Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Review - Soldier of Sidon

Soldier of Sidon
by Gene Wolfe
2007 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

I mentioned when I talked about Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series that I can tell how effective a book in a series is based on how eager I am to read the rest. Even if I like a book I may not be that eager to read more. Soldier of Sidon is the third book featuring the ancient warrior Latro and it ends on an ambiguous cliffhanger. I've already ordered the first two and I'm impatient for as yet unreleased fourth.

Latro received a head injury a long time ago and since then he forgets everything within a few hours. To help him keep track of events he obsessively writes down what he can remember. The injury, however, gave him the ability to see the divine around him and that ability has made him the pawn of gods.

He awakens on a ship in Egypt that is owned by a man he rescued at the start of this record. The captain of the ship is contracted by the Persian ruler to locate the source of the Nile river and Latro accompanies him on this trip. Along with them are their prostitute-wives arranged at the start of the voyage, a worshiper of Set who has his own agenda, a scribe protected by his own god, and a woman who is not always there.

What's really magnificent in Soldier of Sidon and has made me pursue the other books is how well Wolfe uses Latro as an unreliable narrator. The reader only sees the records that Latro has written down and we don't know what he has forgotten or obfuscated. In addition it is uncertain how much he knows at any given moment since he doesn't always review his writing. Wolfe's narrator gives the reader a bewildering confused view and as a result I was much more involved with the story.

I have to mention how Wolfe makes the narrative a scattering of disjointed notes. He often jumps into something in media res as Latro has to write down the important details quickly before he forgets while not being able to recognize what could have been important elsewhere. On top of that Latro's moods shift as the journey progresses and how he reacts to his lack of memories and the tone and style of the writing change as a result. We're viewing the story through a filter that has to be read carefully. Soldier of Sidon features exceptional storytelling due to this.

The book dedicated to Richard Burton and opens with a quote from Herodotus. Wolfe does a spectacular job living up to those inspirations. The cues from Burton include the trip to the source of the Nile and from Herodotus he took the explorations distant, near mythical lands. Soldier of Sidon takes advantage of the history of Egypt and Wolfe drew me into the period.

With an unreliable narrator it's hard to judge how the characters behave but I was interested in what they would do. Given the situation I always has to consider the possibility of hidden agendas and false identities when Latro spoke of someone (that's part of what makes the cliffhanger so ambiguous). Latro himself is rewritten every time a new chapter begins so it is impossible to get a grip on him.

It is the writing that carries this book and Soldier of Sidon was one of the best written fantasy novels I've ever encountered. Since the narrative is about a man with no memory the fact that I have not read the first two books in the series made no difference in the story to me. I can't recommend starting at the beginning until I have read them but I strongly recommend reading this book; it is exceptional.