4 Star Book Reviews: Soldier of the Mists

Soldier of the Mists by Gene Wolfe

Adrian Tchaikovsky calls Wolfe “the master of the first person.” He’s right.

Latro is a book supposedly translated by Wolfe from a diary kept by a 5th-century-BC Roman mercenary in Greece who received a wound to the head and can’t remember much earlier than twelve hours ago. It’s a delightful conceit, as the main point of view from the book (some chapters are written by other people) doesn’t speak Greek perfectly, doesn’t have the context to understand most of what’s going on, and is prone to hallucinations.

There are quite a lot of gods popping up in the story, lots of magic and ghosts, characters disappear, reappear, change sex, and swirl around the main character, who, because he can’t remember anything anyway, just tries to respond to whatever’s happening at the moment. There’s a very charming sense of trying to do the right thing in impossible situations.

It’s also nice that there are no villains. Certainly there are people whose actions run counter to Latro’s quest, or who behave badly. Very badly in some cases. But we’re never left in doubt that everyone Latro meets is a person, with their own internal story — usually one that doesn’t make any more sense than his. The book has moments of piercing compassion, even for tiny bit-characters. There’s the foreigner who tried to speak Greek once, was made fun of, and now only communicates with hand signs. The general who has mastered his emotions so thoroughly that he isn’t aware of it when he’s angry. The god who hopes his wife will teach him mercy.

The book does drag on a bit. Like other Wolfe stories I’ve read, it has a tendency to wander across the map, searching for itself. And there’s the weird way characters speak, although with Latro, it’s easier to interpret that as awkward translation from Greek to Latin to English. You (or at least I) also have to read this book with wikipedia on your other tab (who the heck is “the King of Nyssa”? Oh, okay. And where is Nyssa? Uh huh. And who were his parents? And so on.) But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

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