Soldier of Sidon by Gene Wolfe


Tor Hardcover 2006

“Ra’hotep says I am to write everything that takes place on this scroll, as concisely as I can.  I will try.  I must read this every morning, too.”

Thus begins the third book about Latro, a Roman mercenary soldier who has suffered a head injury in battle that deprives him of his memory but grants him the ability to interact with supernatural beings.  Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Sidon is the long-awaited sequel to Soldier in the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1989), the latter two currently published in one volume as Latro in the Mist.

As with the first two books in the series, Soldier of Sidon opens with a foreword explaining that archaeologists discovered a scroll written in archaic Latin and passed it on to “GW,” who has translated it into modern English for the reader.  The scrolls record the daily events of the life of Latro, whose inability to retain memories requires him to write everything down in order to maintain at least a tenuous sense of his self-identity.  The first two scrolls, comprising Latro in the Mist, recount Latro’s search for both his lost memory and his homeland as he travels through war-ravaged Greece and Asia Minor during the invasion by the Persian Empire in the Fifth Century B.C.E.

Having apparently found his way home after the conclusion of Solder of Arete, Soldier of Sidon finds Latro traveling with the Phoenician ship trader Muslak to Persian-occupied Egypt in a quest to find a cure for his memory loss.  While in the Egyptian city of Sais, a Persian governor recruits Muslak and his crew for an intelligence-gathering mission beyond the kingdom’s borders upriver.  Accompanying Latro and Muslak are the Persian delegate Qanju and his scribe Thotmaktef, the Egyptian mage Sahuset, and Myt-ser’eu, a courtesan from the temple of Hathor whom Latro has promised the goddess to protect.  As they journey up the Nile, Latro encounters many Egyptian gods, acquires a serpentine servant, becomes entangled in a uniquely Wolfeian love triangle, meets an old friend he no longer remembers, and loses his most valued possession.

As with many of Wolfe’s works, the Soldier series prominently features unreliable narration, and Soldier of Sidon is no exception.  Latro still lacks short-term memory, and as such what he reports in his journal is often inaccurate, vague, and for the inattentive reader, confusing.  For instance, if Latro writes something in chapter three that becomes important in chapter twenty, due to his lack of memory he will not recognize its significance; it is up to the reader uncover such revelations.

Of the three novels, however, Soldier of Sidon is the most straightforward in terms of narrative.  In Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete, Latro is sent on various missions by different members of the Greek pantheon for reasons never fully revealed, and both Greeks and Persians take advantage of Latro’s disability for political purposes, resulting in a complex narrative that demands much from the reader.  In Soldier of Sidon, the story revolves primarily around the reconnaissance mission with a linearity marked by their passage along the Nile.  There are still political machinations involved, but they are less central to the story, and while they are just as inscrutable as their Greek counterparts, the Egyptian gods are less demanding of Latro.  Although the simpler plot structure may disappoint some fans of the Soldier series, it also makes this the most accessible book of the series, and allows the reader to focus more on the character development of Latro’s companions rather than perpetually trying to gather one’s bearings.  That Wolfe is even able to provide such character development is a remarkable achievement when one considers that the narrator wakes up each morning with a tabula rasa and must be reintroduced to his companions every day.

One also marvels at Wolfe’s ability to give Latro himself so much character.  He lacks short-term memory and only has vague recollections of his youth, yet certain things are self-evident to Latro.  This is underscored in Soldier of Sidon during Latro’s dream when he faces the judgment of the dead by the members of the Egyptian pantheon, and in a brief moment of clarity, enumerates his own virtues and shortcomings.  This epiphany highlights the true theme of the Soldier series, as one’s identity is determined not by the conception of oneself formed by memories, but by one’s right or wrong actions.  Latro may never regain his memory – and based on the conclusion of Soldier of Sidon his journey has not ended – but even without it Latro still retains the most fundamental aspect of himself:  his moral compass.

With its change of setting from the Aegean to Egypt and its change of narrative focus from political intrigue to a more personal story, Soldier of Sidon is a refreshing addition to an already impressive series and one of the best books of 2006.

© Arthur Bangs 2007

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