The Sorcerer's House
by Gene Wolfe
Release Date: March 15, 2011
2010 Tom Doherty Associates Book
Softcover Edition; 302 Pages
Source: Review Copy from Publisher (TOR)
4 / 5 Stars
In a contemporary town in the American midwest where he has no connections, an educated man recently released from prison is staying in a motel. He writes letters to his brother and to others, including a friend still in jail. When he meets a real estate agent who tells him he is the heir to a huge old house, long empty, he moves in, though he is too broke even to buy furniture. He is immediately confronted by supernatural and fantastic creatures and events. His life is utterly transformed. We read on, because we must know more and we revise our opinions of him, and of others, with each letter. We learn things about magic, and another world, and about the sorcerer Mr. Black who originally inhabited the house. And then, perhaps, we read it again.
I always tend to approach a Gene Wolfe novel with a little apprehension as I never know what to expect. On Blue Waters is probably one of my favourite novels from this author, a book I loved so much that I went through a phase where I read as much Wolfe as I could lay my hands on. There were some misses though, and I've read enough of his work to realize that I never know what the format of any of his novels will be. The Sorcerer's House however, was fun, and as long as I just went with the flow, so to speak, and suspensed some major disbeliefs, it was easy to enjoy this crazy and zany story.
Fun is not usually a term I tend to use when describing a Gene Wolfe novel, so it is a pleasure to be able to do so. I think dark, terrifying, and shocking are usually the normal words when speaking about one of Wolfe's novels, but this one is also quirky and different from the norm. It revolves around Baxter Dunn, an incredibly intelligent man who holds several PhD's and who is down on his luck after spending several years in prison, who finds a seemingly abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. As he moves in, he discovers the house has been deeded to him along with large sums of money and large tracts of land. He is surrounded by some wonderfully zany characters, including his brother George, a fox named Winker, a butler, a real estate agent, and a host of otherwordly creatures, who create complete chaos on his life. As Bax tries to make sense of it all, we are pulled into a mystery that seems to grow and deepen, even as events are made clearer and we get a sense of the bigger picture.
The story is written using letters as a narrative device and I thought it was pretty effective. I like reading different literary devices as I find it different from the norm and I enjoyed this format very much. It gives you an intimacy with Bax that I don't think would have worked otherwise and makes you feel empathy towards his character. I love how he just seems to go with the flow and takes everything, even all the supernatural events, with stride. I do have to admit however, that this format did make you feel like you were living inside a glass jar and had very limited access to information as you only saw and heard what Bax reported in his letters; I could never have read this novel in one night as it would have exhausted me.
One of things I've learned is never to take anything Wolfe writes at face value as he is a very subtle writer, only giving the reader information as he wishes. This can sometimes lead to information overload, but it didn't happen so often that I couldn't handle it. After I finished the novel, I recognized the genius in the writing, and how subtly information was imparted, leading me merrily along. If I wasn't familiar with Wolfe's writing, I would have fallen for some of the traps, but I was able to keep things in perspective and avoid falling for the obvious.
There is so much happening in this novel that it makes it difficult to adequately write a review. I find that I need to re-read many of Wolfe's novels in order to fully appreciate the complexity and thought that goes into his novels and to really grasp what is going on. It is no different with The Sorcerer's House as I feel I need to re-read it in order to gain a richer understanding of the events. As Bax's character and personality developed throughout the novel, I was surpised at how much he grew and changed from when we first met him; my concept of him was completely wrong and he wasn't anything like the person I imagined him to be. That's what makes this novel so much fun though.
The Sorcerer's House is a quirky, zany novel full of weird, zany characters where fantastic events happen in a non-stop action novel. The epilogue did catch me by surprise, enough that I re-read the final few chapters in order to see what it was I missed. The novel was full of surprising twists and turns, fascinating character development, and unique plot elements, but because of the letter format used to explain the story and the use of rich, but subtle, details to explain the story, I did find it overwhelming at times and had to read something else in between. If you act like Bax and just go with the flow without overly questioning the happenings, you will be one with the story and enjoy it tremendously.