Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Publisher's Weekly weighs in on Gene Wolfe's latest novel.
Fantasist extraordinaire Wolfe (The Wizard) dabbles in time travel paradoxes for this charming tale of a monastic novice in postcommunist Cuba. As the years pass, Christopher, the son of an American crime lord, gradually loses touch with his family and decides against taking holy orders. He leaves the monastery and finds himself in the 18th century. This unexplained time slip, along with Chris's equally mysterious jump to the late 20th century, are the only fantastic elements in what's otherwise a fairly straightforward tale of derring-do on the high seas. Wolfe describes his plucky young hero's rise from much abused common seaman to successful pirate captain, filling his story with duels, treachery, ship-to-ship combat and an abundance of accurate period detail, avoiding both the larger than life romanticism and the fantastical elements often associated with such pirate tales. Captain Chris is a laconic and rather unemotional narrator, which may put off some readers, but Wolfe's elegant prose still makes this relatively minor effort (my emphasis) worth reading.

"This unexplained time slip, along with Chris's equally mysterious jump to the late 20th century, are the only fantastic elements in what's otherwise a fairly straightforward tale of derring-do on the high seas." I haven't read it yet myself, so I can't say, but one then wonders why Wolfe bothered to incorporate them into the novel at all.

As with some of his other works, Free Live Free comes to mind, every so often I think Wolfe writes a great novel and, upon revising it, finds it necessary to 'tack on' some SF or fantasy elements to plots that otherwise stand on their own. Or perhaps he begins with the fantasy elements and then the story becomes so good on its own that it outgrows the need for them.

All of which confirms my admittedly snobby opinion that Wolfe has outgrown the genre, and maybe he should just drop the trappings altogether.

(I say this as an inveterate SF reader. )