I picked this up to read a couple of chapters, and ended up staying up to finish it. It’s deceptively simple to read, to just race through: epistolary novel, check; unreliable narrator, check; creepy twins and doors to Faerie, check. It’s Gene Wolfe, though, so you can bet it’s not as simple as that, and reading other reviews — particularly Neil Gaiman’s, to whom the book is dedicated — showed me I missed a few tricks. Which is fine: I like books with rereadability, even if I’m not really inclined to reread this one in particular. If you can craft a book so it reveals more of itself over time, that’s good going, in my books.
Obviously, everything I said about the narration is true. It is an epistolary novel, with a central character who has a very distinct character-set. He can turn his life story around so that you pity him or hate him, cast him as the villain or pity him as one who has been cast in that role, and I think that’s entirely intentional. It’s not that he’s unintentionally creepy. I actually found the character to be more so than the supernatural events around him — a certain lack of affect, the feeling that something’s come loose inside this guy.
I’m not overwhelmed with the treatment of women in this book — every woman wants to sleep with Our Hero, for example, and quickly opens up to him, and I don’t see why. He’s not charming, he’s unsettling. But maybe that’s because we see him through his own report of himself to his brother… I don’t know. I’m not a fan, anyway. Even if it works for the character, I could have done with a female character who really stood out.
I do think the narration is very clever, the way Wolfe makes the epistolary novel work for him, and works around situations where there might be some difficulty with the form in a way that… well, it seems contrived, but it also fits the world and characters.
Worth a try, I think, though I probably agree with other reviewers that it’s not Gene Wolfe’s best.