Monday, February 6, 2012

Home Fires - Gene Wolfe

About the book

Gene Wolfe takes us to a future North America at once familiar and utterly strange. A young man and woman, Skip and Chelle, fall in love in college and marry, but she is enlisted in the military, there is a war on, and she must serve her tour of duty before they can settle down. But the military is fighting a war with aliens in distant solar systems, and her months in the service will be years in relative time on Earth. Chelle returns to recuperate from severe injuries, after months of service, still a young woman but not necessarily the same person—while Skip is in his forties and a wealthy businessman, but eager for her return.

Still in love (somewhat to his surprise and delight), they go on a Caribbean cruise to resume their marriage. Their vacation rapidly becomes a complex series of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates who capture the ship for ransom. There is no writer in SF like Gene Wolfe and no SF novel like Home Fires.

304 pages (hardcover)
Published on: January 18, 2011
Published by: Tor

Thanks to Tor for sending me a copy of this book to review.


Chelle and Skip fell in love when they were in their twenties and, like many lovers out there, decided to become contracted (married). Chelle then went to fight the alien Os for several months. While she was gone for mere months in space, twenty years passed on earth. The two lovers reunite; one still young and the other middle aged, and try to rekindle their romantic relationship by taking a cruise. On this cruise, many things go wrong. There is crime, intrigue and battles and most importantly, nothing is what it seems.

This is an interesting setup for a very interesting, multi-faceted book. Most of Home Fires is told from the perspective of Skip, a middle aged lawyer who is about as interesting and compelling as your neighborhood accountant (no offense to those accounting outliers who are actually interesting people). I have a feeling Wolfe kept Skip rather bland on purpose. Skip’s uninteresting personality makes the reader focus more on the events and people around him, which really is where most of the book takes place. Skip himself seems to be merely a means to an end. However, he is incredibly boring, and this could very easily affect the reader’s overall enjoyment of Home Fires.

Despite the fact that Skip is rather droll, the events of Home Fires more than makes up for it. There is enough suspense and subtle build up to keep anyone turning the pages. That is, perhaps, one of the most impressive aspects of Home Fires. Wolfe somehow manages to pack this book full of suspense and intrigue in a way that isn’t in your face. The plot moves quickly, yet so seamlessly that events seem to carry themselves forward effortlessly. I’m not exactly sure how Wolfe manages to accomplish this. Compared to Home Fires, most other books filled with so much depth and action almost slap the reader in the face with it but this is the exception. In fact, Wolfe seamlessly adds so many layers to his book that readers might not be aware of how much depth there is in these pages until they finish the book and think back on it.

The world building is not incredibly detailed, but perfectly balanced for the plot. The reader gets clues and hints as to what this future Earth is like, without being overpowered with detail. Wolfe helps us understand how the world is broken up into several political blocks, and how these political blocks interact with each other and how this affects the characters this book centers around. The war with the Os is mentioned more in passing than anything else, which is rather surprising when you consider how important it is for the plot. However, Wolfe drops clues and cues throughout the book so the reader picks up on important aspects of the world almost without knowing they are doing so.

While Home Fires is mostly told through the eyes of Skip, there are chapters throughout the book told in Skip’s first person perspective. These chapters are rather interesting, and also somewhat disorienting as they can change from past to present tense as Skip either discusses what is currently happening, (example, “I am looking at…”) or what has happened (example, “and then I...”) or he thinks about memories of times past, or hopes and dreams for him and Chelle. These chapters are incredibly intimate with Skip, and really show the reader who he is, and important events in his life. These chapters are occasionally confusing, because the reader has to figure out what exactly Skip is talking about, and they can leave you disoriented, but a lot of clues and cues to the overall plot are in these sections, and they are important for character development and the plot itself.

I am not incredibly well versed with Gene Wolfe. I haven’t read a ton of his books. In fact, this is only the second one I’ve read. If I had read more of his work, my review might take on a different tone if I compare this book to others. However, I can’t do that. I can only judge this book on it’s own merit. Home Fires is a deep, subtle and many layered work. Skip is a rather boring individual, but the events that transpire in Home Fires more than makes up for it. This is one of those books I had to take time to fully absorb. Wolfe is a wonderful writer, and a master of subtlety.

4/5 stars

P.S. My child started throwing a fit when I finished writing this so I haven't edited it AT ALL. I apologize for any terrible errors. 


  1. I loved Home Fires. It was my 3rd (I think?) Wolfe, and everything he writes is subtle and multi-layered, to the point that as soon as you finish something he's written, I want to read it again but backwards.

    I think it was Jeff Vandermeer who said a few years ago that everytime you reread a Wolfe novel it is a completely different story.

  2. I am not incredibly well versed with Gene Wolfe. I haven’t read a ton of his books. In fact, this is only the second one I’ve read.

    What was the first? I'm curious as to how much in line with his other books this is.