The third of the five WFA finalists to be reviewed, in many ways this third novel in Gene Wolfe's Soldier series (the first two, Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete, are now available in the omnibus Latro in the Mist after having been published almost 20 years before Soldier of Sidon) fits perfectly between the books already reviewed (Kushner, Lynch) and the next WFA finalist to be reviewed shortly, Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden. Wolfe's book shares many elements with each of these others, while still containing plot devices and a style that make this work stand out.
Latro is a mercenary (indeed, we learn that the word "latro" just means that, as the narrator has forgotten even his own name) who in the first volume suffered a mysterious head wound on the battlefields of the Persian War (499-479 BCE). Left bereft of most of his memory of prior days when he falls asleep, Latro is a man whose identity (and in some key ways, personality) shifts from day to day and from the people he associates. However, Latro was also "gifted," if one dares to use such a word without an ironic qualifier implied, with the ability to see and to converse with the gods of the ancient Mediterranean world. Instructed by a goddess (who seems to appear in many guises in the novels to date) to seek the headwaters of the Nile if he wanted to have his memory restored, Latro writes down each day's events on a papyrus scroll. Along the way, he meets many people familiar and strange alike, some of whom he apparently knew in his forgotten past. By the time Soldier of Sidon opens, Latro is on his way to Egypt.
There, he encounters sorcerers, enchanted places, and people whose personalities seem to change with each passing "day." Latro begins to half-remember some of the events of his past, but the contents of those remembrances are questionable and the reader has to pay very close attention to the narrative, as Latro perhaps is not the most reliable of narrators. The novel concludes with Latro approaching his original goal, but with some additional motives now.
It is nigh impossible to summarize the plot concisely and without spoilers. This volume flows very smoothly from the previous two volumes, despite the 17 years that separated this volume from the previous one. Latro is an engaging character and many readers will relate to his struggles. The ancient world is a fascinating and mysterious place, and Wolfe's narrative approach of leaving much unsaid or altered allows for a very high re-read factor, as it is almost certain that the reader will not get everything the first or even the second time reading it. Loaded with allegorical possibilities, Soldier of Sidon is a novel that contains a wealth of symbolic meanings. The more a reader knows of the time period and its cultures, the more Wolfe's breadth and depth of knowledge will impress.
Soldier of Sidon is not a book for those who want a quick and simple read. Those who want just a fun adventurous romp would best be advised that reading Wolfe requires more mental commitment from the reader. While this is not a "weakness" per se, it does hamper the novel (and series)'s "accessibility." Dense as it is, many readers may just grow frustrated with it and quit, although if they have reached the third volume, generally this will not be an issue.
Despite the accessibility issue I raised above, Soldier of Sidon is one of my two co-favorites to win this award. Wolfe's writing is very sharp, even sharper than that of Kushner's, and there are some adventurous moments that rival those of Lynch's first novel. What sets Wolfe apart from the previous two (and only Valente manages to match this in her own way) is his ability to layer his text with all sorts of allegorical, religious, and historical allusions without having a bloated work. At 319 hardcover pages, Soldier of Sidon is the shortest of the five finalists. However, with the possible exception of Valente's book, it contains more internal and external action per page than any of the others. This book certainly deserves its nomination and likely will be the winner or runner-up this year.