By Gene Wolfe
Paperback, 430 pages
From the back of the book: A young man is transported from our world to a magical realm that contains seven levels of reality. Very quickly transformed by magic into a grown man of heroic proportions, he takes the name Sir Able of the High Heart and sets out on a quest to find the sword that has been promised to him, a sword he will get from a dragon, the one very special blade that will help him fulfill his life ambition to become a true knight and a true hero. Inside, however, Able remains a boy, and he must grow in every sense to survive the dangers and delights that lie ahead.
I enjoyed the concept of this story, and before I started reading it, the idea had a lot of potential.
What I liked:
I also liked Wolfe’s concept of seven levels of reality, illustrated with this neat vertical map:
I enjoyed the header illustrations for each chapter. Here are a few of my favorites:
I highlighted a few quotes:
“One resolves not to lie, but one always resolves to begin one’s new truthfulness at a later time.”
“It’s one of the things fear does to you, it makes you want to kill thing that haven’t ever hurt you, just because they might.”
The story also had all the familiar fantasy elements – ogres, fae folk, magical swords, dragons, mermaids, knights, sword fights, strange castles, talking animals and more. It’s a shame that they didn’t get more of a chance to shine. In fact, if the main character had a different personality, I probably would have loved this book.
What I didn’t like:
Frankly, I think Able is an ass. Because I wasn’t a fan of him as a character, and he is also the narrator of the book, I had a hard time investing in him and the story. I have a lot of issues with this book, but I’ll try to be brief.
Able isn’t necessarily an unreliable narrator – but as a teenage boy who was transformed into a man by a fairy queen (who also slept with him, possibly?), he tends to leave details out of his story, skip parts, and flat-out state that he’s not going to talk about something because it makes him uncomfortable. Due to his style – the book is actually supposed to be a long letter to his brother Ben, who he left behind in the “real world” – the book has a confusing and dreamlike quality. You know how when you dream, you might be in your school cafeteria talking to someone, then suddenly, you’re on top of a mountain fighting a giant spider and there’s no explanation, because you’re in dreamworld and everything makes sense? That’s what parts of this book were like and it left me confused and wishing for more details.
Also, I think Able is a jerk and a bully. I’m not sure how old he was when he entered this magical world (the book may have mentioned it, but I’m not about to go back and search), but I think he’s somewhere around 16. But he acts more like a 12-year-old in a man’s body. He takes what he wants from people and has a very skewed sense of honor – he’s not a knight, he’s a brute. Example: he boards a ship and demands that the captain move out of his own cabin for him, then later wonders why the captain hates him and wants to kill him. He’s headstrong and foolish, and more prone to rush into a situation with his fists or weapons, even when that’s not the best path. I don’t feel that he had any real sense of honor. Maybe I’m not supposed to like him, but this story was so infused with his thoughts and point of view that I couldn’t help but be annoyed. This may be one of those books where I just missed the point.
The book ended abruptly – it does state on the back that it’s a novel in two volumes, but I won’t be picking up the second volume. It wasn’t what I expected, despite the intriguing concept, or the glowing review from Neil Gaiman. I can’t personally recommend this book because I really didn’t enjoy it and it became a chore to get through once I reached the halfway mark – but that doesn’t mean you might not enjoy it. If anyone else has read this, I’d love to know your thoughts! I’m secretly hoping I’m not the only person who didn’t enjoy this book.