Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Never underestimate a Wolfe

I love fantasy books - but I'm not very fond of those tomes set in strange worlds inhabited by elves, dwarves and orcs. (Depite my wording, I make an exception for The Lord of the Rings, which is unique.) What I really love is fantasy set in the real world - where something isn't quite right. It can develop into wholesale mayhem, including many of those elements of swords and sorcery, but it's strongly anchored in the world as we know it. For me, this makes the story much more exciting.

You might think the master of this kind of writing is Neil Gaiman - and he is my second favourite writer in the genre. But there's one man who is Obi Wan to Gaiman's Skywalker. That's Gene Wolfe.

If I'm honest, I'm not a fan of all his books. He writes books set on other worlds, like the hugely popular Book of the New Sun series, which really don't interest me. But his short stories are great - and when he does a real world fantasy, it is absolutely stunning. Although Wolfe is almost 80, he's still producing his best work, as I've discovered in his newly released The Sorcerer's House. This book is brilliant, there's no other word for it.

Wolfe does himself no favour by framing the book as a series of letters. It's difficult to get real involvement this way. (Having said that, one of the most famous fantasy books ever, Dracula, is a series of letters.) But it works so well here, admittedly by having the vast bulk of the letters from the main protagonist, and so acting as a first person narrative.

What Wolfe does best is to throw the protagonist (and the reader) into a situation where you think 'What the hell is going on?' Sometimes, as in his masterpiece There are Doors, he can sustain this uncertainty through most of the book. In The Sorcerer's House things become a little more obvious earlier on - but even so, Wolfe keeps throwing in new characters, new situations that continue to combine mystery and delight. If you don't know this kind of writing but are familiar with cult TV, he does in stories what Buffy creator Joss Whedon does on the screen - but ten times better.

There are some flaws. Although a reasonable sized book, it's just too short. It could be twice the length to really allow some of the characters who only currently get a bit part to develop. And then there's the ending. Wolfe fans will know that endings are his weakness. Here he does manage to end the book satisfactorily, but it still is a slight let-down compared with the brilliance of the rest.

Run, don't walk, to your nearest book store and get The Sorcerer's House. It's here at Amazon.co.uk and here at Amazon.com.


  1. Excellent blog but as a huge fan of the Books of the New Sun, I have to correct you - the books are set on a far future Earth, not on other worlds. It's one of the things I love about that series - that gradually this becomes apparent, and you realise that the lost histories all around are those of what was once South America.

  2. Apologies, Sara - I was mentally conjoining the New Sun book with the Green's Jungles/Blue's Waters etc books. However the New Sun books still aren't in apparently normal, here and now Earth, which is how I like my fantasy.