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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 29, 2009
Some of the best, and best known, works of science fiction are neither novels nor short stories, but something in between: just long enough to fully explore an idea, yet short enough to focus on a single set of events. "The Time Machine," "Who Goes There," (a.k.a. "The Thing,") and "Flowers for Algernon," (a.k.a "Charly") are three examples of the genre adopted into movies. Others were expanded into novels or even series by their original authors: for example, Theodore Sturgeon's turning "Jefty Is Five" into "More Than Human," Isaac Asimov's linking a series of novellas into "The Foundation Trilogy," and Orson Scott Card's stretching "Ender's Game" into a cottage industry that would be the envy of Pere Dumas. I would guess more than half the science fiction novels ever published started out as something shorter (and often better.)

As far as I know, Gene Wolfe himself has done this twice: turning the bleak and brilliant "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" into a single-volume "trilogy" of interlocking mysteries, and expanding an unpublished (possibly untitled) novella into his unprecedented and unsurpassed four-volume masterpiece "The Book of the New Sun." In this, he has shown remarkable restraint. Pretty much unanimously acknowledged as the master of the novella form, Wolfe could have filled ten acclaimed careers simply expanding into novel-length the short fiction collected in this book. "The Eyeflash Miracles" could easily have been a novel, "The Cabin on the Coast" a fantasy-adventure trilogy, "Seven American Nights," what else, a seven book post-apocalyptic epic, "Forlesen," the lifetime output of a couple authors I could name.

But no, they are what they are. "The Best of Gene Wolfe" is a book of books within books, a book of seeds each of which sprouts into a sequoia, but not on the page, in your head. It saves trees by blowing minds, I guess, making this collection both a boundlessly generous feast and an exquisitely torturous tease.

Is it "The Best of Gene Wolfe?" No, the best of Gene Wolfe is still his twelve-novel (untitled) sequence of "Sun" books. ("New," "Long," and "Short," in case you don't know.) But "The Best of Gene Wolfe" is the best of the best. A paradox? Why not. It's a great place to start reading him. Or a great place to finish--then start over.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2008
An Evil Guest follows other recent Wolfe novels (Pirate Freedom, Wizard/Knight) that pastiche various fantasy or SF forms of the past. Unlike the others I just mentioned, Evil Guest is broader in ambition and more more true to its (multiplicity of) sources.

At its core, Evil Guest is basically a Hammett or Chandler "mystery" thriller circa 1930. The style, use of dialog, basic milieu, and plotting would feel right at home next to the Big Sleep or Maltese Falcon. Yet we have a completely modern world also (with cell phones, the Internet, etc.), plus 1950's Buck Rodgers space opera elements and some Cthulhu mythologizing thrown in for good measure.

If this sounds dubious, crackpot, haphazard, or just plain impossible... well... it's Gene Wolfe, here. It's not just eminently possible, it all works to build tension and gravity---not knowing who precisely our heroine should trust or whether/how it will work out until the end. The disparate elements and homages (with one exception) play seamlessly together, blending into the whole nicely. (The one exception, for me at least, is the mention of Miskatonic University in the Epilogue: begone, blatant mention!)

If you love Wolfe's "Book of the {whatever} Sun", the Latro stories, and are here for the unreliable narrator, Byzantine plotting, and 57-layers of indecipherable meaning (and you didn't like, say, Pirate Freedom), you might not enjoy this book. The tautness of the genre and the nature of the book will *seem* to deny you those myriad pleasures. I say "seem" because I think he's doing something pretty remarkable without the sundry tricks. I don't love it quite as much as some of Wolfe's earlier works. But I was steadfastly entertained and I liked where this went, indeed indeed.
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28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 15, 2008
This is going to be a hard book to review and I suspect that the ratings will be all across the board. Some people are going to hate it, some like it, and many more will just be confused. I'm in the last camp, but despite being confused, I must say I liked and enjoyed this book.

The downside of An Evil Guest is that this book is extremely disjointed, not very clear, and parts seem missing. I truly wondered as I was reading this if Mr. Wolfe didn't thrash this out while on some very interesting medications. The upside is that the book grabbed my attention and I enjoyed reading it despite what I might normally call serious flaws. So this is hard to explain. I'm not sure I understood the story, I'm not sure who the evil guest was, I'm not sure what the heck Wolderan had to do with anything, and despite being set 100 years in the future I could detect no trace of that in the book other than that some people had personal spaceships. Other than that, and they didn't have any bearing on the plot, it could have been 1999. In fact, I am not even sure this book has a plot. The musings in the early part of the book regarding good and evil never bear fruit, fun forays into sentient mountains and werewolves never seem to amount to anything and the two Alpha males, Gideon and Reis, never deliver on their promise. The dialogue left me so confused that at many points in the book I had to go back and re-read a sequence three or four times to understand it. It often felt like reading a play without any of the visual cues, mostly because Wolfe didn't add much in the way of descriptions throughout the book. Ready to run away? Not so fast. Somehow I enjoyed this book. I've read several books in the last month that I didn't enjoy at all, but I actually enjoyed this one and even the complete lack of a comprehensible ending didn't take the blush off the rose.

So what is about this book? It reminded me of nothing so much as if Hunter S. Thompson, whacked out on good acid and bad whiskey during a broadway show, started writing a science fiction book right in the theater and then finished it over the course of a jittery and spastic night. The book is extremely disorienting, but it is disorienting in a recognizable way. It may not make a ton of sense, but think about a long and interesting dream you may have had once. This book comes as close as anything I've ever read to being like a dream. It doesn't have a lot of logic, things show up which have no relevance, characters change and morph over time for no particular reason, the story changes and goes to bizarre places and the end is like waking up to a different reality. Which is always disorienting. Nominally this book is about an actress, Cassie Casey, who does theatre and gets caught up in the maneuverings of two wealthy, powerful, interesting and dangerous males who are both being hunted by the US government. Kind of. That's as close to a plot as you're going to get and the story wanders away from it frequently.

So, if you have had fabulous, disjointed random dreams before, I think you may like this book. That's exactly what the reading experience is like. I enjoyed this book despite it ignoring every convention out there, but I think to enjoy this one you just have to let go and flow with the book. This is very odd stuff, but if you don't fight it you may enjoy it.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
While the printing press is a marvel of mass production, the Kindle puts it to shame. As a result, the countless hours of enjoyment Gene Wolfe has provided to me over the years are completely out of proportion to the paltry sums I have paid for his books. Mr. Wolfe is certainly the finest writer of the latter half of the 20th century to grace the science fiction genre. Actually, he's probably the best writer of the last half of the 20th century, period. Nothing lasts forever, I suppose, and Mr. Wolfe's illustrious career is perhaps approaching twilight. Still, it saddens me to see a Gene Wolfe collection, even as wonderful as this, titled a retrospective.

Mr. Wolfe is a wildly prolific short story writer. In fact, he loves the form so much that he cannot refrain from inserting short stories into his full length works. So while "The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction" is a marvelous collection spanning much of his career, with award winning stories selected by the author, it's a volume or two short of being definitive.

Mr. Wolfe's work is densely alliterative, and much informed by his faith. For the church goers among us, "La Befana," "Westwind" and "The Eyeflash Miracles" are delights. Throughout his career Mr. Wolfe has displayed a fascination with forms and aberrations of memory and consciousness. Mr. Million, the unbound simulation of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," Nicholas of "The Death of Dr. Island" and Baden of "The Tree is My Hat" are cases in point. Mr. Wolfe has a fondness for the cadences of myth and fable; "The Boy Who Hooked the Sun" is a fine example and a terrific story for young readers. (My kids enjoyed many a Gene Wolfe short story around the campfire as they grew up.) Mr. Wolfe is known for his use of first person active voice, and has made the literary device of the unreliable narrator famous. His protagonists are often impaired in some way, but nonetheless noble and likable. Sam of "Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon" is a type specimen Gene Wolfe protagonist. Mr. Wolfe evinces a genuine affection for humanity in general, and his characters in particular (even the villains). At his best, Mr. Wolfe evokes a wistful, bittersweet, almost elegiac tone in celebration of the beauty and foolishness of the human condition. "The Death of the Island Doctor" is a gem of story that chokes me up with happy tears every time I read it. Eventually all who are blessed discover that Dr. Insula had not been mistaken about the island after all.

Of course, there must be at least a second, and hopefully a third volume to complete the "retrospective." So I'll cast my votes now. As mentioned, some of Mr. Wolfe's best short fiction is embedded in his novels. I'd like to see "Melito's Story - The Cock, the Angel and the Eagle" and "Foila's Story - The Armiger's Daughter" included. Both are from "Citadel of the Autarch" and are simply marvelous fairy tales. "The Tale of the Student and His Son" from "Claw of the Conciliator" is the most wonderful transmogrification of the legend of Theseus imaginable. Finally, Mr. Wolfe has written some marvelous military short fiction. "The HORARS of War" gets my vote.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2009
This is another Wolfe book that will make little sense on the first read through. There are ample clues to understanding everything that is going on, but these clues are presented as offhand comments and meaningless flavor-text, scattered haphazardly. No attention is ever drawn to what is really important, but almost every sentence could signify multiple things if you wanted to read that far into it.

This would be a hard book to recommend because it's filled with almost nothing but dialogue and eating for the first 2/3rds. None of it seems to have anything to do with the story at a glance. The strange thing is, the words people use, the way they are described to walk, addresses, walking distances and even the foods that people order have a very large bearing on understanding what has happened after the story ends. This isn't made apparent at any point. Beware this, because you will have absolutely no idea what is really going on for your first read. It can be pretty aggravating to complete a novel that is recommended to you as deep and instead get a story about diners and changing rooms.

The story seems very simple on the surface, but it's got a few extra "un-lockable" stories (in the same sense that you'd use it in a video game) that require very close attention to trivial details. I'd say, as a complete story, the first 2/3rds are read, then the last third, then the first 2/3rds again, focusing on what may or may not have been altered by characters playing around with time and space.

This book also ties into the short story "The Tree is my Hat", from Wolfe's collection 'Innocents Aboard'. There doesn't seem to be a very deep connection between the two stories, besides a minor character or two, but it does tell you a lot more about the Takanga Islands and the strange things that happen to tourists there.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2009
Word for word, Gene Wolfe is almost certainly the finest stylist currently active in the English language. This book demonstrates that amply. The stories here range from just a few pages to short novella length. Some have splashes of humor while others are dark and bleak throughout. What they all share though is Wolfe's unflagging imagination and ability to absorb his readers into the universe he creates for his stories, however fleeting the time the reader may spend in that universe ultimately may be. Among writers, Wolfe is an anomaly for his refusal to tell stories in a linear path, and this only adds to the awe and sense of wonder of his work, both as in this volume, in his short work and in his novel-length fiction. It's hard for me to pick a story I would consider to be my favorite or the best in the book. I would probably count Seven American Nights as the most reflective of what to expect among those included herein though. Others of note are the Island/Doctor/Death stories, Petting Zoo (probably the most elegiac of the tales), The Fifth Head of Cerberus (which will slingshot the reader directly into Wolfe's first successful long work), and The Hero as Werwolf (which goes off in a direction I was pleasantly surprised to never see coming). Overall, this is clearly the strongest representation possible of Wolfe's short fiction, but I hope it will serve only as a springboard for readers new to Wolfe into his other work. Although his work is intentionally difficult--as anyone who reads this will have to acknowledge--it is both thoughtful and rewarding, and I hope this will help catapult Wolfe into a more commercially viable place among modern-day authors. Ultimately the best thing about Wolfe's work is this: As with Robert E Howard, another great storyteller of the last century, Wolfe's best work is so powerful because he himself is in everything he writes. To those fortunate enough to come across this book and read it in the future, I can say only one more thing: You will be far from disappointed.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2010
A fascinating read, but you have to be alert. Best to read it more than once, and pay attention! What seems like a lightweight pulp adventure novel, mixing 1930's style detective thriller with H.P. Lovecraft, is really a complex, multi-layered, mind-bending investigation into time & space.

Missed it on the first go? Try noticing these things, and see where they take you:

- Cassie's address
- Which of the characters is a werewolf
- How much the characters weigh
- Which characters never appear together
- Cassie's eating
- oh, and anchovies

I've probably given away too much...
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2008
If you're a Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan and you haven't heard of Gene Wolfe, all I can do is shake my head - from Book of the New Sun, to The Wizard, to his many short stories, you've been missing out on some of the best genre writing out there.

But perhaps even more intriguing than those classics is Wolfe's uncanny ability to write across genres, and create stories with a totally unique appeal. His latest novel "An Evil Guest" takes this route, combining seemingly disparate elements - a pulp murder mystery, golden-age science fiction, and Lovecraftian horror. It's a lot lighter than his usual fare, but it's still a thrilling tale that, true to Wolfe's style, is full of twists that will blindside you if you aren't reading carefully.

The tale begins a century into our future, when the President of the United States hires a man named Gideon Chase to track down a "traitor" known as William Reis. Right away, it's very clear that Chase is no ordinary private dick - the President calls him a "wizard", and his philosophical ruminations on good and evil are deeper than anything Sam Spade or Philip Marlow wisecracked in their day. This is just as well - Reis too is no ordinary man. He has been to the planet Woldercan, and has learned some "strange things" there - telepathy and talking to ghosts are the simplest of the President's guesses!

From there, the spotlight switches to Cassie Casey, a twice-married stage actress facing unemployment and an uncertain future. Chase enlists her aid in his mission, promising her riches and fame in return. The plan works - Casey soon finds herself the most popular actress in the world, as well object of Reis' attention - but not without far reaching consequences for all three of them.

Scene for scene, Wolfe succeeds at conjuring a decadent noirish atmosphere, as he whisks us from the backstage of Broadway, to fancy restaurants, posh hotels, and even a South Pacific island. For the most part, the story is very cohesive, though there are a few plot threads (oh Norma!) that had a questionable resolution, and moments I had to reread a page or two to grasp the ever-thickening plot. My only serious issue is with the somewhat anticlimactic ending, which failed to induce the primal dread and awe that was probably intended.

He also has some genuinely entertaining characters - from the the suave Gideon Chase, the swaggeringly irresistible William Reis, the adorably flighty Cassie and her colorful co-stars, he succeeds in giving each of them a unique voice, but occasionally there are moments when they all seem smarter than they should - at times they break out into a random analysis of themselves or their current situation, making parts of this book not entirely unlike watching an episode of "House".

Still, this book is proof that Gene Wolfe can write whatever kind of story he wants and make it work. If you've never read any of his work, give it a shot - this tricky adventure novel is quite enjoyable on its own, and will prepare you for Wolfe's more ponderous work, such as the New Sun series. And if you're a devoted fan like myself - well, you've probably read it already! Either way, it's hard to go wrong with this book.
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
It was hardly twenty pages into "An Evil Guest" that I realized: "my god, this is the very first Gene Wolfe novel I've read that's proven to be a chore!" (In the interest of full disclosure, I'd only read the Book of the New Sun, The Urth of the New Sun, and the Wizard Knight duo previously) It was a chore, and seemed to be, well, boring. How could such a thing be?

I believe it is because he has tried to strike out on a new stylistic path, trying some new authorial clothes: clothes that fit him not well at all. There are distinct differences between An Evil Guest (from hereon in described as AEG) and his previous works. For one thing, he follows a female protagonist. For another, the narrative descriptions and tone seem to be entirely cut-out. Finally, there just seems to be an overall lack of dread: he's taken Cthulhu and turned him into a Kraken, taken werewolves and turned them into pets. Perhaps the most sinister of the characters, a private investigator/wizard character is turned into a generic love interest, although to be fair to the old author by the end of the book his presence takes on a new light.

I think that most of the problems stem from the fact that Wolfe has tried to explore a female main-character based story. The great element from many of Wolfe's books has been transformation: the transformation of Severian, the metamorphosis of Able from a boy into a man. Cassie also undergoes a transformation--she is turned into a theater star. But while the transformations of Able and Severian were well-handled, and gave rise to wish-fulfillment tinged tinged with depth and drama, the female wish-fulfillment he seeks to illustrate stikes me as more cheesy than weighty. Her "star presence" as it is depicted is often so over the top to strain credulity. Perhaps a woman would be better suited to let me know if Wolfe has adroitly plumbed the motivations, desires, and dreams of femininity.

You know, while I could remember Able and Severian off the top of my head, a mere day after reading AEG I had to flip through the book to remind myself of Cassie's name. Again, a lack of dread and real, potent danger permeates much the book, the last fifty pages perhaps aside. Wolfe clearly draws on 1930s and 1940s era culture, but did he have to bring the lack of scares from these times with him? Perhaps his affection has blinded him to the relative toothlessness of many (though not all) plots from his childhood. Even when dread and danger does seem to come, he resurrects along with it islander caricatures which are painful to a young, modern reader: I grimaced. Actually, this element is present even earlier; AEG features a computer with a Japanese accent just as ham-fisted as Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Sigh.

Just as AEG takes on a female protagonist, so does it take on a different style than earlier Wolfe works. Gone are lengthy blocks of rich, detail-filled narration. In its place are endless reams of dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. You could argue that this is appropriate, as the book is about stagecraft, but however appropriate this style may be to the theme of the novel, it doesn't change the fact that it is a style which is tremendously easy to put down and set aside. I turned the pages of this novel begrudgingly, on the basis of the earned reputation of the author.

There are moments of great imagination. There are times when the vivid imagery which Wolfe is so expertly capable of come through, and there are certainly mysteries piled on top of mysteries to be explored in the text. But when the flavor of the work itself comes off as so relatively bland. After I finished reading the book, I slept and had a very interesting dream, so I suppose the text is worthwhile in some regard.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2009
This felt like a book of riddles. It was chock full of allusions to other modern fantasy stories, other reviewers mentioned "The Tree is My Hat". I noticed "Someone Comes to Town..." among many others. Even the name "Woldercon" sounds like a convention. I'm sure there are hundreds that I missed. If you read a lot of modern fantasy, this book is delightful, if just in looking for those clever references.

In my estimation, this book was Wolfe's version of Hamlet's speech to the players -- sly advice to his contemporaries. It seemed to have a lot to say, allegorically, about publishing and storytelling and even modern entertainment cinema. In some ways, it encompasses the history of sci-fi/fantasy from it's pulp roots to becoming the driving force behind mass market entertainment. It's a love letter and a warning to the genre itself. Maybe that's just my reading and Wolfe intended none of that -- but that's what I saw in it, and one of the most brilliant things about Wolfe's work is that he gives us a glass to gaze into and find our own meaning within.

But regardless of a deeper meaning, the plot itself is a wonderful puzzle. It's tricky and intricate, and I can't say I completely understand it. But there's a lot of it that seems disjointed and random, but when you happen to notice certain connections (like the hoppers) it fits together.

This book's only failing is that it doesn't quite work on the surface level. Many of Wolfe's best stories can be enjoyed without worrying about the deeper meanings or the "loose ends" of the plot (which, when tugged on, unravel new levels of insight about the worlds and characters). This is even more disappointing because of the "pulp" feeling of the whole thing, the disjointed nature of the plot distract from simply enjoying this as a story.

I've read "An Evil Guest" twice so far, and look forward to future re-readings. It is one of the more frustrating of his stories, but I keep coming back to it. To me, it's certainly one of the best books published last year, and essential reading for anyone who is a serious fan of modern fantasy.
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