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Works by Wolfe, Categorized

The Knight, by Gene Wolfe, is without a doubt my favorite book of all time. It stands well above all other contenders. I had planned to say that for me it was The Book of Gold, but when I looked up that story in The Shadow of the Torturer I found that The Book of Gold was more like the first book than the best.

“From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children's room … and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold. You have never seen this book, and you will never see it, being past the age at which it is met.”

“It must be very beautiful,” I said.

“It is indeed. Unless my memory betrays me, the cover is of black buckram, considerably faded at the spine. Several of the signatures are coming out, and certain of the plates have been taken. But it is a remarkably lovely book. I wish that I might find it again, though all books are shut to me now.

“The child, as I said, in time discovers The Book of Gold. Then the librarians come—like vampires, some say, but others say like the fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child, and the child joins them. Henceforth he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more. I suppose it is much the same among the torturers.”

Was there a Book of Gold for me? I remember I once loved The Martian Chronicles, but I'm not sure it was really the first. Unfortunately, there's no way to find out, no way to retrieve the facts from the past.

I won't say any more about The Knight for fear of spoiling it. Also, as usual, I recommend not reading the back cover or anything else; see Methods of Avoiding Spoilers.

I will say a few words about the second part The Wizard, though. It's a good book, but as a continuation of The Knight it was a big disappointment, so I decided to detach it. My theory of what happened is, Wolfe wanted to give all the characters depth, so he thought a lot about them and their individual stories, and then he came to like them too much to leave their stories out. As a result, everything felt tidy and artificial, with not enough loose ends. Another result is that there were too many characters, so many that I stopped caring about most of them. That was already a big problem, but it also didn't mix well with Wolfe's characteristic indirectness. Since there were more characters, it required more effort to figure out what was really happening, and since I cared less, I was less motivated to make the effort.

In Wolfe's defense, I'm not sure The Knight has any satisfactory continuation. It's fun to think about, though, just like it's fun to try and come up with a better continuation of The Matrix Reloaded.

But enough about that. What I really want to do here is go through Wolfe's works and categorize them, so let's move on to larger works that are great.

The Book of the New Sun (4 books)
The Urth of the New Sun

Soldier of the Mist
Soldier of Arete

The Book of the New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer, etc.) was the first thing by Wolfe that I ever read. I don't remember whether I picked it up because I'd heard good things about it or just because it had a pretty cover and was part of a series. I was even more of a sucker for that kind of thing back then than I am now.

There are some related larger works that are merely good.

The Book of the Long Sun (4 books)
The Book of the Short Sun (3 books)

Soldier of Sidon

In Examples of the Second Pattern I worried that these books lacked greatness because Wolfe was in decline, but now I figure they just have the same fatal combination of too many characters and too much indirectness as The Wizard.

Next we have the stand-alone novels, which I'll group and order by how much I like them. Here's one that like The Book of the New Sun used to be one of the contenders for my favorite book.

There Are Doors

I like these next three a lot.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus
Pandora by Holly Hollander
Pirate Freedom

These next five are good too. If you decide to read An Evil Guest, be sure to jump right to page 1 to avoid the numerous massive spoilers on the back cover and in the front material!

An Evil Guest
The Sorcerer's House
Home Fires
Free Live Free

For completeness, here are a couple of early works.

The Devil in a Forest

Finally we have the short stories. There are way too many to list here, but it hardly matters since all of them are very pleasing. My favorite is Forlesen.

I may not be able to list all the short stories, but I can list all the collections, and here they are in chronological order.

The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories
Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (in Castle of Days)
Storeys from the Old Hotel
Endangered Species

Strange Travelers
Innocents Aboard
Starwater Strains

Endangered Species was the first collection I read, and it's still my favorite. As a general rule I like the earlier stories better than the later ones—to me they seem wilder and more unpredictable. In particular, I recommend the first two collections.

If you haven't read any of Wolfe's work, I hope you're sufficiently intrigued to give it a try. I can't guarantee that you'll like it, some people don't, but it's definitely worth finding out. What I like, besides the well-crafted sentences and paragraphs and so on, is Wolfe's interest in time and memory and the role of the narrator. I like his indirectness, too, the way he gives hints and incomplete information and lets you figure out what happened. As long as there's not too much of it, it's great.


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@ July (2013)