From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

A review by Rich Horton

Gene Wolfe continues to publish an excellent novel about every year. His latest is The Sorcerer’s House. A standalone novel, it is, by Wolfe’s standards, fairly simple. Told in the familiar—almost naïve—first-person prose of many recent Wolfe novels. it’s also quite absorbing, a very nice read, and for all its relative “simplicity” stuffed with puzzles and such Wolfean obsessions as twins, shapechanging, and virtue.

The protagonist is Baxter Dunn, who has just been released from prison. We slowly gather that he went to jail for fraud, and that his victim, or one of his victims, was his identical twin brother, George. Most of the book is told in letters from Baxter to George, though Baxter also writes to George’s wife, Millie, and to a friend he made in prison. Some of the letters are addressed to Baxter.

Baxter comes to a quiet Midwestern town called Medicine Man. At first destitute, he comes, by mysterious means, into possession of a house called the Black House, which is rumored to be haunted. The house is quite odd: bigger on the inside than the outside, and its windows sometimes seem to look out on a landscape different that what exists outside. There are a variety of unusual characters attached to the house: another pair of good/bad twins, teenaged boys named Emlyn and Ieuan; a couple of odd butlers named Nicholas or Nick; a fox who sometimes seems to be a woman; and some magical implements.

Baxter also has encounters in the town, particularly a series of variously interesting women: an attractive young widow, the older woman who revealed his inheritance to Baxter, a pert policewoman, etc. And the town is also menaced by a “Hellhound”.

We are left to wonder what is really going on. Is Baxter really a criminal or did his brother betray him (perhaps because they both seem to love Millie)? Why did the mysterious Mr. Black leave his house to Baxter? From whence do all the odd creatures—the fox woman, the werewolves, a vampire—attracted to Baxter come?

All this is familiar territory for Gene Wolfe’s readers. What may seem unusual is how relatively transparently it is all resolved. (Though the ending does leave a couple of open questions. I have my own answers, contradicting the plain narrative, but I’m by no means sure I’m correct.) The Sorcerer’s House doesn’t quite achieve the depth of Wolfe’s very best work, but it avoids the frustration of a novel like, say, Castleview (at least for this reader, who knew there was something special going on beneath that book’s surface, but never quite figured it out.) The Sorcerer’s House is, in the end, an entertainment, clever and satisfying—not great Wolfe, but good Wolfe, which is recommendation enough.

The Sorcerer’s House
Gene Wolfe
$24.99 | hc | 302 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2458-0
March 2010

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