LATRO IN THE MIST is the omnibus edition containing two of Gene Wolfe’s historical fantasies set in ancient Greece: Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. They tell the story of Latro, a Roman mercenary wounded while fighting on the side of the Persians at the battle of Plataea. The wound to the head robs him of most of his long term memory as well as his short, limiting him to only about twenty-four hours before he forgets. The other effect is that Latro finds that he is able to see the gods, mythical creatures and the spirits of the dead. On the advice of an oracle of Apollo he sets off on a quest to restore his memory so he can return home that takes him across most of Greece meeting both minor and major deities, as well as famous historical figures.
Soldier of the Mist opens with a dedication to Herodotus, and as would be expected the events of the novel run closely to the events mentioned by Herodotus during the Persian-Greco war. It is evident that Wolfe knows his history well and the text is very true to form. Good research is the backbone of historical fiction, and you feel in Wolfe’s writing a genuine enthusiasm for the period he is writing about. In addition to that his knowledge of Greek Mythology is first rate in regards to both major and minor deities, as well as the various regional differences. Wolfe obviously knows more about ancient Greece than myself (Which is no small amount), so it seems a bit funny to be saying this sort of thing, but it is only to illustrate the accuracy of Wolfe’s details.
The major theme of the work is memory as the novels are epistolary, each book being one scroll of the daily notes Latro made in order to be able to be aware of the past by reading each day. As a result, the story often jumps around because unless someone tells Latro to makes notes (usually his slave girl Io) then he does not know he is supposed to. There are also parts of the novel when Latro is imprisoned and the scroll is taken away from him, so for those periods there are no entries and we only learn of the events retrospectively when Latro recovers the scroll. There are also occasions on which Latro is indisposed and other people write entries for him. One of the most important entries in the second book is written by Pindar in prose similar to Greek poetry and must be studied in order to discern what is happening.
It is easy to recommend Latro in the Mist as it contains two fantastic novels. It has great characterization, not only in Latro, but in his companions Io, and Seven Lions, as well as the lesser characters like Palos, and Eleta. For fans of history it includes many actual events as mentioned earlier, as well as a number of famous figures such as the widowed queen Gorgo, (I wonder how many people would have got the reference in a pre-300 world?), and the great poet Pindar. In typical Wolfe fashion both the novels contain a great deal of allusions instead of statements of fact. The historical and political situation is never really spelled out explicitly, and when the gods appear to Latro, they are very rarely named. Instead Wolfe gives us snippets of myths about them, relations to other gods, what they are worshiped for, etc. so some prior knowledge of Greek mythology goes a long way when trying to understand the novel. That being said, the novel is never obscure to the point of being non-sensible if you lack prior knowledge in these areas. As Neil Gaiman said of Wolfe, he is a smart writer who doesn’t lord it over the reader about how smart he is, he is a smart writer who writes to make the reader feel smart, too. Be warned though, if you want to get the most out of these novels, you might need to read these first.
FanLit thanks Paul Charles Smith from Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream for contributing this guest review. Paul Smith is a postgraduate student at the University of Central Lancashire with a Bachelors Degree in Philosophy, studying part time for an MPhil, exploring The Ethics of Authenticity, focusing on evaluating the narrative as model for presenting ethics. In his spare time he loves to read, and write short stories, as well as reviews and essays for his blog. He owes his love of books to his mother, who would take him to the library when she went shopping every Saturday afternoon. Paul enjoys a wide range of reading material, and some of his favourite authors include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Moorcock, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Cisco, Gene Wolfe, and Zoran Živković.
The Soldier — (1986-2006) Latro in the Mist is a 2003 repackaging of the first two books in the series: Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete which were written in the 1980s. Soldier of Sidon is a 2006 continuation. Publisher: Simultaneously cursed with the inability to remember his past and blessed with the ability to speak with gods, a soldier formerly in service to the Great King of Parsa (Persia) seeks answers to his many questions amid the fractured, wartorn landscape of the ancient world. Latro’s second-hand view of reality lends a dreamlike quality to a story that mirrors the struggle of human consciousness to explain events beyond its comprehension. In this sequel to Soldier of the Mist, Wolfe achieves a rare blend of history and myth, forming a single shimmering vision of a world unmarked by modern preconceptions.