Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Gene Wolfe’s Beginning Sentences

Great post by Matthew Keeley at tor.com: Begin at the Beginning: The Great Opening Sentences of Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is probably the greatest writer I haven’t managed to appreciate. I read about, I dunno, a third of The Shadow of the Torturer when I was pretty young, and I must admit I didn’t like it at all. Torturer = hard sell for me, and besides that the story went on and on and on and Severian wasn’t even out of the city yet. I was more impatient back then, or else other elements conspired to keep me from tolerating the slow build. Like, I mean, the protagonist is a torturer.

Anyway, that was it for me. Yet I think essentially everyone agrees that Gene Wolfe is a world-class stylist. I know perfectly well he has written many books that do not feature a torturer as the main character and are not set in the same world. In fact I have The Wizard Night on my TBR shelves right now, in the hope that it will be different enough to work for me.

Since I know perfectly well that Wolfe is a much-admired writer and stylist, this post caught my eye even though I have never actually read any of his books.

Here is what Keeley says about The Wizard Knight’s opening:

The Knight, the first half of The Wizard Knight, is framed as a letter from the narrator. It begins: “You must have stopped wondering what happened to me a long time ago; I know it has been many years.” We learn soon enough that the narrator quite literally vanished off the face of our earth and that he is writing to his brother. In his new world, The Wizard Knight’s narrator styles himself Able of the High Heart, yet more often he seems to be Able of the High Hand: He is frequently callous, occasionally brutal, and consistently insensitive. In retrospect, we can see this from the first sentence. What kind of brother does Able think he has? Who would ever stop wondering?

Well, I don’t know that this comment makes me more likely to shuffle the book to the top of the TBR pile. But we’ll see. I should try it just to find out if it will ever work for me. That way I can give it away promptly rather than keeping it around indefinitely.

Keeley only shows three beginning sentences in this post. Too bad! But there are comments about some of Wolfe’s other books, so that’s good.

This one sounds perhaps a touch more appealing than The Knight:

Pirate Freedom is a relatively recent book and a comparatively straightforward one; I wouldn’t rank it as his best, though it’s among his most accessible and includes, should you ever need them, useful pointers on surviving a knife fight.

Hey, you never know when you might need such tips, right? Anyway, “among his most accessible” is the sentence I noticed here.

Here’s another comment about one of Wolfe’s standalones: The Devil in a Forest is another comparatively simple book, about growing up and the glamor of evil.

Well, ugh. Thus we see how a quick one-sentence review can do the job for a potential reader. “Accessible” isn’t a word that normally matters to me in a review, but for Wolfe it is a plus. “About growing up and the glamour of evil” is a huge turn-off and instantly makes me take that one off my list of Gene-Wolfe-Books-To-Try. Only if I fell in love with other books of his would I try a story about the glamour of evil.

If you’ve read a lot of Gene Wolfe’s books, which would you recommend to someone new to his work, and why?

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4 Comments Gene Wolfe’s Beginning Sentences

  1. Elaine T

    FWIW, I actually read The Wizard Knight from beginning to end. I don’t remember it at all, but it’s the only Wolfe book I’ve both started and finished.

    I remember trying that early work, The Devil In the Wood, and it not working for me.

    I think I just don’t think in a way that is compatible with his writing.

  2. Craig N.

    I found Able a more likeable protagonist than Matthew Keeley apparently did, even toward the beginning and certainly once he sets his heart on becoming a true knight. Generally I recommend THE WIZARD KNIGHT as accessible Wolfe … which may be the reason you have it; I don’t recall for sure… though I’m pretty sure there are parts of it I don’t completely get.

    I admire Wolfe a great deal, but some of his stuff doesn’t appeal to me, and it sounds like THE DEVIL IN THE FOREST might be one of them. (If it’s about *refusing* the glamour of evil, maybe not. But at least one of his recent books has a main character who turns out to be a horrible person.)

    The most impressive beginning of a Wolfe novel / series is probably NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN (Book 1 of 4, though, and I found parts of it heavy going), which begins:
    “Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court; nothing could ever be the same after that.”
    Silk is a priest (“Patera”) of a fake religion created to help keep social control on a generation-ship, but his sudden divine revelation turns out to be the real thing.

  3. Rachel

    Thank you. Pandora by Holly Hollander actually sounds much more like my kind of thing. I picked up a sample to try.

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