone and everywhere else.  What this book did make me want to do was read Stephen Fry’s retelling of the Greek Myths and Hero stories.  

Despite these big hurdles, I guess I overcame them because I liked the story, I empathized with Latro and several of his companions, and I enjoyed the prose.  I think Wolfe was an underrated Sci Fi/Fantasy writer.  I really enjoyed his New Sun series, which began with Shadow of the Torturer and his standalone book The Fifth Head of Cerberus.  I’m intrigued by the rest of the Latro series to see if I can follow the next two books any better.  

I guess my pros and cons for this book were tied, so I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s my lowest rating for a Wolfe novel so far.  But three stars means good in my rating system.  And in this case it means that were some good things about it which were balanced by the difficulty of the reading of it.  It definitely takes some effort to read this book.  It’s not light by any means.  I read less than twenty pages an hour, well below my normal reading speed.  So be prepared to put some work into this book if you decide to read it.  

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