Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Review: Latro in the Mist

Latro in the Mist is an omnibus version of Gene Wolfe's Solider in the Mist and Solider of Arete. With my recent trip, I was looking for something meaty, a book that I wouldn't be finished with in the course of an airline flight. I took only two books on the trip--Latro, and The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco. Needless to say, I didn't run out of reading material.

I absolutely love Wolfe's writing, although the things that make it magnificent also make it slightly inaccessible too. The setup for Latro, is that the main character is a solider in ancient Greece who has sustained a head injury and forgets everything by the last day. The book is a chronicle that he writes for himself to remember what has gone before. When I first heard that, I wondered how anyone could form a reasonable story with that premise, but Wolfe pulls it off.

Most of the time, each chapter encompasses a single day in Latro's memory. Often these chapters will begin with a tidbit about where the chapter will end up--the point at which Latro is actually writing down about his day. This is quite effective foreshadowing, giving a brief glimpse of what's to come in a natural form. It feels completely consistent with a journal, but serves a purpose for the reader too.

Repetition is a common element in the book. Since Latro meets everyone anew each day, he often doesn't know the name or identity of people that he runs into early in the chapter. Wolfe manages to keep this fresh, though, in a couple of ways. For one, he uses the tool to his advantage with characters whose relationship to Latro change over time. People who begin as friends in some cases turn out to be enemies, but since Latro has no memory of them before, he isn't aware of that shift like the reader is. Wolfe also mixes it up by a slow build-up of vague familiarity in Latro for central characters--Io, a slave girl; Seven Lions, a black man who fights alongside him from the start. It is interesting to see this knowledge, hazy though it might be, build throughout the course of the story.

In typical Wolfe fashion, the plot is not always direct, but this reflects neatly off Latro's own inability to remember what was happening before. Occasionally there are gaps in time in which the reader--and Latro--know only what they can conjecture of what happened, as Latro did not manage to write.

Reading this book also gave me a desire to get more familiar with Greek mythology and history. Along with his memory problems, Latro is also capable of seeing the gods throughout the land. Mostly, they aren't introduced by name, but only described, so without a solid grounding in the mythology, I'm sure I missed many subtle points. Ditto on the history. It fits into a very specific time-period, with well known events... just not well known to me.

As an example of Wolfe's style and abilities, I think this is an excellent book, and would serve as a great introduction to the author.

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