Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Soldier of Sidon
Gene Wolfe
Tor, 320 pages

Soldier of Sidon
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Endangered Species
SF Site Review: Innocents Aboard
SF Site Review: The Knight
SF Site Review: A Walking Tour of the Shambles
SF Site Review: Peace
SF Site Review: Sword and Citadel
SF Site Review: Shadow and Claw
SF Site Review: In Green's Jungles
SF Site Review: Free Live Free
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Hughes

"The past is another country. They do things differently there," was L.P. Hartley's nostalgia-fraught opening line in the novel, The Go-Between. That quality of foreignness, when well captured and faithfully presented, is what ensorcels the devoted reader of historical novels. Its noticeable absence -- as when some medieval captain of archers orders his men to "ready, aim, fire!" -- jars the aficionado's anachronism detector, and harshly cancels the spell.

In Soldier of Sidon, Gene Wolfe's long-awaited resumption of the travels of a brain-damaged Roman of the fifth century BCE, the enchantment never falters. In this episode, we reconnect with the centurion Lucius (or Latro, as he was known in the first two books, Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete), some years after he made it home from Greece after the Hellenes had fought off the last invasion by Persia. Lucius had served on the losing side, a mercenary in King Xerxes's army that was slaughtered by Spartan and Athenian hoplites at the Battle of Plataea. There he suffered a catastrophic head wound that left him with a great scar on his scalp and a brain that can only remember the last twelve hours.

As Soldier of Sidon opens, Lucius's Phoenician friend, Masluk, a sea captain he freed from slavery, has come to see if the Roman has recovered from his peculiar affliction. He finds him no better, but Lucius has written the name "Riverland" above his door, as a reminder that he must go to Egypt to discover what has happened to him. Why Egypt? We don't know. Unlike the straight-flowing Nile, on which much of the story is set, a Wolfe novel is not made for easy navigation. Masluk, motivated to help his benefactor, has brought Lucius along on a trading voyage to the Nile delta. After selling his cargo of fine leather, the Phoenician hires out his ship to the local Persian satrap (Egypt then being under Persian rule); he is to take an expedition up-river to learn what he can about the sources of the Nile. Along the way, they will try to do what they can for the Roman.

Wolfe then assembles an interesting collation of voyagers: a Persian magus to be in charge of the expedition; two Egyptian priests, devoted to two different gods and not on the best of terms with each other; two "river-wives," dancing girls hired to be Lucius's and Masluk's comforts for the voyage; a handful of Persian and Egyptian soldiers for Lucius to command; an Athenian wine merchant acting for an Egyptian whose son has been captured by a Nubian king who would prefer to keep secret the location of his gold mines.

There are also some less visible passengers and wayside encounters -- demons, familiars, gods -- and a wax effigy of a woman that can be brought to life if her cheeks are smeared with fresh blood. Each of these characters has his or her own agenda. They may tell the truth or they may lie and dissemble and intrigue against each other as their various interests dictate. And all of their doings and sayings are presented to us through the diary of the brain-injured stranger, who tries to write down everything he needs to remember on a scroll that he carries with him.

It makes for a remarkable tale-telling, because Lucius is a perpetual innocent, struggling to make sense of the new world that is offered to him over every morning's breakfast. Sometimes he is able to consult his scroll and match his intuitive liking or distrust of the individuals around him to his own record of their past behaviors; sometimes he is fooled, as when the woman of wax works her wiles upon him. Yet his instincts are usually reliable, and his essential character is noble, for all the blood that stains his hands.

This book, the two that went before, and the one to follow (for Lucius is not yet done with his quest), are offered to us as fantasies. I think they are not fantasies, but well-wrought historical novels; they are faithful recreations of a long-vanished world from the viewpoint of a person who might well have existed. True, Lucius sees more gods and demons than most of his contemporaries, and some of them are more interested in him than in his companions, but those deities and spirits are part of the normal intellectual furniture of the ancient mind. Ancient Egypt is doubly another country, and Gene Wolfe has got the "differently" part of Hartley's famous line just right.

After waiting fifteen years for Latro to continue, I am once again looking forward to what happens next.

Copyright © 2007 Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes
Matthew Hughes writes science fantasy. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, F&SF, Postscripts and Interzone. His novels are Fools Errant, Fool Me Twice, Black Brillion, and Majestrum. The first chapter of his new novel, The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn (Night Shade Books, September 2007), is on his web page is at

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide