Soldier of The Mist Paperback – January 1, 1987
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Latro is a book supposedly translated by Wolfe from a diary kept by a 5th-century-BC Roman mercenary in Greece who received a wound to the head and can't remember much earlier than twelve hours ago. It's a delightful conceit, as the main point of view from the book (some chapters are written by other people) doesn't speak Greek perfectly, doesn't have the context to understand most of what's going on, and is prone to hallucinations.
There are quite a lot of gods popping up in the story, lots of magic and ghosts, characters disappear, reappear, change sex, and swirl around the main character, who, because he can't remember anything anyway, just tries to respond to whatever's happening at the moment. There's a very charming sense of trying to do the right thing in impossible situations.
It's also nice that there are no villains. Certainly there are people whose actions run counter to Latro's quest, or who behave badly. Very badly in some cases. But we're never left in doubt that everyone Latro meets is a person, with their own internal story -- usually one that doesn't make any more sense than his. The book has moments of piercing compassion, even for tiny bit-characters. There's the foreigner who tried to speak Greek once, was made fun of, and now only communicates with hand signs. The general who has mastered his emotions so thoroughly that he isn't aware of it when he's angry. The god who hopes his wife will teach him mercy.
The book does drag on a bit. Like other Wolfe stories I've read, it has a tendency to wander across the map, searching for itself. And there's the weird way characters speak, although with Latro, it's easier to interpret that as awkward translation from Greek to Latin to English. You (or at least I) also have to read this book with wikipedia on your other tab (who the heck is "the King of Nyssa"? Oh, okay. And where is Nyssa? Uh huh. And who were his parents? And so on.) But that's part of the fun, isn't it?
The story is about Latro's attempt to heal after the battle, in which a head wound deprives him of the ability to remember (he cannot process short-term memories into long-term memory). He therefore must depend on the people around him to help reconstruct events and his place among them. Highly recommended. Any reader's patience will be richly rewarded.
In brief: in the aftermath of the Battle of Plataea the main character, called Latro (solider), a Roman mercenary fighting on the side of Xerxes suffers a head injury and is taken prisoner by the victorious Greeks. Latro then forgets everything that has occurred to him every time he sleeps, possibly because of his head injury, possibly because he has desecrated a temple of Demeter, and possibly a combination of the two.
This injury or curse also conveys to Latro the ability to see the gods, nymphs and daemons that act on the mortal world, though these figures of myth remain clouded from mundane sight for the most part. But Latro also has the power to make such divinities visible by touching them. From there, Latro’s strange travels begin.
As a prisoner and slave to his new Greek masters, he is also given tasks to perform by such gods as Apollo, Demeter and Artemis in her fearsome aspects.
By fulfilling these tasks, he hopes to be reunited with his people and to have his past restored.
Gene Wolfe has produced a masterpiece of historical fantasy almost equal to his phenomenal Book of the New Sun Wolfe excels at unreliable first-person narrators who relate their journeys through a strange and alien world in a somewhat disjointed account, but while the New Sun books are set in the distant future, the Soldier series portrays the past as the fantastic world.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is the structure of the books. Wolfe has constructed the story as a translation of a found firsthand account from antiquity. In doing this, he attempted to re-create the mind of such a person. And here is the masterstroke – to make our protagonist a Roman. A Latin speaker. This allows Gene Wolfe to include “translator’s footnotes” explaining the choice of words and referring to the “original” source material Latin phrasing and possible interpretations.
As Wolfe’s protagonist follows historical events in the wake of Plateae, he blends mythology with history, showing a mindset that saw gods and daemons regularly interacting with mortal affairs.
The technique of daily recurring amnesia is another brilliant stroke. Every new chapter is an adventure and often demands re-reading as we learn under what circumstances he is writing and how he came to be at this place.
Not being under the same pressure as Latro, the reader is able to piece together clues and discrepencies from earlier to see who is lying to Latro and who might be trying to use him, and no shortage of beings wish to manipulate our amnesiac warrior, from politicians and magicians and feuding nymphs to the higher gods. Latro finds himself a pawn in a struggle between Demeter and Artemis, the terrifying moon goddess revered in Sparta.
The reader is further grounded in the otherworldly past by the use of clever names used by Latro in his “translations” from Greek to Latin. Athens is Thought, and Sparta is Rope, a common misunderstanding at the time apparently.
Latro also evidences strange and phenomenal martial skills and attitudes that are an intrinsic part of who he is, regardless of what he consciously knows. A theme of the books is how the things you do and experience leave an impression on you. There are heartwarming moments such as Latro’s reunion and ‘meeting’ with a good friend, and even though Latro does not consciously know him he recognizes this friend by his emotional response.
“The heart remembers, even when no trace of voice or face remains…without thinking at all about what I should do…I embraced him as a brother.”
Likewise he witnesses a horrible atrocity and is left in uncomprehending despair for months.
Such philosophical observations abound in the world and human nature that are both insightful and ring true to the time.
Recommended for fans of historical fantasy of the ancient world, but I will add that it’s a challenging book, and understanding is helped by knowing the history and accounts of the time.
For example, a climactic event of Soldier of Arete can only be understood if you are familiar with Thycydides’ account of the infamous Spartan manumission ceremony. Whether or not this event is true or Athenian propaganda, Wolfe chooses to treat the account as fact.
The Spartans are definitely the bad guys here. Fans of 300 will recognize not a few character names, and about those Spartans: when they aren’t standing against Xerxes’ hoards, they were real sons of bitches.
And being a slave of the Spartans? That’s a special kind of hell.
I would even go so far as to advice any prospective reader to check out the various theories and analysis that can be found online, spoilers and all. One thing about Wolfe’s books: I’ve found that they’re actually better when you’ve already read a summary of the events first.