I’ve put off logging Gene Wolfe’s The Knight because I’m trying to let my reaction to it stiffen up a bit. Alas, days later and no stiffening yet, so I guess I’ll put down my mushy half-formed opinions.
The Knight isn’t what I was expecting. It’s been billed as Wolfe’s take on genre fantasy, and while it has some of the elements — a boy crosses over into a magical world and becomes a hulking swordsman — it’s not really doing the genre fantasy thing. It seems at first as if it’s going to do the mortal-in-Elfland bit, but it doesn’t quite go there, either. In fact, part of the problem with the book is that it doesn’t really go anywhere much. Like David Drake’s much-inferior Lord of the Isles, this book feels like a string of semi-related episodes rather than a novel-length story progression.
The other part of the problem is that the protagonist-narrator is affectless and unreliable in classic Wolfe fashion. But where the cold, distant, and elusory narration was an asset in The Book of the New Sun, it feels like a drawback here. It’s hard to give much of a damn about random episodes that the narrator seems utterly unaffected by, and whose crucial details we’re frequently not told about; it’s even more difficult sometimes to try to figure out why the hell characters are doing what they’re doing in the absence of enough information to tell more definitely.
While I think it’s a badly flawed book, it’s also clearly a good book. Wolfe’s world is deep and rich, the writing is atmospheric and textured, and the book has a distinctive and solid feel to it. It’s undeniably quality stuff.
And here’s where it gets weird: Usually, when a book is obviously good but I didn’t like it as much as I should have, it’s because it failed to grab me, and I ended up slogging through it respectfully. But The Knight pulled me along as quickly as any Pratchett book, and had me reading more eagerly than most books do. So the problem is, how the hell could I have eagerly ripped through an objectively really good book, but still come out the other end feeling vaguely unsatisfied and disappointed?
Beats me, but there you are. In fairness to Wolfe, The Knight is the first volume of a two-part series (The Wizard Knight, of which the second book will be The Wizard); perhaps when I’ve read the complete story, I’ll retroactively like this book better.