Thursday, 10 June 2010

Review: The Sorcerer's House (1/2)

I thought I would post my brief review of Gene Wolfe's latest novel, The Sorcerer's House (2010), in two parts: the first shall be a general review of the book, and the second part will look at the book's ending and some of the questions we are left with—it will be full of spoilers, so don't read on to part two if you haven't read the book, or don't intend to.


The Sorcerer's House is a stand-alone novel written as a series of letters, most of which are from the protagonist, Baxter Dunn, to his twin brother George. Baxter is an ex-con, who upon his release from jail found himself in possession of a large and mysterious house. Baxter is an interesting character, and I really enjoyed Wolfe's use of a person who is so intelligent in some ways (Baxter has two PhDs and is frequently making allusions to nineteenth-century literature and ancient history) and rather stupid in others (relationships, for instance). Even though I found him to be quite unlikeable, he still kept my attention. At first I was unconvinced by the construction of the novel as a series of letters, it seemed a bit contrived, but I eventually got used to it and came to understand why such a format was chosen. I suppose it is also quite believable that someone with two PhDs could be driven to write so many long, descriptive letters.

In his introduction to PS Publishing's limited edition of the book, Tim Powell notes that the novel slowly draws the reader in to a fantasy world. At first, the house just seems large and empty, if perhaps frequented by squatters, but as the story progresses, stranger things start to happen. The house constantly seems to be growing—new rooms appear regularly—and fantastic creatures such as dwarves and werewolves start to appear. Eventually we are introduced to the realm of faerie, which I thought was a lovely touch to the story.

Overall, it was a remarkably 'easy' read, for a Wolfe novel. I found the same thing with An Evil Guest (2008), but The Sorcerer's House was ultimately more satisfying. While I enjoyed An Evil Guest, I also found it to be a bit too much of a puzzle—there are numerous hints at what is really going on in the story, but we are not given enough evidence to properly decode and understand the book. Perhaps Wolfe decided to address his readers' frustration, for his latest novel seems much more candid. Wolfe sets up a great many mysteries throughout the book, but goes on to solve many of them explicitly in the text itself. Yet there are also some questions that remain, and it is this balance of resolution, explanation, and mystery that I really enjoyed. The narrator, of course, is very unreliable, and does not always seem to make sense of what is happening around him. So even in the end, when so much seems to have been explained, we can still search through the book to discover more questions, and, if we're lucky, more answers.

After reading a book I don't want to feel completely left out of the story, as though everything important has been happening in the background but I haven't been observant enough to notice. I want to be surprised by revelations and satisfied by conclusions. But I also want to be left with a sense of wonder, with some questions to solve myself, and then be driven to go back and re-read the book to unlock its greater depths. The Sorcerer's House achieved this balance for me, and I found it a very satisfying novel.

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