Review: An Evil Guest By Gene Wolfe

An Evil Guest

Gene Wolfe

Tor Book, 2008

I was extremely excited to read this novel.  A noirsih pulp action title by one of my favorite fantasy authors?  How could I not like it?  Well, it turns out I was only partially right.  I didn’t “not” like it but I didn’t love it either.  To make matters even worse Caitlin R. Kiernan’s spotlight review (from Publisher’s Weekly) mentions the Lovecraft Mythos as what I took as a prominent factor but I found that element wasn’t as apparent as I would have liked.  I admit my expectations were rather high when I picked up the novel so maybe the fault is mine.

The basic plot follows the star Cassie Casey as she works the mysterious Gideon Chase to track down and uncover the plans of Bill Reis.  The narrative trucks along at blindingly fast pace touching on various elements of the fantastic from dimension hopping cars and werewolves to man-bats and shark gods.  Kiernon’s aforementioned Lovecraftian elements do exist but are shuffled in towards the end of the novel and the book lacks the oppressed, almost harried, feel of Lovecraftian fiction that makes the mythos tie-in feel rather slapdash.

The pace is part of the book’s problem.  The speed of the narrative feels way too rushed and at times is difficult to follow.  Admittedly several other reviewers mentioned that the book is best when read all at once.  Having read the book I’d be willing to agree but I don’t know how many people have the time to sit and do that.  The frantic pace of the narrative also left me what I felt were mostly underdeveloped characters.  Our heroine Cassie is a notable exceptions.  Brassy, brainy and self-assured Cassie has a distinct narrative voice.  Gideon comes close but with the narrative staying firmly fixed from Cassie’s point-of-view we never really learn too much about him.

As fun as many as the fantastic elements are (Gideon’s dimension hopping voice controlled radar proof car being my particular favorite) they come off as random and frequently absurd (oftentimes in a good way).  Indeed they often feel like they don’t impact the story in any way.  Which, I suppose, could be the point.  The crazy fantastic elements, the breakneck plot, and stylized back-and-forth dialogue are homages to the type of writing and plotting of the pulp thriller.  From an author like Gene Wolfe the distinction between the more cerebral quality of his fantasy work the over-the-top action of An Evil Guest could not be clear.

Just because I’m marking the narrative choices as intentional doesn’t mean I find them wholly agreeable.  In truth, occaisonal thrills asside, I found the story disagreeable.  It wasn’t any one particular element but for me the novel failed to gel.  While it might be an homage to the vaguely cheesy pulp era I still found An Evil Guest to be a far cry from the high watermark of Wolfe’s other work.   Maybe if my expectations had been different I would have enjoyed the novel more but as it was I found reading the book more of a chore than anything else.

That being said I don’t think the book is without merit.  Indeed hardcore Wolfe fans will not want to miss out on the book.  Wolfe’s strength has always been his ability to craft vivid and memorable imagery and his ability is at the forefront here despite his inability to blend that imagery with any kind of truly engaging narrative (at least from my perspective).  At the same time fans of pulp-era fiction might also enjoy the fast paced off-beat narrative but might be off put by the genre bending antics seemingly thrown in at random.  For the rest of you still on the fence I’d recommend picking up and skipping past the opening scene (since the bulk of the book is from Cassie’s perspective not Gideon’s) and sampling a bit of the rest.  There is relativaly no change in narrative tone or style throughout the remainder of the novel so if you enjoy what you read there than you’ll more than likely enjoy the rest of the novel as well.  As for me…well color me disappointed.

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