I have just finished a famous two volume compilation, Latro in the Mist, which combines Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete. Gene Wolfe achieves something beautiful in these two volumes. They stand right next to Lord of the Rings in creativity. The comparison is an apt one: where Tolkien relies upon archaic European languages and motifs drawn from medieval history and culture, Wolfe–also a Catholic–uses ancient Greek history, language, and mythology to immerse us into the world. The immersion in the ancient world is so perfect that Wolfe makes us see it through new eyes.
The primary way in which he forces the reader to look at the ancient world with a new perspective is by translating the Greek place names to which we are accustomed. This separates us from the notions we have of these places, and we come to view them from the perspective of the characters. Athens is Thought; Spartans are Rope Makers; Salamis is Peace; Plataea is Clay; and Thermopylae is the Hot Gates. The use of English translations for these places has the unique effect of making us feel as though the action takes place in a fantasy world. This impression of fantasy is further enforced by the way Wolfe inserts gods, goddesses, nymphs, Amazons, and dead souls into the action. The story begins after the Battle of Plataea, but the reader cannot view the tale as a historical fiction. In the back of our minds, we know this story happens in history; but, we feel as though Gene Wolfe had created an original world.
None of the characters feel modern either, except for the people from Thought, i.e. Athenians. This impression is helped by the fact that they are democrats and traders rather than subjects of a monarch. Our hero, Latro, is particularly unique in that he suffers from both long and short memory amnesia. This means that he knows little of his origins nor what occurred twenty-four hours earlier. He relies heavily on his companions to tell him the truth and upon the scrolls he keeps as a diary, which is what the two volumes purport to be. This can make things get tricky as people often attempt to lie to him. Latro must keep his wits about him, though he often trusts people who appear genuine and accepts their version of events though he has no memory of them. Even his most stalwart companions, Io and Seven Lions, need to be reintroduced to him daily. As the reader, we need to keep a clear memory of events lest we get lost.
Latro himself was in the service of the Persian king Xerxes as a mercenary during the Battle of Plataea. His goal is to discover his origins and return to his fatherland or patria. (We know he’s either a Roman or from another Latin tribe, though neither he nor his companions know about Italy.) But, even people who recognize him are not forthcoming about his identity.
There is now one more book of the trilogy for me to read. So far, the story has been a fun ride of divine encounters, political intrigue, philosophical discussions, and battle. The friend who introduced me to the series claims that the last volume stands as the best. And so, I greatly look forward to it and highly recommend the work to those of my dear readers who love fantasy and the Classical period.