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Sunday, March 28, 2010

"The Sorcerer's House" by Gene Wolfe (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Gene Wolfe at Wikipedia
Order "The Sorcerer's House" HERE

INTRODUCTION: In my 2010 Anticipated Books post I said:
it's Gene Wolfe, it's at least a try; recent novels have not been quite on my taste though I loved some of his new short stories, but the author of the various "Sun" series is in a class of his own so I will check out each of his novels asap. The blurb of this one was very exciting and the sample available on Amazon through the Kindle edition made me want to read "The Sorcerer's House" immediately, though to my surprise I looked in maybe ten big bookstores in three major urban areas (NYC, DC, Greenwich/Stamford CT) without finding it so I finally got it from Amazon.

"The new Gene Wolfe fantasy novel is told entirely in a series of letters. Only Wolfe could have made this so gripping, a surprising page-turner of a book.In a contemporary town in the American midwest where he has no connections, an educated man recently released from prison is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is the heir to a huge old house, long empty, he moves in, though he is too broke even to buy furniture. He is immediately confronted by supernatural and fantastic creatures and events."

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Sorcerer's House" stands at about 300 pages and consists of 44 letters and an epilogue.
Most letters are addressed by main hero Bax(ter) Dunn to his twin brother George or to George's wife Millie, with several addressed to a former cellmate and several addressed by others mostly to Bax.

The novel belongs to the "isolated urban fantastic" category set in the present day, where weird things happen to a small number of people in usually a restricted geographical area, without any connection to the rest of the world. Recent novels like this that I loved are Jasmyn by Alex Bell, White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, though
"The Sorcerer's House" is the "cheeriest and most pure fun" of all.
All of them are of the type "accept the premise and enjoy the ride".

"The Sorcerer's House" was super-fun; now "pure fun" and Gene Wolfe is something that is usually incongruous since his books like the awesome three Sun series are dark and demanding, but this one is just a zany novel end to end.

A holder of 2 PhD's - for reasons to be discovered reading the novel - Baxter Dunn is just out of prison for defrauding George and several of his business partners of as he puts it, insignificant sums for them, but it was the pride of being taken in by a seemingly unworldly scholar. Living at a motel in the middle of nowhere he sees a house that seems abandoned but with some little work could me made livable; soon he actually finds out that the house is his, deeded by a mysterious, disappeared and presumed dead Z. Black and actually even sooner he finds out that the house is much larger inside that it seems and that it has lots of mysteries, some that could be deadly.

Later the mysteries thicken and we meet a cast of ultra-eccentric characters among some more normal ones, though slowly it is clear what is going on and some of the revelations are easy to guess.

The letters that form the novel work very well as a narrative device and Bax' voice is perfectly rendered. From trying to survive as a penniless and jobless, ex-con with two doctorates, to becoming rich almost overnight but at the price of the weirdness and even personal danger, Bax just goes with the flow and does not really stop to question what's going on, though he proves very adept at making friends and dealing with everyone from the strange characters of his house, to local real estate agents, cops, reporters and even a "psychic consultant" that comes to "exorcise" the house or maybe Bax himself. While the rest of the characters are mostly seen through Bax' eyes, the few letters addressed to him change the pace and style to differentiate some of them quite well.

The main attraction of the novel is the zaniness, the flow of non-stop action that twists and turns and the "what weirdness will come next?" that continues almost to the end. Once the major revelations are done and we seem to achieve closure, the novel takes one more unexpected turn and ends with a superb epilogue that makes one reread at least the last half of the book.

"The Sorcerer's House" is a strong A that will entertain and enchant as long as you do not question it too much, but accept its premise and just turn the pages and get immersed into it.


ediFanoB said...

I had my doubts whether the letter form of the novel works or not.

But fortunately your great review dispelled all my doubts.

And I think sometimes it is worth to read a novel under the assumption "accept the premise and enjoy the ride".

Liviu said...

I had my doubts too and that was one reason I wanted (without success) to see the novel in bookstores first before buying it, but the extract convinced me to get it and the letter format works essentially like a first person narration, with Bax as the main narrator

Elfy said...

I haven't read any Wolfe previously, this may just change that situation.

Chad Hull said...

I haven't read an epistolary novel since The Color Purple. I didn't even think anyone was writing in that manner anymore. Something 'light and fun' from Wolfe is really different as you noted.

I don't know why, but when I first heard of this book I mentally wrote it off. I think now I'll reconsider as it seems to be out of the ordinary for Wolfe. (Not that the ordinary is bad...)

Liviu said...

For me the recent Wolfe novels did not work that well (read way too many pirate novels to be saturated by a narrow subject like that, sort of like polar expeditions and The Terror/Simmons, while Evil Guest' sensibilities just were off for me) but this one was a clear try, though I wanted to check it out first before buying a copy

Anonymous said...

"cheeriest and most pure fun." That's one way to read it, certainly. Wolfe is, however, a complex, tricky & deceptive writer, and, even in _The Sorcerer's House_, he does not omit to plant clues that what really happened was altogether different from the above plot summary, and much darker.
Some of his work can *only* be read as esoteric, but he's really at his best with works like this, that can be read on more than one level.

Liviu said...

It's cheeriest and most pure fun Gene Wolfe and this means that of course there are a lot of hints and darker goings on, but the novel has a sense of exuberance that I rarely encountered in the more ponderous and self-serious Sun series, though indeed I saw it in some short fiction from the author.

Bill O'Connor said...

I enjoyed "The Sorcerer's House," he'd have 8-10 page passages that were deliciously good--and full of depth, and his characters had the kind of quirky depth that I crave in a novel.
The epistolary POV? It became a millstone around his neck in my view. Some of the best passages fell apart when the reader asks, wait, you wrote all of this in a letter?
The ending . . . eh. Glad I read it though and I'll watch for more by Gene.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comment!


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