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Latro in the Mist Paperback – March 19, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
In his foreword to Latro in the Mist, which pairs Gene Wolfe's acclaimed historical fantasies Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1989), Wolfe reveals that the two novels are in fact his translations of the diary writings of Latro, a Roman mercenary wounded in battle in ancient Greece. Latro's head wound ruined his short-term memory, but bestowed upon him the gift of conversing with gods and goddesses.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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SOLDIER OF THE MIST begins with Latro's awakening after the battle and discovery of his new forgetfulness. A defeated mercenary of the enemy, he is made a slave and frequently shifted from owner to owner. The book climaxes one of the last battles of the Persian Wars, and hints at the coming Peloponnesian Wars. In SOLDIER OF ARETE, Latro is part of a team searching for a Persian engineer who disappeared into the wilderness, and the novel ends with a cliffhanger in which Latro cleverly gains his freedom. Wolfe has stated that he is at work on a third novel.
I thought the series quite disappointing because there is little direction. Instead, these two novels chronicle aimless meanderings. In Wolfe's masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, Severian's ultimate fate was to become the New Sun and save Urth, and The Book of the Long Sun led to the deliverance of the Whorl's inhabitants. In Latro's chronicles, on the other hand, there is no specific goal, and Wolfe basically uses Latro to explore Greece of 2,500 years ago and its culture which can seem as alien to the modern reader as anything in a science-fiction work. This is less fascinating then it sounds; I'm a Classics major I found the narrative lackluster.
LATRO IN THE MIST suffers from the common problem of historical fiction - trying to fit the protagonist into too many major events. It feels more that Wolfe created Latro to show off his favourite historic events instead of developing a solid protagonist and working from there. Similarly, because Latro can see the gods, it occasionally seems like Wolfe brings in each god or godess in order to have them all included somewhere instead of using this plot device only when absolutely necessary.
And one further problem is that in SOLDIER OF ARETE the plot moves in one point much too slowly. A confusing scene in which Latro finds himself in Thrace drags on for what seems even longer than the infamous tunnels subplot of The Book of the Long Sun. This ruined my enjoyment of the book, as I've never felt any of Wolfe's other works to be a chore.
In you've never read Wolfe's acclaimed and genuinely stunning writing, I'd recommend starting with The Book of the New Sun. LATRO IN THE MIST sprung from an interesting concept - to chart the lives of the Greeks and their ancient society - but the implementation is unsatisfying and the series so far ranks among Wolfe's lesser works.
Here he takes what could be a straightforward historical novel with tinges of the fantastic and then like a Captain Beefheart song proceeds to alter everything that could be normal about it until you're left holding pieces of puzzles that all belong to different boxes. It goes together but unless you're deep inside it, you don't have the perspective to see how.
This pair of novels follows the exploits of poor Latro, who's pretty sure he was once a soldier but isn't quite sure if "Latro" is even his name. Unfortunately for him he sustained a head injury in a recent battle and has lost all ability to remember recent events . . . basically by noon of the next day he's forgotten everything that happened before that and if not for the fact that the disability forces him to write everything down so he can keep rereading it, he would have to go by whatever everyone else tells him. Fortunately for us, he's a pretty good writer. Unfortunately for us, he's narrating the entire story. Be prepared to do a lot of connecting the dots.
To Wolfe's credit, this could have come across as a stale and academic writing exercise, the kind that professors hand out in creative writing courses. The style of the story bends to suit the method of narration and it never feels like a contrivance or a formula for the sake of itself. To make things interesting and to keep the people who like a little bit of actual fantasy in their fantasy, Latro also has gained the ability to see the various gods and demigods that populate the landscape and seem to manipulate everyone based on sheer whim. Sometimes his friends can see them too, sometimes they can't. Often this means that Latro isn't the most dynamic of main characters, since he rarely knows what's going on he can't do much long-term planning so he's mostly reactionary, when people just aren't taking advantage of his amnesia and straight out lying to him. Most of the thrust of the story is him being pushed and pulled by other forces, whether it's gods or men, while he tries to sporadically circle around to the main question of who he is and where is his home.
But one warning, if any Wolfe novel requires a visit to the library (or Wikipedia), it's this one. Wolfe sets out to write as authentic a novel set in the 479 BC without writing it in ancient Greek on parchment and this means everything is viewed through a lens of people who are there. So if you think you're going to be all on top of things because you did some basic reading about Greek mythology in high school, think again. The biggest clue is Wolfe telling us in the beginning what year this is set in, and I'll save you the trouble of looking it up by telling you that was the year the Battle of Plataea took place, a rather decisive battle between the Greek city-states and the invading Persians. Refreshing yourself with a basic primer on that period of history will get you far in this book, especially since Wolfe strips away all the familiar Greek names of the cities and substitutes what I assume are the actual meanings of the words. Think you know Athens, Sparta and the rest? You thought you did until you witness Latro and company drifting to places called "Rope" and "Thought" and "Dolphin". It took me most of the first book to even figure out that the "Rope-Makers" were Spartans, at which point things began to fall into place. So your DVD Of "300" isn't going to be much help here. Very few of the gods you know and love have proper names here either and while the book teases you with a glossary, it seems to go out of its way to not define anything you actually want to know.
So why even bother? One is the sheer challenge of keeping track of what is going on versus what Latro thinks is going on versus what people tell Latro what's going on. Since he hits the reset switch every day the reader has to work overtime to keep everyone straight and make sure that people aren't being reintroduced as the wrong people (and par for the course in a Gene Wolfe novel, at least one person seems to switch identities partway through), plus all the manipulations that are happening around a fairly oblivious Latro. Between the constant memory loss and the inclusion of the gods (often without warning and as he doesn't remember that this is odd, it's often taken as quite normal) gives the whole affair a rather intriguing dream-like ambiance as Latro drifts in and out of events, surrounded by both place and people that become strangely formless, with goals that often shift depending on which way the sunlight strikes it. It makes us feel like visitors to an alien realm, where the ideas and concepts that we've grown so attached to don't exactly apply here. If nothing else, Wolfe gets the feel exactly right of a mindset of a people and time where the world was changing and yet always the same, and where it was perfectly natural that the realms of gods would interact freely with men. If Latro remains elusive (and sometimes, admittedly, so does the plot), it only serves to bring the world he inhabited into sharper contrast. You can take a photograph, or you describe what it was like to be there so vividly that it's not necessary. Despite all the hoops he makes us jump through, Wolfe always opts for the latter, and the work is all the better for it.
Most recent customer reviews
Original framing story. Excellent grasp of historical cultures while making mythology come alive.
Latro, a Roman mercenary fighting in the Persian Wars, receives a head wound and loses the ability to make memories; every 16 hours, the past simply fades into the...Soldier of the Mist,Soldier of Arete, and Soldier of Sidon, are available digitally.
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