The flood of books about weird old houses that are full of secrets continues, as if our real estate bust continues to rattle our collective consciousness. The latest entry: Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House. Spoilers ahead!
Sorry I'm coming to this book late — it came out in late March, but I only just read it. It represents a bit of a departure for Wolfe: It's a standalone urban fantasy novel that unfolds like a classic mystery. And it's an epistolary novel, a form which is all too rare nowadays. I'm a huge fan of epistolary novels, having read everything Samuel Richardson ever wrote — even Sir Charles Grandison. Oh, and it's pretty much lightweight fluff, without much of the darkness or density of Wolfe's other work.
Like the other "weird house" novels I wrote about a while back, The Sorcerer's House centers around a man who lucks into a weird old dwelling, and discovers that it comes with a lot more than beautiful fixtures and a nice view. In this particular case, the house is believed to be haunted, but the truth is much weirder than that. There are multiple sets of twins in the novel — the main character is a twin who believes himself to be the "Evil twin," and he's recently gotten out of prison. And he meets another set of twins who seem to have a similar good/bad duality, but it slowly becomes apparent that the dualities are not as clear-cut as they first appear.
The main character, Bax, starts the book having just gotten out of prison, with almost nothing to his name. He's homeless and friendless, and his twin brother won't even talk to him. And then after he starts squatting in the mysterious "haunted" house in the town of Medicine Man, he suddenly learns that he's the house's rightful owner. Soon money, fancy cars, beautiful women, huge tracts of valuable land, and sexy fox-fairies are all falling into his lap, and everybody wants to be his friend. Will all this sudden good fortune bring with it a dark curse? Maybe, if the presence of a werewolf who keeps dismembering people in Bax's vicinity is anything to go by.
Early on in the novel, Wolfe hints at a great darkness, and a world of tremendous power that may destroy Bax if he doesn't master it — but there's very little darkness in this book after the first hundred pages or so. It's almost as if Wolfe couldn't bear to have anything unpleasant happen to his main character, whose good fortune keeps getting better and better. It's a remarkably sunny version of fantasy literature, and though the novel runs out of narrative steam towards the end, by that point you're already drawn in by Wolfe's prodigious invention.
And the first half of the book, in which Bax explores the mysterious house and keeps finding newer, weirder rooms and strange contraptions, while the two magical twins and assorted strange creatures keep running in and out of his home, is really splendid. It's easy to see why the sinister/weird house is such a prolific device in literature these days — it's got a sense of place, and the idea of a piece of architecture harboring hidden doors and secret passages is sort of compulsive. And the idea of weird entities coming into your bedroom is irresistibly creepy.
Throughout the book, Wolfe drops little insights into the nature of magic and faerie - including the idea that magic, at its root, is a form of diplomacy. And the idea that nobody ever ages or dies in faerie — so the place must be extra-hostile and barbaric, to keep the population from growing endlessly. There's more than enough cleverness and fun in this book to keep you zipping through on your way into the heart of the mystery.