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Fantasy & Science
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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1990

By Orson Scott Card


Soldier of Arete, Gene Wolfe (TOR, cloth, 320 pp, $17.95)

Soldier of Arete follows Soldier of the Mist in an open-ended series set in the Hellenic world during the time between Thermopylae and the Pelopponesian War. The main character, Latro, has lost his memory -- or rather, he loses most memories of his past every night when he sleeps. But along with this perpetual disconnection from the world around him, he receives a few gifts from the gods. For instance, he's a superb soldier, an almost unstoppable killing machine. For another, he sees gods and other supernatural beings that remain invisible or disguised to other mortals.

Each book in Wolfe's series consists of the account Latro has written on a scroll that he always keeps with him. Each morning his slave, Io, reminds him to read through old entries to discover who he is. Yet he does retain unconscious memories -- he remembers, not who Io is, but that he feels responsible for her, that he can trust her.

The result is a book of unsurpassed strangeness and irony. We always know more than the narrator, even through the narrator himself told us all that we know! Of necessity the novel is fragmented, and for once Wolfe's longtime habit of expecting readers to remember obscure facts through hundreds of pages turns out to be part of the honest experience of the novel instead of an authorial quirk.

However, we aren't left without help this time. Since Latro himself doesn't understand half of what happens to him, there are many passages where others explain to him what has just happened. This is a bit like Hercule Poirot or Nero Wolfe explaining in vivid detail what really happened -- but it works.

What is almost unforgivable in this book is that there is no adequate explanation of what happens at the end of it. We have come all this way, only to find that Wolfe puts the scroll in the possession of a virtual stranger, the poet Pindar, who seems to understand even less of what is going on than we do.

Thus Pindar's concluding chapter offers almost no clarification, and indeed, his callousness in disposing of characters like Io, about whom we care very much, is painful. It's been a long time since I have been so frustrated -- and, yes, angry -- at the end of a book I had been enjoying so very much. So be warned: Soldier of Arete is a brilliant, original work of fiction -- but at the end of it you'll have no choice but to guess at what actually happened during the climax, with damned few clues to help you.

Or perhaps I'm just too dull-witted to read Wolfe anymore. No doubt Wolfe has many readers brighter than I am; yet he certainly has none more passionately involved in the reading, none more eager to be moved. I wish that in the future he would pander just a bit to lackwits like me, and actually tell us plainly what in hell happened in the tale. Many great writers have deigned to do so, and their literary achievements are not wholly despised because of it.


After Sundown, Randall Boyll (Charter, paper, 299 pp, $3.95)

I'm not a fan of the sort of horror story in which the spirits of the evil dead inhabit the bodies of the living and reenact their hideous crimes (and yes, that includes The Shining). I only picked up this book because a critic I respect recommended it highly -- and did so with the comment that the book explores Mormon doctrine and culture in much the same way my work does.

My conclusion, after reading After Sundown, is that it is, in fact, a remarkably powerful and well-written horror novel, with a grisly tale that makes a perverse kind of sense. It follows an old recipe -- child in danger from his own father's blade, though some shred of goodness within his father struggles for control -- but there are some new twists on it, and Boyll has the integrity not to play meaningless oogly-boogly games with us: When it's over, it's over.

But an exploration of Mormon doctrine it certainly is not. After Sundown proves once again how difficult it is to write meaningfully about a culture you have never been a part of.

Every time a Mormon doctrine or practice is mentioned or hinted at, it is howlingly wrong. Even more telling is the fact that the characters supposedly live among Salt Lake City's middle class, and yet seem to be utterly untouched by Mormon culture. They don't even have a negative attitude toward it. And folks, that just doesn't happen. Nobody lives in Sale Lake City's middle class neighborhoods for a single year without getting some kind of attitude toward the Mormon Church.

Let's fact it. It's hard to write accurately about a culture you know nothing about. Unfortunately, it isn't all that hard for a good writer -- which Boyll certainly is -- to write convincingly about such a culture. At least convincingly enough to fool readers who know even less. People who aren't Mormon won't be bothered a bit by the apparent lack of even cursory research. What bothers me is that they'll come away from the book thinking that now they do know something about Mormons. And that's a damned shame.

I only caught the errors in this book because I happen to be part of the culture being distorted. I'm quite certain that many other writers -- perhaps most -- are just as careless in researching and writing about the many other cultures that are used in fiction. Writers, I urge you: If you are going to create a society whose features are designed to fit the needs of your story, have the decency to give it a fictional name instead of misrepresenting it as the beliefs and practices of a real community.


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