Gene Wolfe, Latro in the Mist (Orb, 2003)
Gene Wolfe is one of the highest-regarded writers of fantasy and science fiction today. His novels and stories, rich in literary allusion and dense with metaphor, have long been held as comprising one of the field's greatest bodies of work, with his multi-volume Book of the New Sun being considered a masterpiece. Many of his books have been reissued in recent years in omnibus format, containing two or more novels in one package. Such is the case with Latro in the Mist, which is an omnibus compilation of Wolfe's novels Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete.
The two books purport to be translations of two scrolls written around the year 479 BC by a Roman soldier who takes the name Latro, although that is not his real name, for "Latro," Wolfe tells us in his introduction, is a word meaning brigand, hired man, bodyguard, or pawn. Latro, it turns out, does not remember his real name, or indeed anything about himself at all (the result of a war wound). The book is his record of his adventures during his journey to learn who he is and where he comes from. Now, a first-person story told by a narrator who suffers from amnesia is an old chestnut, even one that's set in the days of ancient Greece. What sets Latro in the Mist apart is the nature of Latro's amnesia: he doesn't simply start on page one with no memories and go about regaining his old ones. Latro, rather, forgets everything anew each morning. His mind begins each day as a tabula rasa; each day he has to relearn where he has been and what he has done and who he has done it with. Thus, the book we're reading is not just a narrated tale: it is the record that Latro keeps just so he can read it each morning and learn what has gone before. His mind is a constant palimpsest, and the scroll in which he writes is his only way of retaining his grip on "reality."
But it is a tenuous grip, indeed. Wolfe has thought out very carefully what life would be like for a person so afflicted: how would he know friend from foe, from one day to the next? How would he respond to the love of others, sometimes real and other times feigned? How would he respond to the sufferings of others, inasmuch as he can even realize they are suffering? It is a fascinating conceit for a novel, and Wolfe has considered the implications very well.
However, those very complications make the book a pretty difficult read (albeit a rewarding one). The chapters are short, restricted as they are to what Latro could conceivably write each day, and each chapter in some part trucks with uncertainty. Thus I was often disoriented as a reader, which might be a problem except for the fact that it's pretty clear it has to be this way. Not only is there a disconnect from day to day in Latro's tale, there are larger gaps that occur as well on days when Latro has either forgotten to write or been unable to do so. I don't recall ever encountering a novel in which I was quite as "at sea," as a reader, than this one.
And it's not just Latro's memory problems that make the book a tough one. There are constant allusions to Greek myth. The book isn't merely a historical novel, it is a fantasy, and the fantastic element is very much in evidence because Latro's memory loss also gives him the ability to see the "other world," the world of the Gods and Goddesses. Thus Latro often confers with otherworldly beings, has strange visions and dreams (if they are even visions or dreams), and speaks directly with nymphs and satyrs and Gods and Goddesses. I found much of this difficult to follow, which I suspect is partly a function of my general lack of familiarity with Greek myth in general. This is obviously a book whose allusions and inner meanings are revealed to readers who know the ground in which Wolfe is toiling.
I did find the book's ending very abrupt and not particularly illuminating, and in the course of looking at a few other reviews of this book on the Net, I learned that Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete may well constitute the first two volumes of a long-incomplete trilogy. If that's the case, then the book's lack of closure at the end makes perfect sense. Perhaps Wolfe is uncertain as to whether he plans to finish this work or not; perhaps it's simply something he's never come round to doing. If this is truly the case, perhaps the current volume should indicate that status.
My other critique is something of a growing pet peeve of mine regarding fantasy publishing these days: the issue of maps. Too many fantasy books are coming out nowadays with no maps of their locales, and I for one find it highly disconcerting. Latro in the Mist does include a map of the first book's locations, but the second book takes Latro and his companions to locales far beyond the first, and no map of these locales is provided. Luckily, as the book takes place in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, I was able to dig out my historical atlas and figure out where the events were taking place. But that really shouldn't be a requirement for reading fantasy, and there is no such option in those fantasy books that take place in completely fictional worlds.
In the end, Latro in the Mist is a tough read, but a fascinating one that will probably reveal more meaning and depth on second and third trips through its pages. That tends to be a quality shared by most "great" books. I'm not totally sure if this is a great book or not, but I have an inkling that it might be.