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Into the Mind's Eye of Mythic Hellas
Gene Wolfe's Novels of Ancient Greece
© 2013 James LaFond
I once picked up a menacing little paperback titled Shadow of The Torturer; the first part of a five part mega-novel: The Book of the New Sun. The setting took some time to get immersed in, but the prose was so dense and compelling that I did not want to stop reading. It was so very odd reading a story about a decaying alien world from the point-of-view of a torturer. Few could have pulled this off. But Wolfe brought the skills of a top flight novelist to the task. So, it was not as if some skilled short story writer had a neat science fiction idea and managed to extend it over the course of a novel. This was a work of art, a painting rendered with words rather than brushstrokes.
As a reader I have long avoided trilogies and series of novels, because I did not want to begin reading a series in the middle, and that is usually when you notice them on the shelves. For the online book shoppers of today I suppose this is not such an issue. So, when I was in a book store well over a decade ago and saw Soldier of Arete by Gene Wolfe, I bought it, even though it was the second in a two-volume series and I had no way of knowing If I could get a copy of the first: Soldier in The Mist. As a reader I trusted Wolfe as an author so implicitly that I grabbed it, knowing it would be worth the read, even if I did not have the background. Wolfe seamlessly let the reader in on the substance of the foundation story without somehow giving it away. I was thus able to enjoy this book and look forward to reading the first as more than a back story.
Years later I found both volumes re-released as Latro in the Mist. It has been years since I read his science fiction: The Book of the New Sun; The Book of the Long Sun; and The Book of the Short Sun—12 novels in all, so I am unable to review them, only recommend them. Latro in the Mist, however, I reread recently, and offer the following impression.
Latro in the Mist
Gene Wolfe
Orb, NY, 2003, 639 pages
This is a masterpiece of the imagination, and, a telling look into the ancient mind. The entire story is written in the first person as a journal. This format is so uniquely employed and executed that one loses site of the fact that most good novelists could not pull this off. The narrator and protagonist are one in the same: Latro, a Latin mercenary formerly employed in the army of the King of Kings, Xerxes; the Persian ruler who invaded Hellas in 480 B.C. Latro begins his story by relating that the physician who has treated him has given him this papyrus and stylus in order that he might record his memories of the day before going to sleep, for when he wakes he loses all short-term memory.
The lead character goes through the remainder of the life that he manages to record in this way with only the knowledge of his dimly remembered childhood, what the people around him tell him when he wakes, and what he has managed to write on this scroll. He comes to believe that he has been cursed by the Mother Goddess, for he can see into the mythic realm. Real to Latro are the many gods, hero-ghosts and nymphs of the metaphysical landscape of ancient Hellas. He might not remember who the woman he woke next to is, but she might just be a minor goddess…
This is an ingeniously conceived and executed work. Most importantly the author stays true to what remains known of ancient Hellas and the beliefs of its people. What I personally found most compelling about the way the setting was presented was that it is not translated as meaningless sounds, but rather as the ancients understood a particular place. So Athens is not ‘Athens’ as in our unknowing translation of the ancient sounds into our symbols for those sounds, but ‘Thought’ the translation of the ancient place-name into its English equivalent.
The best thing about Wolfe’s writing, however, is the humanity of his leading character; a remarkable, but imperfect and self-searching soul caught in the tide of vast events and subject to powers he does not understand.
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deuce     Jan 4, 2016

Besides being well-written, there are some genuinely creepy passages. Also, Latro is a bad-ass. You can tell Wolfe is an REH fan.
James     Jan 8, 2016

I like this almost as much as the New Sun.

Wolfe is peerless.
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