October 10th, 2015

Macbeth the Usurper

Soldier of Sidon (Book Review)

Gene Wolfe continues his soldier series with a third book, Soldier of Sidon (2006). The story follows the life of Latro, a man who forgets every day, and so writes down his memories on a scroll. The book itself purports merely to be a translation from an ancient scroll from the height of the Persian Empire. It is the literary equivalent of found footage.

Being a man who loses his memory has many implications, and in this series, having a head wound means that Latro sees and interacts with gods and spirits and things unseen. Although he forgets facts, he does recall feelings, and so can sort out who he prefers and who he trusts. Likewise, he retains skills as he learns them, such as the languages that he's exposed to.

In this book, we find Latro in Egypt, who will travel south, upriver, in search of restoring his memories. What follows is more of a travel log than an adventure, a witnessing of a time long ago when people were very different, yet very much the same.

If you are sensitive to sexism, you will find your sexism meter ringing. As the book seeks to give us a sense of time and place, it seeks to give us a sense of gender as well. In good news, the books gives us a sense of sexism because there are women present and those contribute greatly to the story. They are not absent characters, and they do not exist to be rescued. However, they do often sound like ingenues from some 1940's movie. Gererally, the women prove themselves useful and important without picking up weapons, a standard that I hold the male characters to.

As to the male character, all the men are not warriors. The men come from a variety of places and backgrounds, few of them steeped in testosterone culture. This is not a tale of manly manliness. I believe that stories which move away from testosterone culture are more important in addressing sexism in literature than addressing the status of women directly.

The novel itself is less of a novel and more of a happenstance, a recounting, a slice of life. It begins where it begins and ends where it end. I did not come away with a feeling of a complete loop. Some things were resolved, but their resolution passed by like nothing.

The fun of the novel comes from the multiple snapshots that you get of each character. As Latro always forgets them, he always reintroduces them as well. Sometimes this is confusing, but usually this is enlightening. One sees the arc of relationships progress, much being said in the reintroduction of each character.

The writing itself is fairly straightforward and unornamented. There is little inherent beauty in the plain language and sparse descriptions. Yet, I feel that the narrative is well told, except for the ending which I feel falls flat. The character walk off the page, the story undone. The only reason I don't give the story five stars is because the ending gives the story no meaning, not heft, no closure nor satisfaction.