A good friend of mine who has excellent taste recommended The Traitor to me. I had heard of Michael Cisco, mostly through people like Jeff Vandermeer and Jeffrey Ford saying nice things about his work, but until now I hadn’t read any of his novels. With strong recommendations from three people who opinions I rate highly I expected quite a lot, and I have to admit I wasn’t disappointed.
The Traitor is written as a first person narrative by Nophtha, the traitor of the title, as he awaits death in his jail cell convicted of acts of treason. Noticed by his uncle as a child as a blank, he is initiated as a spirit eater, a shunned and despised part of society who eats the spirits of the dead by drawing them into themselves to prevent the disease and chaos that occurs if too many are left free. He becomes one of the most important spirit eaters in the capital, more out of chance than actual ambition, and is forced by the authorities to hunt down Wite, a rogue soul burner, but when they meet he abandons his life and betrays his people to follow Wite.
The account we are given is supposed to be about Wite, our protagonist being told to spread his word, and his dying writings are his own testament to the impossible things he has seen Wite do, his miracles. He tries to make it as impersonal as possible, as he tells us early on it isn’t supposed to be about him, and his own name doesn’t even feature in the novel until almost two thirds of the way through. He even betrays himself though, as he can’t help but talk about himself throughout the narrative. He tells us he will not tell us about his family, or his wife, or his feelings towards Wite’s cousin, but in turn he tells us about all of these things. Despite this, Nophtha comes across as a character with almost no sense of self, and it is no surprise that he is drawn to someone like Wite who has no qualms at all about imposing his will on others, even to the point of taking their lives.
At times Cisco chooses style over sense, so the book can be difficult to follow leading to comparisons with writers like Gene Wolfe, but if there are comparisons it is in the way that both writers are unwilling to accept tradition lines between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”. Like Wolfe, Cisco is obtuse in order to force the reader to draw his own conclusions about the reliability of Nophtha’s testimony. It can be heavy going at times, but like a lot of good writing that is not straightforward, it rewards hard work in trying to find our own sense of meaning instead of being force-fed by the author.
The Traitor is a wonderfully dark tale of bleak morality, betrayal, fanaticism, and disdain for society and humanity in general. Even though it is dark, it is also very funny at times as most of the characters that Nophtha meets or associates with tend to be society’s outsiders or misfits. One of my favourite books of the nearly forty I have already read this year, and both a novel and writer deserving of more wider read. Easy to recommend to those who don’t mind a book that requires you to think for yourself every now and then.
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.