Book Review: Gene Wolfe and Paul Johnson, plus a kind word about dragontraining

THE SORCERER’S HOUSE by Gene Wolfe. Perhaps the best book I’ve read all year. The book consists of a series of letters from and to an ex-convict named Bax, just out of jail, desperate for money and looking for a place to stay, who trespasses into an odd and empty mansion called Black House in a small town, only to discover, perhaps by coincidence, that he is (or is mistaken for) the true heir.

The house is larger than it seems, and certain windows and doors open up into places beyond the fields we know. Other squatters also might be living in the house, some human, some less so, some from this world. One intruder (half of a pair of good-and-evil twins) is the son of a mage, and drops his instrument, called a triangulus, during a scuffle. Bax lines up the three compass-rings of the triangulus and moves the pointer over to a certain sigil …

Whatever you summon, comes in threes.

Most of the letters are to the narrator’s twin brother, his brother’s wife, or the narrator’s ex-cellmate. Since Bax is begging for money from a brother he apparently defrauded, we do not know how much to trust. Like the narrator, the book is ambidextrous. And Black, the original owner of Black House, may still be alive. But the thing in the trunk in the locked garage may still be alive as well, not to mention the she-wolf summoned by the sorcerer’s son, or perhaps the evil twin brother of the son of the sorcerer.

Let me tell you what Gene Wolfe captures in this book, captures as well as anyone writing genre literature, as well as Neil Gaiman or John Crowley: in the days before Tolkien, who made elves into noble prelapsarian Norsemen, and in the days before Shakespeare made fairies into butterfly-winged sprites who could hide in an acorn-cap, the faerie realm was both beautiful in an unearthly way and dangerous in an unearthly way, almost terrifying.

We live in a day when every third book written in the fantasy genre has women and children riding dragons no more diabolical, supernatural, or dangerous than the dragons of Anne McCaffrey. This is a far cry from the dragon that appears in the book of the Apocalypse, flooding the world and hurling a third of the stars of heaven to earth with its tail, or even the creature of fire and darkness that rises out of a burial mound to slay Beowulf. (but see FOOTNOTE below.)

Even though there are more books written now, and more popular, on the things of Elfland, few writers have the craft and craftiness to make those who dwell in the Perilous Realm both alluring and perilous: Gene Wolfe has it.

Ambiguity and complexity abounds in this Chinese puzzle-box of a story. For myself, the ending was a triumph, since it is the only time I have actually figured out what the end of a Gene Wolfe story actually meant. All the clues are there, and the master plays fair, he just does not tell you when and if you got the answer right. I am planning on rereading it, since (as in only fair for a tale about the dark house of a Sorcerer) nothing is as it seems at first reading.

Yes! I actually figured out something Gene Wolfe wrote! Call the Guinness Book of World Records.


JESUS: A Biography, from a Believer by Paul Johnson on the other hand, is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the year. In my penury and thrift, I rarely buy books in hardback, and never sight unseen, unless they are by Gene Wolfe, or some other writer whose talent has earned my trust. I had thought Paul Johnson to be such a writer. His MODERN TIMES is filled with insights of crystalline clarity, old facts seen from new angles or placed in startling settings to highlight new aspects. His HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, and HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE all did likewise. This book, however, is nothing but a precis or sum-up of the Gospel, with no background information on the life and times of the period, no new insights, nothing.

Let me give you examples of what I was expecting: the character of Herod the Great becomes more interesting once you learn that he built the Temple in Jerusalem, and of such magnificent size and splendor as to attract the awe of the Roman world, of whom Herod was an imitator and an admirer. John the Baptist becomes more interesting once you find out about the Essene, and what their faction believed and practiced, including baptism. If it is explained who the Samaritans were, and why they were anathematized by the Jews, both the parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus asking the Samaritan woman at the well for water gain perspective.

When Jesus says, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn toward him the other also. This means you invite someone to strike you with his left hand. In those days, the sword hand was used for eating, and the left hand was used for toilet paper and other unclean tasks. It was forbidden to strike someone with this hand. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. Knowing this background detail puts the admonition into a new light.

Likewise, the coat was used as a surety. If someone demanded it of you, it was because you owed him a debt he was not willing to forgive. If you handed him your inner garment also, and stood there naked, the true nature of the shame he was forcing on you would be clear to all, and the ugliness of his greed.

Again, knowing the background detail that women during menstruation were ritually unclean, and could be stoned to death for touching a rabbi, makes the incident where a woman suffering from suffering from an issue of blood (menstrual blood) touches the garment of Jesus into new perspective. She is risking death to get healing of him. Recall that Jesus is in a crowd, but next to him is one of the governors of the synagogue, whose mission was to enforce the purity laws. Also, the blue tassel of hem of the robe that she touches has a ritual meaning. The Children of Israel were to wear a "ribbon of blue" upon the fringe of their garments as a memento to keep the commandments and remain holy. (Numbers 15:38-40). She was not just touching the ritually clean robe of a rabbi, but the holiest part of the robe: it would be like touching the rosary dangling from the pocket of a Roman Catholic priest.

I was expecting something of this kind from a historian of the stature of Paul Johnson. Instead I got a summary of the Gospels that I could have written myself, plus one or two speculations with no historical basis, such as the idea that Jesus had “penetrating eyes.”

It was a complete waste of money.


*FOOTNOTE: I have no particular argument with stories about children flying on the back of friendly dragons. Like girls falling in love with sparkly friendly vampires, or Sabrina the friendly teenage witch, or Casper the Friendly Ghost, Nefer-Tina the friendly Mummy, or Monkey D. Luffy the friendly Pirate, or Solomon Kane the friendly Puritan, it is a commonplace to tell stories about goodguy versions of badguys. Indeed, good witches in popular stories outnumber bad witches by an order of magnitude, not to mention good ghosts, good genii, and good pirates. It is only slightly creepy to be inundated with stories about sympathetic and friendly versions of undead blood-drinking fiends from Hell, or adorable maidens who sell their souls to the devil in return for the power to lay curses and corrupt nature, and so on. There have been good dragons in popular literature since at least the 1950’s, so much so that at least one young friend of mine has never even heard of evil dragons, except perhaps as one of the dragons, color-coded for your convenience, in AD&D.

For example, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON was simply a delightful movie, fast-paced, well-crafted, funny and charming, and it hits every note correctly that a boy-and-his-dog story is suppose to hit, especially when the boy is a Viking and the dog is a Night Fury. That is a movie I’d like to see again.

On the other hand, if I never see another movie about a sparkly vampire again, I will suffer no discontent, unless mayhap we are talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer staking him and his sparkles through the unbeating heart with “Mr. Pointy” and for that I would pay money. I would also pay money to see Willow the Witch resurrect Wash the Pilot from his pointless chump death, and then get arrested by the Inquisition, turned over to the secular arm, and burned at the stake for the unforgivable crime of dumping Seth Green the friendly werewolf.

Please note that Frankenstein’s Monsters and Werewolves are always supposed to be friendly, at least a little, so that we feel sorry for them, for the same reason that Bruce Banner is a nice guy. If Bruce Banner was a goon who liked getting angry, turning into a radioactive green horror and smashing buildings and sidewalks and people and trees, then there would be no drama in the conceit. People don’t get turned into werewolves because of a gypsy blessing meant to reward them (although, you should feel free to write this idea as a story if it appeals to you).