Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Going Greek II: Review of Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe

Soldier of Sidon is, like the two previous Soldier books, the story of a warrior cast into events of larger significance than himself. It's another first-person diary, and much more so than Pressfield's effort, Wolfe's narrator and his world ache with integrity from the get-go. He reports his story from the perspective of a simple man, using simple language. He observes the right things. Two short chapters into Sidon, and Gene Wolfe has managed to calmly grab the sense of place and of character that Steven Pressfield struggled to achieve in an entire novel. Wolfe makes it look easy. I am sure it is not.

The narrator's name is Latro, also called Lucius or Lewqys, meaning, with a wink, "wolf." It's more than vanity; the wolf also refers to the Roman wolf, describing Latro's place of origin (it feels strange to realize that the Republic was developing on its own contemporaneously with the famous Persian wars on the neighboring penninsula). Latro also takes the aspect (complete with club and euraus, that cobra headband in all the glyphs) of the Egyptian wolf-god Ap-uat during his time in that land. Ap-uat is the god of soldiers. Nice.

Latro, it should be said, is the ultimate unreliable narrator. He is the victim of a head wound, an old one by the time of Sidon, that has impaired his long-term memory.** He can learn languages, and has retained his soldier's skills. He can remember a scene or two from his youth, but all of his yesterdays are lost. The diary is to help keep track of his life, to explain in the morning who all these strangers are. His snap judgements about supporting characters (whom he frequently re-introduces, or equally frequently fails to recognize) offer an insight into their growth. It's a narrative balancing act--the reader can't be bored by the retelling it takes to make the memory scroll convincing. It's also challenging to follow at times, not unintentionally, but the story is there.

And a lot of story is there. A man who can't remember is a natural dupe of the gods, and they don't leave poor Latro alone. In Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete (the original volumes), Latro was caught in the divine squabbles that hung over the Persian wars, the plot of which the assidious reader was left to decipher. Latro walked among the famous as well as the holy, and it helped to have Herodotus handy to help understand where he was and what he was doing. (I did not and I was lost.) Soldier of Sidon manages to turn up some old friends, but leaves the great battles behind, traveling south through Egypt instead to encounter a whole new Pantheon. Without the weight of history (and without the translated place-names, a cool feature of the earlier books that is neglected here, presumably because Latro knows the language less well), the story was a little easier to get my brain around.

But don't worry, it's a good story.


Keifus

P.S. Reader beware. Wolfe evidently intends to conclude this one in another novel.

* Anachronism watch: there's one lousy passage, late in the book, in which Latro rides "stirrup-to-stirrup" with another soldier. Say it ain't so, Gene! The stirrup didn't come into common military use until the first couple of centuries AD in China, after which it gradually migrated west. It transformed heavy cavalry and made the more famous medeival versions of horse-fighting (jousting and whatnot) possible, making it possible to fight on horseback with far less skill. Stirrups may have been around for a while before, however (as a mounting aid probably) and some of the unofficial histories I've read ascribed it's use to the Assyrians as early as 800 or even 1000 BC. Could a fifth century BC Persian soldier have fit his horse with stirrups (the Persians did ride)? Just barely possible, and it's not like they were tilting lances while standing on them.

** Earlier, I'd written short-term memory was limited. No, that worked fine, but Latro lost the ability to put any of those in the long-term bank. I'd read awhile back (I think in a foreword to the other Soldier books) that Wolfe had chanced across some medical article describing this rare trauma. In some of his other novels, he created another suspect narrator with an allegedly perfect memory. Quite likely he was researching the subject. Latro makes a nice counterpoint to that other protagonist (and is far more likable).

6 comments:

R2K said...

: )

LentenStuffe said...

Keith,

A nice, compact review. I know nothing of Wolfe except that he's quite prolific. Would you recommend him? What is his genre? And have you any favorite you think I ought to start with?

John

Keifus said...

Well, he's a science fiction author, and rather unapologetic about it, but he is also quite challenging in his way.

If you're comfortable with your history of the Persian wars, Soldier of the Mist is pretty great, if poured on thickly. The series of (four not terribly long) novels beginning with Nightside of the Long Sun are probably his best sf at that length. (His more famous New Sun stories are likewise poured on too damn thick.)

I'd recommend some of his novellas, notably Seven American Nights, Forlesen, The Death of Doctor Island some others. Three of those are compiled in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, along with some shorts that are either modest hits or horrible misses.

K

Ben said...

Wolfe can be hard to follow, but his writing is really profound, elevating "science fiction" to level almost never seen. Soldier of Arrete is among the most subtle and profound books i've read, and speaks deeply to the human experience.

Having said that, Soldier of Sidon was a big let down. I will give it another re-read, but the storyline lacks meaning or direction.

Keifus said...

Hiya Ben. Thanks for reading (and finding) the review. Good thing it notifies the email.

I'm pretty sure it's been ten years since I read Arete, so it was tough to gauge the relative impact of this one. Wolfe loosed himself here from historical battles (even while keeping the gonzo travelogue aspect of Thucydides) which may have caused the plot to lose focus...if it did. But it seemed as coherent as any of his recent books, I thought. And I'm willing to hold judgement for the sequel too.

Hope you stick around. I'm an island in a little archipelago of bloggers here.

K

Anonymous said...

Latro makes a nice counterpoint to that other protagonist (and is far more likable).

Hard to argue there. I love Severin's travels with a sick passion, Latro is more likable. Can't wait for the sequel (how old is Wolfe, anyway?)