The Knight - Gene Wolfe This review covers both volumes of the Wizard Knight duology.

Gene Wolfe and I have an interesting relationship. Of course we have no actual relationship at all aside that which belongs to any reader/writer pair, but since I'm reviewing a book that's fair enough. Here's the thing: I really want to be one of those people who can sing Gene Wolfe's praises to the sky and knowingly wink about all of those complex and enigmatic stories that I totally got the first time I read them. But I can't. Don't get me wrong, Wolfe is obviously a huge talent and I like much of what he's done, but sometimes I just think he's more concerned with composing an elegant literary puzzle than he is with just giving us a good story. And sometimes I'm not even sure the supposedly complex literary puzzle is even there. I mean, have you ever perused some of the ideas and theories about everything Gene Wolfe has written that are on the Urth listserv (http://www.urth.net/urth/)? Have you? I dare you to go and wade through even 1/8 of them. Good. You back? Now....do you believe it!? I mean, it's crazy, right? There's no way that anyone knows everything about everything the way Wolfe apparently does and then codes all of those nuances into every word and punctuation mark he's ever written, right? Right!? Please say you agree, because I like to think I'm a pretty smart guy, but just glancing at some of those supposed 'references' and subtexts that Wolfe is apparently making makes me feel like a total moron.

Also, there's the fact that many of Wolfe's protagonists are, how to say it? Generally pretty annoying people, I think is the phrasing. I'm looking at you Patera Silk! I mean, really, can any of you tell me that you actually got part way through the books of the Long Sun without wanting to reach into the text and slap Patera Silk silly and tell him to "Fucking wake up!"? I mean, following this dude around for four large size books as he well-meaningly drifts in a holy stupor from one crisis to the next, forever agonizing over his moral inferiority is a fairly trying experience. And Severian? Well, let's just say that the boy's got some issues, even beyond the obvious. At least Latro has the excuse of actual brain damage for his behaviour.

All of this is merely a preamble to say, I understand and feel for all of you that scratch your head and wonder what all the fuss is about when everyone and their brother (I'm looking at you Neil Gaiman and you too John Clute) go on about how Wolfe is the Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Proust of the speculative fiction world and if you just don't get it you're just not trying hard enough, damn it. I love most of the Books of the New Sun, though it took me two read-throughs for that; I thought the Books of the Short Sun had some of the most amazing writing he's done and I look forward to going back for my second dip; and man, those Books of the Long Sun? Well....I really _want_ to like them, I mean there's some really cool ideas buried there underneath all of that Patera Silk.

Anywho, I'm supposed to be talking about The Knight in this review so maybe I better start that now. This book and it's companion volume The Wizard are my very favourite of Wolfe's books that I've read thus far. To be fair they already had a leg up on the others due to the fact that they mix three things I really love: Norse mythology, Christian mysticism, and Chivalric romances into a rather tasty stew. Maybe this simply means that I'm getting a few more of the references that I'd have otherwise missed if this were one of his other works. Regardless, I thought Wolfe did a great job blending those things into a believable and really interesting world.

The protagonist, Able, is a lot like most of Wolfe's other protagonists (that I've come across thus far anyway) in that he's another variation on the holy innocent archetype, with an emphasis on the innocent (in the sense of naive, NOT morally blameless) and much less so on the holy. He's a boy from our own world who wakes up one day to find himself magically transported to a medieval fantasy world and given a push onto the road of a magical destiny. All sounds pretty pedestrian so far, right? Well, keep in mind that Wolfe is doing something different here from the run of the mill quest fantasy. Able goes through a lot of growing pains on his journeys, from falling in love with an elven fairy who turns him into a full-blooded man (both literally and figuratively) a bit ahead of time, gaining a demon-dog companion and accreting to himself one of the motliest bands of travellers this side of Russell Hoban's Pilgermann. Able really does grow significantly from one book to the next as he learns to earn the manhood that was thrust upon him and goes from callowly fulfilling most of his adolescent male power fantasies to taking upon himself the load of responsibility that his position ultimately earns him.

There are some really great characters here that cross Able's path, from the lovable hound Gylf and the loyal manservant Pouk, to the irritating yet complex Svon and the suave, evil, and utterly likable, Garsecg. Even these secondary characters are allowed to learn and grow and do more than provide background colour for the tale of Sir Able of the Hight Heart (as he christens himself): Svon starts out as a real pain in the ass, a git we want to see humiliated in every way possible, but we learn to see him as something much more complex than a stuck up prig; and the story of Toug's growth from boy to man is at least as important, and central to the tale, as is Able's. In many ways Able acts not only as our window into the world that Wolfe has created, but also as the enabler (ha, en-Able-r...did you see what I did there?) for the growth of the secondary characters who have followed him throughout his story. Ultimately Able earns his place by growing into the man he needs to be and living in such a way that those people whose lives he has touched cannot help but react to him in a like manner and, for good or ill, become something more than they were.

Edit, Nov. 28, 2011: I was going to demote _The Knight_ to a 4 star on this re-read given a few of Wolfe's tics that were bugging me in the middle of the book, but the ending, and those elements of it that do work so well for me, convinced me to keep the 5.