Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Review: Soldier of Sidon

© 2006 by Gene Wolfe

Latro – or is it Lewqys? or Lucius? – lives his life in limbo.  Upon waking every morning he finds he has absolutely no memory of what came before.  The only object that gives him a link to a past existence, for the faces he sees he must relearn day after day, is a scroll labeled READ THIS he finds always at his side, which holds an unfailing imperative to record the day’s events before sleep.  And how even does one view “a life” when one never has that essential part of one’s mind, memory?

Our flawed hero does have an natural affinity with the sword.  And a group of companions who know him, his name, his past as a mercenary.  Some even care for him: the captain of the vessel he sails upon, a burly fellow name of Muslak, and a woman, his “wife” as she claims, Myt-ser’eu, a native of the exotic land Latro finds himself in every morning, Kemet.

Kemet is the name Egypt knew itself in antiquity.  The land of countless gods and goddesses, of temples and pyramids and obelisks, of crocodiles, panthers and dreaded “water horses.”  Desert, but not quite the desert we think of when we think of Egypt today; no, it is often a lush garden paradise of unspeakable beauty, at least the miles-wide strip of land girdling the majestic color-changing waters of the great Nile, running up and down Kemet like a spine.

Muslak’s boat is pressed into service by the local autarch to seek what lies south of the southernmost boundaries of the kingdom, where the Nile snakes down into the more desolate regions of sub-Saharan Africa: the mythical lands of Punt and Kush.  On board is a whole host of characters of shifting allegiances and motivations: a wizard, a woman made of wax, a young monk with shaven head, an older aristocrat, a Greek merchant (a “Hellene”), Latro’s own sneaking snakelike slave, and a handful of Persian and Egyptian soldiers, ostensibly under our hero’s command, uneasily sharing close quarters together.  Due to Latro’s unfortunate disability, we never know who is friend or who is foe from day to day to day.  Nor do we know, for certain, the true purpose of the voyage – to find legendary gold mines, or a fables lost temple of the last god, or – ?

Even more interesting, Latro has another talent: an ability that counters his disability (or perhaps, entirely the result of it), one he slowly comes to understand: He can see things that others can’t.  Things such as the gods themselves.  Their familiars, their shape-shifting animal forms.  And he can speak, converse, barter and argue with them.  And if not due to his broken memory, perhaps this “sight” was brought on by a near-death experience, his life was weighed in the scales of the courtroom of the hereafter, the forty-two gods of judgment? For though the gods guide him (but to whose aims?), his human mind often betrays him.

A very entertaining read, quick and absorbing, and I intend to make my way through Wolfe’s two earlier books featuring Latro.  I must confess to wearying of the repetitive amnesia plot contrivance about two-thirds of the way through, especially since I felt it weakened considerably the heavy-duty action that occurs at that point.  But this was easily overshadowed by experiencing the spiritual side of Egypt come-to-life – fascinating, fantastical, unnerving and exciting all at once.  Many of the mysteries are not revealed at novel’s end, though Wolfe does leave the possibility of a fourth Latro novel a better than good bet.

Grade: A-minus / B-plus.

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