Friday, April 8, 2011

The Sorcerer's House - Gene Wolfe


About the Book

In a contemporary town in the American midwest where he has no connections, Bax, an educated man recently released from prison, is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail, to whom he progressively reveals the intriguing pieces of a strange and fantastic narrative. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is, to his utter surprise, the heir to a huge old house in town, long empty, he moves in. He is immediately confronted by an array of supernatural creatures and events, by love and danger.

His life is utterly transformed and we read on, because we must know more. We revise our opinions of him, and of others, with each letter, piecing together more of the story as we go. We learn things about magic, and another world, and about the sorcerer Mr. Black, who originally inhabited the house. And then knowing what we now know only in the end, perhaps we read it again.




ISBN: 978-0-7653-2459-7
Released: March 2010
Publisher: Tor

Thanks to the wonderful people at Tor for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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The Sorcerer’s House is my first experience with Gene Wolfe and will, by no means, be my last. I was told by several people that this book was the best for a reader to start out with Gene Wolfe, and I’m glad I took that advice. It’s a subtle story, rich with details and intricate, unique writing that serves to get a reader’s feet wet before drenching them in the Wolfe-waters.

The Sorcerer’s House is easy to become absorbed in. The tale is told in a series of letters, most written from the point of view of Bax, but some written by others to him as well. Bax is a rather mysterious protagonist, and the style of writing allows Wolfe to keep a lot of important details under wraps until he subtly and slowly reveals them to his readers. Thus, The Sorcerer’s House is an exercise of slow discovery for readers as they reveal tiny bits more about Bax and the overall plot and world as the pages turn.

This is, perhaps, where I derived the greatest joy from this book. Wolfe is an unpredictable author. While the initial description of this book kind of made my eyes roll, there really is nothing typical here. Wolfe’s subtle handling of details is nothing but masterful and serves to keep the reader hooked even when they might not expect it. The Sorcerer’s House is somewhat of a mind trip while Wolfe toys with his readers by doing this he truly turns this book into an exciting journey of discovery.

While I can’t seem to say enough about Wolfe’s plot and writing style, there were some flaws here. Telling the story through letters did get slightly exhausting. I felt as though I was cut off from much of the world as the protagonist completely dictated what I read and absorbed about what was happening. While I realize that this style is what made everything I loved about this book work, it did, at times, make me feel as though I was blindfolded while I shouldn’t be.

This also did lead to some tiring info dumps while the protagonist caught up those he was writing letters to on events. These info dumps, I felt, could have been less exhausting or oppressive if the book had been written in a different style. However, I must again note that I doubt this book would have been such a subtle work of unpredictable genius if it had been written any other way.

Wolfe’s character development astounded me. Bax slowly reveals who he is as each letter passes. By the time the book is finished, Bax isn’t anything I expected him to be and, through the increasing depth given to him as each page flips, he becomes, perhaps, one of the most mysterious yet well rounded characters I have ever had the honor to read about. Though, at times it did seem rather unbelievable that Bax was facing all of these extraordinary events without doing so much as batting an eye.

There is plenty in this book that makes it fairly hard to pin down for an adequate review. While it does seem to fit with a contemporary or urban fantasy tag, there is also enough fantastic here to make me wonder if it truly fits on contemporary shelves in bookstores. It’s a book that seems to straddle several lines with plot, characters, and even genre labels. The Sorcerer's House does have a blurb written by Neil Gaiman on it, which fits the overall tone of the work. It's dark and mysterious and straddles genre and characterization expectations just like Gaiman's American Gods

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with Wolfe’s The Sorcerer’s House. I didn’t expect much from this going in but was shocked to find the book packed with subtle details, riveting character development and a unique plot. If I did feel that it was slightly bogged down with the form Wolfe used to tell the tale, it didn’t affect the enjoyment I gained from reading this. The Sorcerer’s House was my first Wolfe experience and it will not be my last. If this is any hint as to how well his other books are written, I will probably, after further experience, consider myself a huge Gene Wolfe fan.

4/5 stars

6 comments:

  1. Welcome to the wonderful world of Gene Wolfe! :) I've only read a few Wolfe titles, but Sorcerer's House was definitely the easiest to get into.

    in a week or two, if you have time, read Sorcerer's House again. It's a completely different book the 2nd time around.

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  2. Haven't had the chance to read this one, but I have heard a few good things about it. I wonder if I'll be able to get a copy from the library or something at some point, so I can see what I think of it.

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  3. I wholly support the statement that Gene Wolfe is the greatest living writer.

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  4. it always takes multiple readings of any Wolfe book before it all clicks in my brain. And then I am floored by the genius of it all. Sublime & awesome.

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  5. Sounds like an interesting book. I've read some Wolfe (Book of the New Sun, one other), though I'm still not totally decided on him.

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  6. While writing an entire novel in the epistolary POV is a technical tour-de-force, it really hurt the flow of the novel. My favorite parts were where the dialog and the action would break the shackles of that point of view and run free for a while. Gene always reined things back in, but a first person narrative interspersed with letters would have worked better.
    Great story, great characters, lyrical writing for captivating stretches, it is a book well worth reading.
    It was a welcome relief to world of The Hunger Games.

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