Friday, March 27, 2015

Review of Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist is the intriguing story of a mercenary soldier living in ancient Greece befuddled by anterograde amnesia.  Each night’s sleep wiping his memory of everything but his youth and instinct, each morning brings a new beginning.  And the perpetual fresh start was evident in the relative lightness of the book’s tone.  Meeting gods, being everyday in a new place, and forever meeting fresh faces (even though he may have already met them), Latro remained optimistic throughout that despite his memory problem he would find his way home.  At the conclusion of Mist he experienced a wake up call, of a sort, however.  Segueing into the next novel, Soldier of Arete (1989) digs itself deeper into Latro’s mind as he attempts to come to terms with the realities of length: the road home, and how he will handle his memory issues if there is no cure.

The scene at the end of Soldier of the Mist a major event in Latro’s life, the opening of Soldier of Arete nevertheless finds the slave-soldier in the same company. Watched over by the faithful child Io and befriended by the trustworthy Seven Lions, he and the army he is owned by continue to make their way across the seas of ancient Greece to worthy destinations.  Witness to a brutal execution at the story’s start, a figurative execution closes the novel, leaving Latro to have acquired a great deal in the middle.  Spending time amongst the Amazons, gleaning memory and scroll trying to uncover plots against his life, pawn to others when his memory fails, and always unaware who is and isn’t a god, his adventures are no less intriguing than Mist.

But beneath the journey, more of the man Latro is exposed.  His quest for home leading inside, what he discovers is key to the novel’s outcome.  Hinting at this outcome, Latro voices the following opinion in conversation midway through Soldier of Arete:

“In the morning of life,” I said, “a young man goes forth as though mounted, becase he is carried upon the shoulders of his parents.  By midday their support has vanished, and he must walk for himself.  In the evening of life, he can hold up his head only because he is supported by the memory of what once he was.” (524-525)

Soldier of Arete thus has the very delicate feel of a man achieving a new stage in his development—tabula rasa in more ways than just his morning state of memory.  One of the more difficult transitions in life (some, in fact, never wholly making it), Wolfe portrays it as a worthwhile goal—the title’s ‘arete’ making it clear what precisely that goal is.  But, as Wolfe is so deceivingly simple in presenting, the reader is led by the hand to the cusp of this goal, what lies on the other side a wide vista of possibility.

Thus in a change of pace from Mist, Soldier of Arete rightfully puts less emphasis on the process of reading and writing in the scrolls and focuses more on the story.  Readers already accustomed to the pattern in Mist need not be reminded innumerable times again in the second volume of Latro’s ailment, thus clearing the way for Wolfe to further the Shining God’s prophecy that Latro believes will see his way home.

Mortality part of Latro’s road home (as evidenced by the execution at the outset), ancient Greece feels a natural backdrop to key in on another aspect of the lost soldier’s development.  In one conversation Latro states : “It was not given to men to escape death, Themistocles said, but to the immortal gods alone; for a man the sole question was whether his death brought good or evil to his fellows.” (557)  Indeed, with death the only end for the altruistic and criminal alike, how does a person stand with their moral head high?  Like many of Wolfe’s protagonists, Latro, even while parsing out his own ethical stance, becomes an example setter, and subsequently tying in to the ‘arete’ of the title.  (See Able in The Wizard Knight—particularly the second half The Wizard; see Silk in the Book of the Long Sun, and of course see Severian, particularly in the Citadel of the Autarch and Urth of the New Sun.)

In the end, Soldier of Arete is the dark to Soldier of the Mist’s light.  A dark that is painfully cathartic yet ultimately accepting, Latro’s journey toward existential and civil freedom continues, but at a price some would consider greater than his memory.  Given Wolfe continues to integrate story into setting in subtle fashion (rather than vice versa as so much historical fantasy does, e.g. Guy Gavriel Kay), there is a strong impression of verisimilitude to the everyday life of a Greek soldier-slave and the army Latro is a part of.  Those who read and enjoyed Mist will thus relish Arete.  The only questions that remains is, with Soldier of Arete ending as it does, will Soldier of Sidon indeed see Latro take that third and final step?

(A side note: for anyone looking for in-depth commentary and historical contextualization to the Soldier novels, I highly recommend these two Book of Gold fanzine pdfs—here and here—found at the superb Ultan’s Library.)

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