The Sorcerer’s House is a beautifully subtle new novel by master fantasy and SF author Gene Wolfe. The novel’s protagonist is a recently released convict who, seemingly by complete coincidence, comes into possession of an abandoned house. As he moves in, he discovers that the house already has a few odd inhabitants…
A large part of the enjoyment of this novel is the process of discovery, as the protagonist slowly finds out more and more about the odd nature of the house and its inhabitants, as well as the relations between the other people living in his new town. Because I don’t want to spoil this process of discovery, I won’t say much more about the plot of the novel, aside from the fact that it will slowly suck you into its own twisted reality, and that it’s perfectly suited to be read and re-read, because everything, from the very first page on, will have acquired a new meaning by the time you’re done reading The Sorcerer’s House for the first time.
Fans of Gene Wolfe know that this author likes to play games with unreliable narrators, such as the protagonist of the SOLDIER books, whose memory is wiped out at the end of every day, or Severian from The Book of the New Sun, who claims to have a perfect memory. In the case of The Sorcerer’s House, the novel actually consists of a series of letters. The vast majority are written by the erudite and intriguing main character, and addressed to his twin brother, his former cell mate, or his brother’s wife. It’s the epistolary format of The Sorcerer’s House that sets up lots of opportunities to twist the reader’s perspective, because it allows the writer of the letters to tailor the content (not to mention tone) to the addressees. The very last letter of the novel is a perfect example — and I guarantee you’ll have a smile on your face when you read it.
I wouldn’t call The Sorcerer’s House a major novel in Gene Wolfe’s impressive oeuvre, at least when compared to masterpieces like The Book of the New Sun or THE WIZARD KNIGHT, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a supremely elegant fantasy novel, with a memorable narrator and a Twin Peaks-like atmosphere of “everyone in this small town has a secret”. If you’re already a fan of the Wolfe, definitely pick up a copy of The Sorcerer’s House… and if you’re not, maybe this quote from Neil Gaiman (about THE WIZARD KNIGHT) will convince you: “Gene Wolfe is the smartest, subtlest, most dangerous writer alive today, in genre or out of it. If you don’t read this book, you’ll have missed out on something important and wonderful and all the cool people will laugh at you.”
~Stefan Raets (2010)
In 2010, Gene Wolfe published The Sorcerer’s House, a surprisingly accessible novel using standard fantasy tropes to tell an interesting story about families, legacies, and lies. Wolfe returns to the style of his very early works with a book that uses letters and notes to tell its tale.
Baxter Dunn, recently released from prison after serving three years for fraud, has ended up in the town of Riverscene. When he explores an abandoned house, he discovers — much to his surprise, having believed that he was completely broke — that he owns it. Things get stranger until Bax is dealing with werewolves, vampires, magical devices, and a house that grows and shrinks without warning. Bax also battles his perpetually-angry brother George, meets a set of twins connected to the house, and acquires a set of antique dueling pistols.
The book reads quickly and is, by Wolfe standards, almost a romp. (There’s a word I don’t usually apply to his normally more serious work.) Wolfe actually nods to the 21st century in this one, giving Bax a cheap cell phone and explaining why he doesn’t have a laptop; he had to pawn it.
Bax, like many of Wolfe’s male characters, is strangely attractive to women. Let me emphasize “strangely.” This penniless, fresh-out-of-prison self-admitted con-man soon has the local women throwing themselves at him. It’s a toss-up for which female character is the most disappointing. Is it Winkle, the Japanese fox maiden, who is, in Bax’s approving words, “Slender, sweet, submissive?” Or is it Millie, George’s busty, blonde Dim Bulb Wife with Money? Or Doris, the smart and capable real estate agent who is implausibly emotionally needy, and emotionally inconsistent as well? It’s so difficult to choose. It doesn’t help that the women who could have been born no earlier than 1968 have 1940’s-era “dame-names.”
I don’t read Wolfe for strong, multi-faceted women, though. The tone and the atmosphere are what make this book work. In a scene where Bax and Doris explore a stretch of land along the river, things turn eerie and dreamlike in a convincing way. Later, a drive to a roadhouse late at night gets strange quickly, the images growing wilder with each sentence. Sometimes, when Bax is talking to the butler who comes with the house — or one of them, anyway, it’s confusing — the book is hilarious.
The Sorcerer’s House is a quick read with strange, beautiful prose, some fun characters and many puzzles. And it’s Wolfe, which means you can’t trust everything you read. Things are not what they seem, and, as always, the concepts of identity and memory are tested in this story. It’s flawed, but still entertaining. When it comes to creating a sense of otherworldliness, a feeling of uncertainty that settles into your bones, Wolfe’s still got it.
~Marion Deeds (2015)