Fantasy omnibus of two novels by Gene Wolfe. * * * 1/2 (explanation)
I write of what has just occurred. The healer came into this tent at dawn and asked if I recalled him. When I said I did not, he explained. He gave me this scroll, with this stylus of the slingstone metal, which marks as though it were wax.
My name is Latro. I must not forget. The healer said I forget very quickly, and that is because of a wound I suffered in a battle...
Latro in the Mist is an omnibus of Gene Wolfe's two novels featuring the forgetful kouros Latro: Soldier of the Mist (ISBN 0-812-55815-4) from 1986 and Soldier of Arete (ISBN 0-812-51155-7) from 1989. Although I read the two novels separately, you should look for the omnibus (ISBN 0-765-30294-2), for reasons I will go into later.
Our hero wakes up one morning1 and find that he has everything that has gone before has vanished into a mist in the back of his mind. As you see from the novel's first paragraphs, he can only recall events more than twelve hours old by continually writing them down and reading them back later.
Latro's wound, naturally, leads to a fairly feckless existence. Before long, Latro loses contact with the healer, and is left behind by the Great King's army. A black man who had also fought in the Great King's army becomes his guardian and traveling companion.
Together, they wander around ancient Hellas at the onset of Thought's ascendancy.
Latro's affliction is debilitating, but it does not render him completely helpless. He remembers how to read and write his own tongue (since he is not a Hellene, no one else he meets can). He remembers what his home looked like, even if he cannot recall his parents' names). He remembers his military training, displaying the qualities of arete which define the perfect soldier.
Most importantly, however, he remembers that the gods are to be respected. This is fortunate, as Latro will meet a great variety of nymphs, spirits, and gods in their various avatars. While still following the healer, Latro encounters his first god, the spirit of a river he rests his feet in. From the river, he learns that he has somehow incurred the wrath of the Great Mother. Even if he cannot remember why, She puts obstacles in Latro's path, preventing the other gods from restoring his memory.
Wandering into the city of Hill, Latro speaks to a statue of the river god as if it were the real thing, and the populace recognize him as god-ridden, carrying him to the city's temple to the Shining God. The oracle there utters a prophecy concerning Latro's future, which so impresses a passing poet, Pindaros, that he promises to make sure the prophecy is fulfilled. Latro naturally forgets the oracle the next day, but has fortunately written it down. The slave girl Io, who will be Latro's other constant companion throughout the story, appears, claiming that the Shining God gave her to him.
All this happens in the first ten pages. There are many adventures ahead for Latro, the black man, and Io, and you will have to read the book to discover them.
Soldier of the Mist etc. is frequently referred to as "historical novel", as Wolfe reconstructs the political situation around the Aegean Sea after the Persians' defeat. Wolfe goes so far as to include a fictional foreword in which Latro's scrolls were found as palimpsests in a dusty corner of the British Museum's basement, and translated by Wolfe himself at the request of the man who had acquired them.
But because of the gods' constant appearances and interventions, Soldier might more properly be called magic realism! I do not say this lightly; this is the only English fantasy novel I know of which properly captures the feel of that Latin American genre. As in magic realism, one understands that this is how real people have viewed the world!
Wolfe's plot devices drive the story, but also lead to passages of extreme subtlety which border on obscurantism. As you might expect from the principal plot device (Latro's forgetfulness, in case you forgot), the text has frequent repetitions of similar actions, as he is forced to re-learn important things every day. But this is not only tolerable, it forms the framework within which all of the action takes place. In a few places, events are left out because Letro neglected to write them down, and sometimes it's difficult to connect events into a whole. More troubling is the other plot device, where Latro translates most of the Greek place names into his native tongue (which Wolfe translates into English). For a while, it's fun to work out the Greek names which we use today, but it becomes tiresome after awhile.
On one hand, the plot simply will not work without these devices. On the other, they contribute towards an awareness of the author which intrudes frequently enough to place it behind other novels in the structure of what I think may be worth your while.
Soldier of Arete is wholly dependent on what has gone before, and you should consider the two as one long story. Do not begin SoA without finishing Soldier of the Mist first. SoA constructs a new beginning out of the apparent ending of SotM and continues Latro's adventures towards a new apparent ending. Conceivably, Wolfe could have written further episodes, but he did not choose to.
1One deduces that it was right after the 479 BC Battle of Plataea.