Gene Wolfe, The Wizard Knight (2004)

Gene Wolfe was (he died this year) a prolific and acknowledged American fantasy writer. His short stories (I have one anthology, but it’s still waiting its turn), and novels have many admirers, among them Le Guin, Gaiman and Ellison. His signature? Unreliable narrators, selling you their version of very complicated stories. It’s not his invention, but I have to agree I really have to pay attention when reading Wolfe, not to get totally lost. I find it impossible not to get lost a bit πŸ˜‰


My first encounter with Wolfe, though, was when I read his Soldier of the Mist, a novel (part of a trilogy, but I only have volumes one and two, the third part was published years later) about a young Greek mercenary who, after suffering a head wound, is only able to remember event of a current day. Not knowing who he is and pretty little about the world around him, he couldn’t be a reliable narrator if he tried to πŸ˜‰ Fantasy element is added when he discovers he’s able to communicate with gods and other supernatural beings. I liked it, but couldn’t find any of Wolfe’s other works. A few years later, The Book of the New Sun was recommended to me, and these tomes I devoured with great taste. Story of Severian, young (Wolfe’s heroes do have a few things in common, and not only their youth πŸ˜‰ ) torturer (!) exiled for showing mercy – and wondering the dying Earth of far future. Quite soon after that I ordered a cheap, used copy of The Wizard Knight, for when I have a fancy to read more Wolfe. I finally read it earlier this year and with a great pleasure, although with a feeling it’s mostly more of the same.

IMG_20191128_173345A very used copy indeed, eh? I believe it cost a dollar + postage and packing, if memory serves me well. It’s actually two volumes, but omnibus edition was published very quickly, a year after original publication. I decided to take only one book for a business trip abroad, but hey, I never said it will be short one. As it happens, it was this 920-page behemoth πŸ™‚

Anyway, back to the point. How did the template go? A, here it is:

Author: Gene Wolfe

Title: The Wizard Knight

Format: Paperback

Pages: 920

The Wizard Knight is a story of young man taken out of his element to test himself against adversaries in a world rich in references to various mythologies (chiefly Norse, Arthurian and Catholic, in this case). As he’s narrating his experiences, reader catches inconsistencies and realises, this well meaning lad is perhaps not always fully objective. So, a typical Wolfe? From my perspective, this being the third story of his I’m reading, there clearly is a pattern. But hey, it worked the first time and it works here.

Able (Sir Able of the High Heart) consorts with Aelfs, Valkyries and Giants, but the God that influences the events from the background (Valfather… yes, really) is a bit more than Odin, I’d say. And the culture of chivalry and exploitation of lower classes is definitely Middle-Age Christianity.

This is how this multi-dimensional world looks:


Looks familiar ;)?

Able’s main quest is to regain the lost memory of the time he spent after he was kidnapped from modern America and kept in Aelfrice by the (A)elves, and to get together with Dissiri, Moss Aelf queen and the love of his life. Interwoven with these are several other stories, of individual protagonists and entire political entities, that go in and out of focus with the attention of our hero.

There are dragons, gods, elves and knights, jousts and battles, loves, sad and happy endings to multiple storylines. Oh, and there is a talking dog, brave and loyal. and also a scheming, smart-ass cat, for those more into cats πŸ˜‰ And a flying unicorn. A bit of a mess at times, but a great pleasure for a reader that wants a bit of uplifting fantasy. I really like the main hero, faulty, brash, but with a really good heart, paying attention to his companions and trying his best to achieve good outcomes of all his endeavours. When Severian of the New Sun might be justifiably seen as a Christ-like figure, Able is a true knight of the Round Table in a world where the king is no Arthur. And then, he goes beyond the role of a knight, when he uncovers the secrets of this universe to become a, well, no spoiler there, it’s in the title – a Merlin-like wizard.

Or, at least, that’s who his strives to be, and how he perceives himself. This is an important distinction not every reader seems to understand. We have a story told here, not an objective narrator.

There is a place for complaints. Definitely, it could be trimmed to around 600 pages. Some of the chapters in the middle could be entirely skipped, bringing nothing of importance to the story.

Better than Soldier of the Myst, shorter than the New Sun, it’s a very good introduction to Wolfe, for a willing, patient reader. If you’re not patient, perhaps start with short stories πŸ˜‰ Anyway – it’s a good, multi-layered book, read it πŸ™‚

Score: 8/10

31 thoughts on “Gene Wolfe, The Wizard Knight (2004)

  1. Ugh. I’ve never understood why Wolfe appeals to so many.
    I didn’t realize this was all about the unreliable narrator when I went into it and that completely destroyed any possible chance of me enjoying it. Wolfe just writes in such a way, with writing choices, that simply don’t mesh with me.

    I am glad you enjoy him as much as you do and I wish you all the luck in finishing up his bibliography. Do you find that his Catholic background and how he brings that into his stories is in any way off putting for you, as we’ve talked about how you feel about Catholicism and how it works in your country.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Well, I rather like it, I only mind contemporary political Catholicism, but as literary inspiration it can be very fruitful. Besides, I’m told even my anti-catholicism is very Catholic πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 2 people

          1. Nah, I just read the Wizard Knight a couple of years ago and my reaction was even worse. So Wolfe simply isn’t for me.

            Good job on trying to convert me to Wolfe’ism. But I’m a stout unbeliever, nay, a veritable heretic in that regards πŸ˜‰

            Liked by 3 people

        1. I’ll reread it after I reread the entire Dune series, but at the current rate (and especially because I mainly want to keep reading stuff new to me) it’ll be 5 years of more before I’ll finish it New Sun. I think it will benefit tremendously from a second read though.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Thanks! Yes, he’s quite popular among genre fans, and highly recommended. You can start with this, or some if his short stories, there are many anthologies available πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll definitely pick something of Wolfe up, at some point, but for a reason I find difficult to pinpoint I am more inclined to try New Sun first. This one sounds a bit too generic, I’m afraid, with the premise seemingly heavily indebted to Mark Twain… πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness, I owned a copy of Soldier of the Myst when I was a teenager and would occasionally try to read it and get all intimidated and stop because I felt it was beyond me. I’ve be scared/awed by Wolfe every since. I really WANT to read him. Little Red Reviewer wrote some awesome posts about New Sun and now you’ve got me all interested in The Wizard Knight … but what if I’m still not smart enough?? *wails* πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      I’m sure you are, and were, it’s just a matter of patience. And, obviously, not everybody has to enjoy Wolfe, it’s a very peculiar writer. If you’re hesitant to star one of the bricks, there are short stories aplenty πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

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