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The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765324580
Date: 16 March 2010 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Andrea Johnson's Review / Show Official Info /

The Sorcerer's House is, without qualification, a masterpiece. It is Gene Wolfe at his best, and there is no one who does fantasy better. As he has done in previous works, Wolfe adopts some of the oldest and most worked over tropes of the genre, which in this case includes a magical house larger on the inside than outside, werewolves, and pairs of twins one of whom is evil and the other good, and revitalizes them until they seem brand new. This is combined with complex and incredibly real characters, and a subtly unreliable narrator, to create a fascinating novel that repays close reading with a tale of delightful subtlety, wit, and true insight.

The story is conveyed entirely through a series of letters, most of them from or to our main protagonist, Bax. As the story begins, Bax has just been released from prison for an unspecified crime, and has arrived in a small town to which he has no connection. He discovers that a mysterious Mr. Black, who he has never met, has left him the deed to a large, run-down house. As soon as he moves in, he is plagued by mysterious intruders and strange events, and the house appears to grow new rooms each time he explores it. From here the plot becomes very intricate, and I will not attempt to summarize it here. Suffice it to say that nothing, including our narrator, is as it appears, and that Wolfe reinvigorates the well-worn tropes he plays with, making these familiar elements seem exciting and magical again.

One of the benefits of the story being conveyed in letters is the way we see the various facets Bax presents to the different recipients of his letters. We see a very different side of Bax when he writes to his twin brother George than when he writes to his former cellmate. This rounds out his character, giving him depth and complexity. In addition, Bax is clearly an unreliable narrator, and often it is necessary to read between the lines to see what he leaves out of the account. Careful attention to the text provides some delightful, fascinating, and occasionally chilling "Easter eggs" for the careful reader, particular in the ending. In fact, I am sure there are many secrets to this novel that I missed, and a second reading would certainly be rewarding.

There is a large cast of characters, and all of them are given a sympathetic and complex rendering, even the most disagreeable and villainous. This is one of the joys of Wolfe's work. Even the most minor characters feel like real people, with interests and desires that extend well beyond the narrow time we see them for. This contributes to the impression that there are innumerable stories spinning on the sidelines of the story we see, providing the feel that the story takes place in a vibrant, dynamic world every bit as real as our own.

If you're looking for a quick, easy, thoughtless read, then this is not the book for you. If you're looking for an intricate, beautifully written book, this is definitely worth a look. And if you're looking for a book that will stay with you, with moments of chilling fear, sublime beauty, and profound insight into then nature of good and evil, that you can ponder long after you finish reading, then I doubt there's another book out there that could fit the bill better.

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