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The Knight, by Gene Wolfe Book Review | SFReader.com
The Knight, by Gene Wolfe Genre: Fantasy Publisher: Tor Published: 2005 Review Posted: 9/18/2006 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 3 out of 10
The Knight, by Gene Wolfe
Book Review by Pete S. Allen
Have you read this book?
While one shouldn't, perhaps, judge an author by one (or even two) books, when one spends a lot of cash on textbooks, and less than one would like on novels, one often does. Having the summer blissfully off, I finally dusted off two books that I had been saving for just such an occasion, The Knight and The Wizard by Gene Wolfe. Overall, I'm largely disappointed.
In The Knight the first book of this two-book "epic," the story revolves around a boy, whose American name we never learn, swept into a fantastic land where he becomes Able (later Sir Able) of the High Heart. The world we first see him in is Mythgarthr, which is the middle of the seven layers making up this universe. If you're thinking to yourself that 'Mythgarthr' looks an awful lot like 'Midgard,' you're absolutely correct; Wolfe draws heavily on Norse and Judeo-Christian mythology, as well as Arthurian and Faerie lore to create the world of The Knight. He also likes playing with linguistics and word roots, using 'burse' for 'purse' and discussing the differences between 'helm' and 'helmet.'
The rationale of the novel is that it itself is a rather long letter to the brother, Ben, who Able left behind in America when he came to Mythgarthr. Able is essentially recounting his experiences and adventures that lead him to become a knight and hero of the realm. He begins with a glossary of names, many of which have no direct bearing on the story and are mentioned only in passing, or in reference to a part of the story that we never actually hear. As such, the glossary is indicative of the major problems I had with the novel. But first, the good stuff:
The Knight takes place in a rich world, full of heroes and villains and mythical, magical creatures. We follow the progression of Able from lost boy to hunter to knight, and eventually to a knight of the realm. He interacts with a number of fantastic and mundane characters, many of whom join him in his adventures and become memorable characters themselves. While Able is seeking his knighthood, his primary interest involves finishing an unknown quest, so that he can return to his true love, the queen of the Moss Aelves in the realm of Aelfrice. Sadly, Able is himself often inconsistent, and his character doesn't seem to develop nearly as much as those around him. He is a 14-year old boy from America transformed into a large, powerful knight, but he learns little and seems to remain fourteen in his mind, despite the encounters he has with people along the way.
Wolfe's mythology is flawless, and his world-building skills are very impressive. He blends the aforementioned mythologies into a world that makes sense and is populated by a number of likeable and even loveable characters, well developed and usually consistent. He obviously knows how to write, and has what it takes to build an epic world that the fantasy reader could easily lose themselves in. Which leads me then to the question, why doesn't he?
The main flaw in the book is a rambling and inconsistent narrative, taking the reader into strange, often pointless subplots and offering the reader meaningless or (worse) misleading clues. There is a line in Able's narrative late in the book that actually names the wrong character, which stopped me cold, causing me to look back pages to decide whether this was an editing mistake or if I missed something. Whole sections of story are left out as the narrator skips time between chapters, summing up months in a couple of sentences that are supposed to replace character development and explain the emotional attachment of Able to various characters, such as his brother's counterpart, Bold Berthold, and his inspiration to strive toward knighthood, Sir Ravd.
One of the big rules they teach you in writing workshops these days is "show-don't-tell." Wolfe makes it abundantly clear here why they hammer this into young writers. We are shown very little of the narrator's ambitions, emotional attachments, or inspirations. He tells us who he loves, occasionally why he loves them, and what he wants to do about it, but there is little reason to understand or believe him. Even that staple of fantasy fiction, the battle scene, is largely ignored and glossed over -- we find Able wounded after a shipboard battle we hear about, but don't experience. Which leads us to the "unreliable narrator." After a little research, I read that Wolfe particularly enjoys this literary device, and there is speculation among reviews I have read that this is why this book seems choppy and tangential -- specifically that we are relying on a narrator who is a 14-year old boy, magically encased in the body of a burly knight. What 14-year old boy is going to fully examine his feelings for the world to see, or remember what he was thinking at a given time?
My problem with this excuse is that it is inconsistent with this novel's premise, and the premise of fantasy fiction in general. If Able is writing to his brother, an account he wants to use to set Ben's mind at ease about his experiences, he is going to want to remind Ben of some of that brotherly advice, and why he has taken to heart in this new world, where all he has is the memory of Ben. Also, sibling rivalry would seem to dictate that our Able might want to impress his older brother, and show off a bit (especially given what we learn about Able in the text) and the lack of discussing his prowess in battle, or even battle at all seems glaringly wrong. Finally, the letter writing is presumably taking place well after the events recounted. Fine and good, a lovely excuse (and often used) for missing detail, but the idea that time and reflection would have no bearing on the impressions of the narrator rings more false than the idea of Moss Aelves.
Fantasy is about the suspension of disbelief in favour of a good story. When that story suffers because the author chooses to "realistically" use the story-telling ability of an unreliable 14-year old narrator, I have to wonder why such a device would be employed. If I can set aside the disbelief in a world where giants and aelves exist, chances are my difficulty with the fact that the narrator remembers every single event and his feelings and can relate them in a coherent fashion, whether he's currently fourteen years old or simply remembering his adventures years later, is going to be slim to none. If the story format of a letter or journal has to be fractured a bit to give me a good story, so be it. I'm the one buying the novel, not Ben.
One of the reasons I picked up this book was because I had heard Wolfe mentioned as one of the best writers in the F/SF field, and because of the gushing praise on the cover from writers whose work I enjoy already -- Gaiman, Brust, etc. Unfortunately I'm finding myself wondering whether they read the same book. Wolfe is called a literary writer, and has been named the best contemporary American writer, period. I enjoy reading fantasy, and I enjoy reading literary fiction, but if this book is what comes of marrying the two, then I'm not convinced.
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