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Issue #134 - October/November 2006

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Latro in Egypt

I donít need to tell you that the new Gene Wolfe novel, Soldier of Sidon, is wonderful, do I? Of course not. But Iím going to anyway.

Latro, or Lucius the Roman as Wolfe has finally admitted he should really be known, is in Egypt. This is a fine place for him to be. After all, if one is blessed with the ability to see the gods, what better place to go. Egypt, it sometimes seems, has more gods than people. And dying pharaohs add to their number all the time. There will be plenty of new people for Latro to meet.

Every blessing, of course, has its downside. Latro, as we should all know by now, is cursed with an inability to remember any of his life before he last slept. At some time in the past he took a head wound that damaged part of his brain. Or at least that is the physical manifestation of the curse laid upon him. Now he must write every day in a scroll he carries with him, so that he can remember the next morning who he is traveling with, who his friends are, and who he has to be wary of.

We are, it appears, in the days of the Great King Xerxes, Lord of All Persia and many lands besides. Even Egypt has fallen beneath his sway. Latro is traveling in the company of his friend Muslak, a Phoenician sailor. The Persian satrap has hired Muslak and his boat to explore south along the Nile to find out what they can about Nubia and the other lands there of which the Egyptians know much but the Persians little. There is a rumor of gold mines. The expedition has other members too, including a priest of Set whose introduction Robert E. Howard would have been proud of.

"The man on my left is Sahuset, a wise man of Kemet. He too will go with you." The strap turned to this Sahuset. "Will you have a servant, Holy One?"

If I had shut my eyes when Sahuset spoke, I might have thought it a snake, so cold and cunning was that voice. "No servant who must be fed, Great Prince."

Kemet, of course, is Egypt. It means "black", and is the name the Egyptians gave their own country, covered as it so often is in the black muds of the Nile floods. Wolfe plays this game a lot. Muslak is a "Crimson Man", the Phoenicians being fond of red clothing. The "Tin Isles" refers to Britain as the Phoenicians are known to have bought tin from Cornwall. And so on. Disappointingly for the Wolfe addict, many of these terms are explained in a glossary at the back. If they hadnít been I would not have spoiled your fun working them out. But there are plenty of other puzzles for you to ponder over.

Thereís no doubt that Wolfe has a fascination with issues of identity and trust. People in his books are forever pretending to be other than they are, often for the purpose deceiving both the hero and the readers. Perhaps most famously, towards the end of the Book of the Short Sun, the identity of the hero of the story is in doubt. Is he still Horn? Or has Horn died and the mind of Pater Silk been downloaded into his body? To solve such mysteries you often have to read the book several times, or rely on Robert Borski to do so for you.

Latro, however, is an ideal vehicle for this sort of game, because when he wakes in the morning he has no idea who anyone is. Until he has read his scroll, people can make the most outrageous claims and have him believe them. A continuing theme of the book is the attempts of Sabra, the wax golem woman that Sahuset brings with him, to persuade Latro that he loves her and have him cast aside his concubine, Myt-seríeu, in her favor.

However, the trick also demands a lot of work from the reader. Latro cannot remember anyone unless he reads about them in his scroll. And as he is the narrator of the books there is no one to remind us who characters are either. On a few occasions Latro encounters people who say they have known him before. Are they characters from the previous two Soldier books, or are they from deeper into Latroís past, which would make them vital clues to the mystery of his life? I really should have read the previous two books before embarking on the new one. Perhaps I shall just read all three again.

But not quite yet. Certainly there is something going on. Towards the end of the book, Latro meets two characters who claim to know him well. One is an African king, the other a Babylonian princess who has married him. Interestingly Latro seems to have some vague recollection of King Seven Lions, which seems to suggest (without having re-read the previous books, which is the kiss of death where making pronouncements about Wolfe is concerned) that this is someone he knew before he suffered his wound. Exactly what is going on, however, will remain unclear for some time. Soldier of Sidon ends so utterly in media res that there can be no doubt that a sequel is planned. The good news is that there will be another Latro book. The bad news is that I have to wait for it. Wah!!!

Soldier of Sidon - Gene Wolfe - Tor - hardcover

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