In reviewing books, I often feel at a loss to describe what actually happens inside of my head while I am reading. I do not trust to project my own thoughts out onto this page, because so much of what happened is a personal thing. I can tell sort of what happened, and I can tell sort of whether I enjoyed it or not. Gene Wolfe is a writer who requires close, careful study of what is happening. He uses unreliable narrators, very dense language that is hidden by the ease at which it reads, and this means that any review of his work must come with the caveat that one does not always know what is happening and may not even notice it, even though it is right in front of their face. He is a tricksy writer, and enjoyable because of his tricks. There are probably three or four different reads to the text, in question, though it presumed to be straightforward enough.
A young teenager, let us call him Abel, has become the subject of a portal fantasy. He passed through the known world, and entered the world of fairy. He was a troubled youth, with a difficult family situation alluded to in the text, and he is writing to a brother or relative named Ben, I think. One does get the sense he may be writing to himself. The world of the Aelf where he had his memory damaged, wiped away his memories of his former self. But, this is speculation. The text, itself, is a hero’s journey from a boy living with an adoptive brother in a distant, medieval word of Mythgartr (spelling?) and the world exists on a plane where there is seven levels up and down, of which the humans stand upon the center, the Aelf below a level, and dragons below that, etc. Everyone looking up sees their gods. At the center of this situation, the boy stands upon the crux of worlds. He passes regularly below to the Aelf realms in this first text, and, as well, even travels lower down below. He encounters the spirits of creation, destruction, and agency across the planes of creation, there, as a sort of destined, mythic hero. There is a dark lady that he loves, knightly combat and training that must be faced, and honor as both a concept and an agent of extreme change and consequence takes the center stage in the dialog. The world is hard and violent, and only honor and magic and comradery manage to push back the extreme violence of the world into something resembling a life, but it is a fearful life, with monsters in the mountains and tricksy aelf tripping and pinching, and even more mundane dangers as bears and starvation and infected injuries take their toll. Encountering a knight, the young Abel sees a future calling as if his destiny was written into his bones. He acts as a guide, then, and during his time with the first knight he encounters, he is pulled into the realm of the Aelf by Desiri, who acts upon the boy to mature him prematurely, and knight him. From there, the usual adventures unlock, as he quests into the world to prove himself, and seek adventure and honor and a way back to the intoxicating delirium of his beloved Aelf queen, Desiri.
Throughout the text, the boy inside of a man’s body often struggles to act with wisdom in a world poised to take advantage of the mythical hero with absurd power that had stumbled into their realm. It is the dichotomy of knightly heroism, then, that I find most interesting. As a boy adventurer, Sir Abel of the High Heart is truly engaged in the heroics of fantasy and daydreams, fighting dragons and questing against monstrous creatures in the name of honor and his lady love. However, the boy inside the man discovers how terrifying it all must be, and struggles to put together a clear and meaningful portrayal of the reality that he encounters. His loyal hound that transforms into a terrible fighting creature confounds him. The feelings and desires of the two Aelf enslaved to him incidentally remain a dangerous mystery. Why people follow him at all is a mystery to him, even as it remains, to an extent, a mystery to readers. What is it about this child in the shining armor of a man that inspires everyone to follow him, even monstrous creatures that could kill him casually? What is the mark upon his brow that inspires such devotion?
A mystery for another read-through, perhaps. I leave the question as it stands.
Regarding the writing, much of the “action” of the novel is actually explicitly left out in some fashion. It is described, mostly, but when fighting begins, the action is too difficult for the boy to describe adequately, and he merely tries to relate facts and feelings as quickly as he can. Much of the text is dialog explicating both the complex layers of reality and meaning in the world, and the rules of it, as Sir Abel of the High Heart tries to make sense of his arrival and his destiny and the intent of the people and creatures around him. As well, much of the text is a discussion of the concept of “Honor” or “Chivalry” or whatever knightly quality exists in the boy or others that teaches the lessons he needs to learn to become an effective warrior and leader in battle.
The world is quite interesting and constructed very effectively to operate consistently and mysteriously at the same time. The adventures of Sir Abel of the High Heart are thrilling and enjoyable. The apparent text is such a simple and heroic tale that it is so easy to gloss over the ghostly dreams, and the early time with a mystical creature named Parka, who hands Sir Abel a haunted bowstring and names him early in the text. All the lives that are lived out inside that thread stalk the text, alluding to a larger world or worlds than are present. As well, one gets the strong sense that the figures that are most unknowable – like the loyal dog of mysterious origin, or the underwater aelf elder that heals Sir Abel in exchange for a powerful and impossible oath – are probably not the good guys, if there is even such a thing as good and evil in the Wolfe-ian lexicon.
A fascinating puzzle box hidden inside a classic adventure. Further study is required. I hesitate to give it a rating, as I still don’t think I completely understand the text, but I am going with four stars for a rollicking adventure with lots of puzzle pieces to pick through out of the Amazonian-era five.