“Overhead the skylands sailed serenely among broad bars of sterile cloud, displaying countless now-sunlit cities in which nobody at all knew or cared that one Patera Silk, an augur of faraway Viron, was frightened almost to death and might soon die”
Gene Wolfe is one of the most divisive authors in the genre of speculative fiction (I use that generic tag because he fits neither the category of Science Fiction nor Fantasy—rather, he exists in his own world, the world of “Science Fantasy”.) Wildly popular among critics, and with several awards to his name, he is also an enormous influence on other respected writers, most notably the excellent Neil Gaiman. However, his popularity among the masses is far less effusive. Though his relatively few fans are fierce in their love, they are, well, few. For various reasons, people simply do not like him, the most common complaint being that he is boring, though I have heard many others. Having grown up in a household home to one of his fans, I was always expected to try one of his books. And yet I was always put off by the distinctly mixed reviews I was getting, especially from sources I trusted. Finally I decided to pick one up. This would not be the easiest book of his to start with, nor would it be the first published, but I was advised that it was his best. So, with no little trepidation, I began.
The main character of the book is Patera Silk, augur (essentially a minister) of a poor manteion (holy building). Unknown to him, the building which he regards as sacred, not to mention holding great personal significance, is to be sold to a crooked businessman – named Blood – due to unpaid taxes. He attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince Blood to allow him to keep the manteion. This involves breaking into his house, which earns him Blood’s respect, if not his goodwill. He is offered a deal, one that will get him back his manteion. Unfortunately, the terms of this new deal are practically impossible for Silk to perform…
First off, Wolfe’s characters are exceptional. Patera Silk is amazingly well-developed, fully three-dimensional, and with a whole host of flaws to match his virtues. Let us not forget that, being a priest, he decided it would be a good idea to try to break into someone’s mansion. If this does not make a character interesting, I don’t know what does. Blood, as the primary villain, is also relatable and sympathetic. He’s not your typical bad guy, he’s not even really “bad”. Everything he did, every action he took, was perfectly appropriate, reasonable, and justified. And that makes him all the more interesting to read about. There are four other supporting characters who I expect to become more important as the series goes on; two good and two bad. Hyacinth, the courtesan, and Crane, the doctor who may be much more, would be the first category. Musk, Blood’s second, and Mucor, Blood’s demon daughter (seriously) would be the second group. All are well-crafted, intriguing, and three-dimensional.
Wolfe’s world, known as “The Whorl” is also well-crafted. The Whorl hides a secret, but instead of being explicitly told, readers are left to discover this on their own, figuring it out piece by piece. Religion plays a major factor also, as one would expect when the main character is a priest. The pantheon of gods appear to their followers through a device known as a “Sacred Glass”. I am not quite sure what these are, nor what the gods will turn out to be, for they certainly exist.
Now, though everything that I’ve mentioned in his review so far has been overwhelmingly positive (glowing, in fact), I did not love this book. And this is because it suffers from a serious problem with pacing. The first 100 pages of the book are among the dullest I have ever read. No sort of development occurs; plot, character, or otherwise. After that the book improves, and I felt myself drawn in. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the entire first third of the book is terribly slow, I was unable to fully immerse myself in the story. I was constantly afraid the book would slip back into those doldrums, and my initial perception of the book, though it did not apply in the later portions, was difficult to fully ignore.
Also, the book never really concludes. The problem isn’t solved. Ultimately, very little really happens in the book. I feel like if the first hundred pages were cut, that would give the author 100 pages more at the end to actually do something with the story, rather than make this book feel like one big set up. Which I’m sure it is, and that the second book is far better. However, it seems arrogant to assume that readers will pick up the next book in the series, no matter how enjoyable the pervious one was.
Overall, this was a good book. I don’t believe it approached the stratospheric levels where many critics have placed it, nor do I think it was as terrible as many readers seem to think it is. A great world and great characterization are all well and good, but when the pacing is off I struggle. Still, all in all, a fine novel, and a good introduction to Mr. Wolfe.
Final Rating: 6.5/10