Sunday, January 29, 2006

Gene Wolfe: The Knight

I'm a Gene Wolfe fan, I admit it. I've read most of his books and most of them are immensely enjoyable. This is in contrast to John Brunner, who I also like. I've read as much Brunner as I can find, but there are only 4 or 5 that are really great books. Beyond the top few, the rest of Brunner's work is seriously "B" material. Wolfe is different. He has quite a few really good books: The Torturer series is A+ level in my opinion, as is The Soldier of the Mist. The later series based on Urth aren't quite A+, but I'll give them A-, and some of the standalone novels are also A level. His short story collections also contain real gems (In particular, look for The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories and Endangered Species.

Even when Wolfe's writing misses the mark, his characters are fascinating, and you feel like you are seeing the alien world yourself. When he's doing well, you barely notice how well the writing flows, since the action holds your attention so well.

Wolfe's newest series is disappointing. I haven't been this dissatisfied with a Gene Wolfe book since There are Doors (2001), or before that, Peace (1995). Those were cases in which not enough happened in the book to keep up my interest. In The Knight (Part 1 of The Wizard Knight) Wolfe makes a different mistake. This is light fantasy, with a modern person transplanted to the land of faerie. Able, the main character has the ability to draw on magic, and call magical creatures to him, but he doesn't know the limits of his power, or how to exercise it particularly. The problem is that his lack of knowledge and inability to control his powers makes his successes feel like deus ex machina: he always seems to wait until he's in a really tight spot, and only then call up something powerful. And the powers he calls up and the creatures he enlists to his service seem to have a lot more power than is needed to win the battle. Able does get injured badly enough in some of the fights to require substantial time to recuperate, and each time, the recuperation ends up distracting him and sending him on a side venture that distracts him from his main goal. So each time it seems that Able could have solved the initial problem better by working harder on controllign his magic rather than trying to use sword, lance, and persuasion until things got desperate.

But even in the face of that, I like the way Wolfe writes. I like the characters, who grow, learn, and change through their struggles, and I like the way Wolfe paints a scene. I will probably read the concluding book since this one ends with Able's quest unfinished. I just hope Wolfe reins in the powers of Able's followers a little, and that Able gets a little more control. Since the second book is called "The Wizard", I think there's some hope of that.

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