The Knight - Gene Wolfe

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Knight
Book One of The Wizard Knight
Gene Wolfe
ISBN: 0765309890 (Amazon link)

Let's pretend that you are in a bookstore. It's a maze of twisty aisles, all alike. You navigate your way to the SF section, which is always at the back of the shop. Amongst the media tie-ins you see something new. You pick up a book which has the author's name and back cover blurbs all covered over with tape. The rather bland cover [1] shows a generic knight, with a dragon looming the background. The book is called The Knight, and is part of one of a series called The Wizard Knight.

A bookseller passes by, and you ask them if they know what this novel is about. As this is a hypothetical world, the bookseller actually knows about this book. They tell you it's a fantasy about an American teenager who cuts a walking stick from a special tree [2] and is transported to another world. There he is given a magic bow-string by a woman called Parka (cf Parcae, the Roman fates), renamed as Abel of the High Heart, and sent out into a world called Mythgarthr.

You interrupt here, saying, "Midgard? Is this a pseudo-Norse setting?" and the bookseller nods, telling you that Aelfrice, Muspel and Niflheim lie below that world. She continues, telling you that Abel next falls in love with the Queen of the Faeries, who changes him into a superb specimen of a fully grown warrior. Abel decides he wants to be a knight, and heads off on a quest to find the magic sword Eterne, crafted by the smith Weland, King of the Fire Elves.

Along the way Abel is joined by one of Odin's dogs. This dog talks to Abel when no-one else is around. Abel also picks up another magic talking pet, this one a cat. The cat and dog don't like each other. Abel has adventures among the elves, acquiring two randy fire elves maidens as slaves. He has to prove himself against other real knights, and there are the required Campbellian Karate Kid training scenes with lance and sword. In between, Abel battles pirates with the help of a salty old sea-dog who becomes his friend and servant. Finally, he heads off to fight the Frost Giants. The rest of the story is in book two.

The bookseller then asks if you wish to buy this book. What do you say?

I suspect that if you're like me you'll groan and pass, telling her than you're tired of Commercial Fat Fantasy. You don't fancy reading recycled Norse legends with the numbers filed off, that The Knight sounds like formulaic adolescent power fantasy, and that, frankly, you would rather eat sandpaper than read anything with a talking animal sidekick, let alone two. (You forestall her objections by explaining that you would make an exception for Brust.)

What do you then say when the bookseller pulls off the tape and shows you that the author is Gene Wolfe, and that the back cover is splattered with gushing praise from the likes of Jeffrey Ford, Steven Brust and Patrick O'Leary? How do you feel when you see Neil Gaiman's comment that, "If you don't read this book, you'll have missed out on something important and wonderful and all the cool people will laugh at you."

In some ways, this is indeed a very unusual book for Gene Wolfe, the writer's writer, master of intricate, literary puzzle boxes. In other ways, it's immediately recognisable as a Wolfe book - we have a young man with memory problems, narrating the story to someone close to him, from an undefined point in his own future. From hints in the text, we deduce that his position in future life is very different to the past he's discussing. We cannot trust the narrative as entire episodes are not explained, and people we don't know are mentioned. Matters are confused as in this past there are shape-shifters, and games are played with identity. Blood drinking occurs, there are classical references, and overt Christian imagery is employed. The Knight does possess many of the trademarks of Wolfe's work, but still, on the surface, this is his most accessible and simply structured work to date.

In part, this is due to the narrative 'voice' employed. Abel is still very young for much of the book, despite his new Conan-esque body. He uses short, simple sentences, and doesn't always structure his tale coherently. He isn't one for fabulous descriptions, or emotive passages heavy with symbolic imagery. The effect is reminiscent of Horn's narrative in In Green's Jungles, or even Latro, in the Soldier of Arete books.

Personally, I prefer the heady, baroque imagery and prose we get in the Long Sun series, but this clear, simple narrative does permit me to keep my eye firmly on the plot, and I probably picked up on more references in the first read of this than any other Wolfe novel. In part this is due to the familiarity of the material. I'm very familiar with the Northern European mythos, more so than with classical references, and there's a lot less invented from whole cloth compared to previous novels - with the Long Sun novels, I sometimes had difficulty assimilating a very simple story element because it was cloaked in an obscure word, and came from Wolfe's fevered imagination, with no straight reference in my mental database. No such trouble here - Frost Giants and Dryads are comfortable, familiar tropes. Of course, Wolfe is far from the first to work in this mythos, and I particularly enjoyed passing references to Poul Anderson's classic fantasies The Broken Sword and Three Hearts and Three Lions.

This book may appear simple, but it's still written by Wolfe, and careful reading is rewarded. Right from the start, you can't help but wonder about the significance of Abel's name, and frankly, by the mid-point I was seriously working on a theory that he never was an American teenager at all! This might explain some of the rough edges in the narrator's voice - I have to say that the intrusion of American idioms into the story really grated, and I had difficulty reconciling his 'voice' with that of a teenager at times. I don't think Wolfe is going to make a mistake with his narrator, not given his past tricks, and so I'm fascinated by where book two, The Wizard, will take us.

There are many subtle side-plots to Abel's main quest, and although it's not too intrusive, there are some clear didactic passages on the themes of responsibility and honour. Basically, Wolfe might just be writing about what it means to grow up into Someone Decent. It's important to always remember that throughout this book Abel is only a child, still with a pre-pubescent mindset, and that, frankly, this explains why he often acts like an utter asshole. Abel's an interesting character, but I was surprised to find that I really didn't like him, and certainly I didn't empathise with in the same way I did with Severian or Silk.

All children as basically sociopaths in my opinion, and Abel's worldview is incredibly self-centred. Aside from his great love for the Queen of the Elves, Disiri, he has little thought for the rest of his adventuring party. His unthinking nature is especially clear in his treatment of Baki and Raki, his fire-elf slaves, but they do afford the singular line that I thought I'd never hear from a Wolfean hero, "They've got tits!"

This isn't the only humorous line, Wolfe even goes so far as to include a couple of running jokes, one on correct use of grammatical constructs, and one on what it means to be a man. Abel keeps relating how he was a small boy until he slept with a woman who made him into a proper man, but he still feels like a small boy inside. Without exception, every man he tells this to agrees with him, saying they feel just the same.

I'd really better not say too much about the plot, as Wolfe novels are like cross-words - they're not fun if someone else fills in the answers. Besides, I know from past experience of Wolfe's novels that I will have missed a lot on the first read, and delaying comment until a re-read when The Wizard is released will let me avoid making any particularly stupid analyses!

I've just realised that nowhere above do I talk about how good this novel is - how wonderful the prose, the story-telling, the characterisation, the setting, the plotting. It's Wolfe. Take it as read that you're looking at the top 1% of the field, the cream left when Sturgeon's Law has been twice applied. The Knight is unusually accessible and a deceptively simple read for a Wolfe novel, but this doesn't mean the Brain Eater has struck! I enjoyed this novel hugely, and am fascinated to see how book two resolves the plot. I have no idea where Wolfe is taking Abel's story - though I admire the trap Wolfe has written Abel into - but I trust him to complete his re-invention of the Quest Fantasy and to show me something new coming out of a classic mould.

Highly recommended.

[1] I hesitate to say it, but one of the reasons I looked for a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer for three years - yes, it was once hard to find in the UK - was the wonderful cover art by Bruce Pennington.

[2] I grew up in Northern Ireland, and you'll still see 'fairy thorns' sitting alone and untouched in the middle of otherwise cultivated fields.

Posted: Tue - March 9, 2004 at 04:51 AM