Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review of Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe

After finishing his landmark Book of the New Sun series in the 80s, Gene Wolfe branched out in a new direction; going from a science fiction/fantasy cum confirmation/subversion of epic fantasy, to ancient Greece and a soldier with a head wound that has destroyed his short term memory. Wolfe produced two novels that seemed like bookends on a simple but profound shelf of ideas.  Featuring Greek gods, a realistic presentation of life in the Greek archipelago more than 2,000 years ago, and a man coming to terms with a new perspective on life, Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete are a natural pair opening and closing an enchanted and enchanting window in the soldier Latro’s life.  It was thus something of a surprise when, seventeen years later, Wolfe produced a third Soldier novel, Soldier of Sidon (2006).  Some surprises are welcome, however, even if their genesis is only partially explainable.

Riverland calling him, at the outset of Soldier of Sidon Latro sets out on a merchant’s journey down the Nile with an old friend, Muslak, and some new friends.  One a river wife hired in northern Egypt for the journey, Myt’ser’eu proves delightful, yet mysterious female company.  But not as enigmatic as some of the other men, women, and creatures he encounters.  Egyptian deities just as perceptible as the Greek, Latro’s journey finds him meeting a jackal-headed men, a wax lady, and animals of dreams and nightmares—black panthers, snakes, and crocodiles among them.  People and gods still playing games with Latro, the beleaguered mercenary in semi-retirement must again attempt to peer his way through what he perceives and what his scroll tells him he perceived to make sense of what his eyes and heart tell him is reality.  A temple in the southern reaches of Egypt near Ethiopia purported to be able to cure his memory issues, once again Latro pins his hopes on his own will and the powers of the divine—even if they are of a human age older.

Latro’s memory improving, yet at times devolving into complete ignorance, there are moments of Soldier of Sidon wherein the reader is impressed by Latro’s ability to string an idea along for longer than a day, and then puzzled at the loss of this skill; there are times a moment is long enough to make him forget.  Getting older not the only thing meddling with Latro’s mind, so too are thoughts of mortality and the end.  Anubis weighing Latro’s heart in the early going, it’s determined to yet possess some life, and he casts Latro back amongst the living to continue his plight.  But the last 100 pages of the novel find him deep in the schemes of Egypt’s higher powers, what remains of his life uncertain.

A notable point about Soldier of Sidon is its relative accessibility.  Wolfe remains his usual suavely deceptive self, but, compared to the first two Soldier novels, seems more deliberate in the details.  The reader remains left to connect the dots, but the dots now seem bigger, stickier at the edges.  As cannot be done in the first two novels (at least as I found), more can be gleaned from Sidon on the first reading.  Wolfe seems to extend two instead one hand—to pull back the curtains of his storytelling secrets a little—in describing Latro’s interaction with people and places he cannot be relied upon to remember properly.  In some way, the relative transparency makes the immediate reading a more satisfactory experience.

But I struggle to come to terms with Soldier of Sidon’s place in the Soldier series.  Given the fact the novel was published seventeen years later raises some questions.  We can wonder whether Sidon was not a simple indulgence in Egyptian history, Latro the vehicle for the tour.  But a larger part of my struggle is the fact Soldier of Arete seemed to possess some finality.  Abandoning his two greatest friends as well as the strongest link to his identity, the scroll he writes on everyday, Latro would seem to have thrown himself to the winds, to let life buffet him where it would—a tragic but fitting ending for a man with Latro’s condition.  But Soldier of Sidon revives the man and his memory problem and returns him to the uncertain course he once wandered, new scroll in hand.  Heightening my sense of confusion is that the end of Sidon sees Latro lose something of value.  The thing of such value, he pledges not to stop until he has recovered it, meaning another volume seems necessary.  Then again, the futility of that quest may be saying something in itself, Wolfe a sly one.  All of this is not to say Sidon is a bad book for reviving a character.  Indeed, its quality is every bit as good as the first two Soldier books on a tit for tat level. Only that when looked at in context with what has been published to date, it seems more auxiliary than central to understanding Latro and his situation.

In the end, Soldier of Sidon is a welcome if not ambiguous entry into the Soldier series.  Egypt and northeast Africa its main setting, Latro finds himself enveloped ever deeper in the pantheon of Egyptian gods as his journey takes him to gold mines, temples, captivity, riverboats, and, as always, mixed up in larger affairs to which he has only a limited view.  As good as the first two Latro novels, the only question is its relationship to them: how does it fit into the Soldier series, particularly given its more ambiguous ending.  Regardless, those who enjoyed the first two will have no problems enjoying the most recent. Wolfe is getting on in years, but I will continue waiting for a fourth (and perhaps conclusive?) novel.

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