Gene Wolfe, The Sorcerer’s House (review)

The Sorcerer’s House is exactly the sort of thing you would expect from Gene Wolfe if you had for some reason been expecting him to write a disturbing urban fantasy set in a cryptomunicipality called Medicine Man, populated with the sort of quirky characters you might expect to find in a cozy mystery. Which is to say, it’s clever, intentionally obscure, deeply ambiguous, and above all gorgeously written.

When I say “urban fantasy,” I mean “urban fantasy” in its original sense. Which is to say, there are no leather-pantsed werewolf hunters in this novel, although there is a werewolf. Or twelve. This is more in the mold of Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament–a dreamy, ineradicable sort of a book that does not worry itself overmuch with explanations.

In it, our protagonist, one Baxter Dunn (twin, orphan, double Ph.D, and ex-con) finds himself heir to a Bellairsian house replete with secret doors, lucky charms, mysterious comings and goings, things that go bump in the night, and rooms that appear at seeming random. Being both destitute and resourceful, he sets about to furnish himself with the means to survive–and a series of convenient and eventually ominous coincidences begins to supply his needs.

Like any good protagonist, Bax investigates, at first somewhat haphazardly. But when the coincidences begin to be crowned by murders–and further peculiar inheritances–and the reappearance of his estranged brother–his researches become a little more focused.

This is an epistolary novel, and because it is a Gene Wolfe novel and told in first person, its narrators are unreliable and manipulative. Because it is epistolary, part of the fun lies in learning about the characters by watching the various ways they interact with their friends and enemies, and the stories they tell themselves and others.

It also manages to be a breezy and readable book, which surprised me greatly, because I’ve always considered density to be one of the hallmarks of Wolfe’s fiction.

One of the more interesting things about it, however, is the sense of timelessness the narrative evokes, which turns out to be thematically quite appropriate.

Renowned SFF critic John Clute offers the idea of a book’s “real year,” a useful bit of terminology by which he means (as I understand it) to describe the zeitgeist reflected in any given story. A book may purportedly be set in 1530, or in 2050, or in 1999–but it is possible for any of those books to feel as if they are set in 1960, for example, if that is the year in which the author’s worldview has coalesced. Despite mentions-aside of cellular telephones and laptop computers, The Sorcerer’s House feels to me like the seventies or very early eighties, which is one of the reasons I found this book so deeply satisfying–it reminds me of the books I loved as a young reader.

In tone and structure, it houses long echoes of the work of Roger Zelazny and Theodore Sturgeon, and the social dynamics–especially the gender relations–seem to have developed from an earlier time. Not, I hasten to add, in any way that I found offensive–the women certainly have agency–but there are layers of chivalry and caretaking in the relationships that struck me as belonging to generation or more likely two before mine, although Baxter would be about my age. Also, there’s a sort of mannered circumspectness to the narrative that works very well with Wolfe’s tendency to withhold information and work in the white spaces.

In short, this is a ghostly, curious book, and I enjoyed it greatly.


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