Gene Wolfe’s The Sorcerer’s House is a mystery, a thriller, and a fairytale. Baxter Dunn is about as honest as can be expected of an ex-con, and at the beginning he is just trying to start a new life for himself. Despite his twin brother’s refusal to help him get back on his feet, Baxter quickly acquires a house and some great big tracts of land. If you can believe him, both acquisitions were unintentional.
To Baxter’s surprise, the house included several additional features. Boys break into the house in the night, then disappear, leaving only mysterious implements behind. There are creatures chained in rooms he has never seen before and cannot locate again. And a visitor leaves behind severed limbs for another resident of the house, despite the fact that Baxter lives alone- at least by day.
A modern fairytale
Though not marketed as such, this recent novel by Gene Wolfe is a modern fairytale of the best breed – one without all the noisome explanations that weigh down many such stories. The most delicious aspect of the fey is how it remains inexplicable, no matter how much of it you see. Gene Wolfe is uniquely suited to write such a book as many of his works keep his readers in the dark as to the mechanisms by which their worlds operate. In some cases, this is frustrating – here it’s delightful.
To keep us in the dark this time, the novel is entirely comprised of the characters’ letters. Not only do these letters expose us to each character’s prejudices, but they also open us up to exploitation by the characters. If the characters are not honest to each other, we are none the wiser unless they recant.
One arguable weakness of this strategy is that there is an occasional sense of deus ex machina, particularly at the climax. We have no idea what powers are at work, and thus when the powers all come into play, the fact that the outcome is favorable seems suspect. Frankly, though, magic is complicated: if I understood magic, I’d probably read academic journals on economics for entertainment instead of fantasy.
The pacing of the book is a touch off. At the beginning the plot is almost painfully slow. Supernatural events are thrown into a slush of mundane activities but have no real impact. The only important consequence of the mysterious housebreakers is that the broken window must be fixed again. Also, the epistolary format lacks the adrenaline of a traditional narrative. Our narrators have had time to absorb what has happened to them before they put it in print. Shocking revelations for the reader do not seem to create the same emotion in the characters in many cases, which makes empathy difficult.
On the other hand, once the novel gets rolling, it really rolls. Better still, the characters act believably – or at least the human ones do. The characters with some supernatural background do the inexplicable, but that is only to be expected, and they throw a wrench into mortal plans.
Speaking of characters, the protagonist very quickly collects quite the cast of supporting characters. With few exceptions, these supporting characters tend to be shallow enough that I managed to confuse two rather major characters almost half way through the book. To some extent, this is part of the mystery. A recurring theme in the tale is the question of perception, and whether those who appear trustworthy can be trusted. As such there are characters whose motivations we may not know.
Obviously a deeper picture of those characters would only heighten the suspense at discovering their true natures, but I’ll allow some leniency there. The epistolary format makes it reasonable, if not forgivable, for the narrator to focus on his suspicions and major events rather than tidbits which might give the reader further insight. Unfortunately, even if those characters whose motives are in doubt are excluded, we are left with a number of one dimensional actors. Though not strictly stock characters, they can be easily summed up. The spirit guide. The second overzealous butler (you’ll see). And so on. Shocking things happen to and in the vicinity of these characters, but they frequently fail to react meaningfully to even the most stressful situations.
When viewed as a mystery, this novel is truly masterful. The reader is given a perfect mix of clues and red herrings, alongside things that only the protagonist could bring to light. If I had to do a tally of who figured out what first between myself and the narrator, I’m not sure who would win.
The greatest thing here is that we’re not only concerned with finding the murderer, but also with all the aspects of the mysterious house and its connections to the narrator and events. In the end, these plot lines don’t connect in any logical fashion except for the fact that the narrator binds them, but such is life. Of course, we never find out the answers to everything, and the book does lack closure to a great extent. Just enough curiosity is left unsated to gnaw at the back of your mind for a few days after finishing.
Why should you read this book?
You should read this book when you miss the fairytales of your childhood, where you never learned how the witch captured the princess in the first place. Trustworthy narrators are for those who lack the mental fortitude to question everything they read, and Gene Wolfe’s minimalist style makes you feel like four-fifths of the other books on your shelf are fluff.
|Luke Mastalli-Kelly is a freshman at Harvey Mudd College pursuing a double major in Physics and Computer Science who works and runs a small business out of his dorm room. In short, he has absolutely no business reading nearly as much as he does. Business aside, he reads voraciously and acts as a lending library to everyone he has ever met.|
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