REVIEW SUMMARY: Gene Wolfe does fantasy – a more accessible work than the New Sun books but still classic Wolfe. Fans will love it, newcomers will find it a great start.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Sir Able, a 16-year old somehow transported to a fantasy world, undergoes a transformation into a true knight that has him learning about honor, heroes, and the nature of his character.
PROS: Unique, rich, fantasy setting. Fantastic language, solid engaging plot.
CONS: Wolfe’s subtle nature doesn’t answer as many questions as he hints at.
BOTTOM LINE: Fun, engaging, quick read that had me pulling of the hero at every step. A rare quality fantasy book in the era of junk fantasy.
IN DEPTH: Wolfe spins a fantastic yarn where a young boy lives his dreams – transported into a fantasy world as a magic-wielding hero. But in typical Wolfe fashion we’re given an extremely rich world where things aren’t all classic fantasy.
The story is told in first person narrative, in the form of a letter home from Sir Able to his brother Ben in America. Able has been spirited away from his home during a hike after being left alone. The boy is transformed into a man through the love of an Aelf queen, and embraces the ideals of knighthood after being introduced to them by a father-like figure of a true knight. While certainly unconventional and often controversial (he is still a boy in maturity after all), Sir Able establishes himself as a true hero through action and deed. He strives to always be honorable, even to a fault as he feels he must be.
Wolfe’s world is divided into seven layers, with the middle layer being most Earth-like and the spot where the action takes place. The one above the ground is where the human gods live. The one below the Aelf – and the humans are their gods. And below that, we have the world of the dragons where truly mean and evil creatures live. Each descendant world seems baser and filled with more evil than the one above – granting plenty of room for unique characters and great stories.
Wolfe does a masterful job laying out the world and hinting at the motivations behind his characters. Some critics don’t care for this – they’d like every hinted plot to be explained away in full. I think this is short-sighted – people in the real world have dynamic desires and dreams that are often spelled out. It’s refreshing to read this and satisfying without knowing every back-story.
Wolfe has also been criticized for Able’s sudden conversion into adulthood, without the turmoil and angst a teen might really go through. I suppose there is some truth here – although I’d like to believe that this particular teen was more mature than most and therefore more capable of handing the situation. No matter, I don’t feel this detracts from the story in any way.
It is hard not to engage in a guessing game around some of the strange situations or clues Wolfe leaves in the book. At a couple of points, Able dreams that he is back in America (once in the middle of a shootout with gangsters or soldiers.) It is interesting to think that perhaps Able lived those events, and the fantasy is sprung from his mind while in shock from them. While a fascinating undercurrent, it neither improves nor detracts from the fantasy story.
Finally, one caveat is that I’m nearly positive the book was split. So this one doesn’t exactly stand on its own – you’re going to feel the profound need to read the second and finish the story. But, this book left me salivating for the sequel – so stay tuned for a review of The Wizard soon!