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Genius or sham?
on May 7, 2004
That's what I can't figure out about this book, and this writer. I'd read books before that I felt were not for me, or that I felt I had not understood. This one, however, left me wondering, "IS there anything to understand?" I like challenging reads, but sometimes there's such a thing as a pointlessly difficult read with no other reason for being difficult than to claim itself a masterpiece. Unfortunately, only very few of such books are actual masterpieces, and this is not one of them.
First, the good points: the main character is definitely very unique and intriguing. Despite his rather odd and disturbing occupation, Wolfe manages to make him strangely compelling. The writing is highly descriptive, detailed and rich, creating a picture of a truly bizarre, fantastic society.
That said, there is no doubt that the story IS original. Yet at the same time, it falls short on so many levels that it would take me about 5 pages to describe in detail. The main character's nature and profession are what makes him so interesting yet, having given us much insight into his past and present, Wolfe all of a sudden disregards those aspects completely just as the story starts getting interesting. He brings in more compelling and well-written characters (Dorcas, Agia, Jonas) in the middle of book one, only to abandon them for no solid reason and with no explanation by the beginning of book two. He makes things happen that seem like they might lead to very interesting plot turns and resolutions, but in the end they only prove to have been completely pointless and unnecessary. All that the reader is left to think is, "huh?" There are enough loose ends in this book to choke and elephant. So many times in the course of reading it, I found myself drawn into the story in one chapter, only to be disappointed and confused by lack of resolution and continuity in the very next. By the end of book two I felt annoyed and exhausted and definitely not interested of reading any more.
I cannot help but imagine the author writing this book without quite knowing where and how it would end, and with a thick dictionary of medieval terms at his side. I feel that the fancy archaic and invented terms were put in there simply because they sounded cool, and for no other reason than to make the writing sound fancier and more original. But if you really look at it, it's what's often called a "replacement technique". Replace "horses" with "destriers", replace "nobles" with "chatelaines", replace "gold" with "orichalks", and there you have it. I'm sorry to say but that is NOT a mark of a genius. Fancy words do not an original story make. If you want to see a truly original story set in a truly alien world, don't waste your time on this. Try China Mieville's "Perdido Street Station", and its sequel, "The Scar" instead.