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Return of the Knight

Reviewed by Bill Sheehan
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW06

THE WIZARD: Book Two of The Wizard Knight

By Gene Wolfe

Tor. 477 pp. $25.95

With the publication of The Wizard, the unpredictable Gene Wolfe completes a dauntingly ambitious two-volume novel collectively entitled The Wizard Knight. The publisher has compared these books to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, but the comparison seems specious at best. In sharp contrast to Tolkien's accessible, straightforward epic, The Wizard Knight is a dense, frequently mysterious creation that no one but Wolfe could have written.

The story began earlier this year in The Knight, which introduced Sir Able of the High Heart, who tells the tale in the form of a letter to his long-lost brother, Ben. While still a teenager, Able is transported from the "real" world of modern America to an overtly fantastical realm known as the Seven Worlds. These rigidly hierarchical worlds are bound together by complex metaphysical laws and form the backdrop for a painstakingly detailed Arthurian drama in which Able plays the dominant role. Shortly after arriving in Mythgarthr, the most Earth-like of the Seven Worlds, Able meets -- and makes love to -- Disiri, queen of Aelfrice, the world located directly beneath Mythgarthr. Disiri, who will become the obsessive focus of Able's romantic and erotic longings, transforms him from a gangling teenager into a massive, powerful physical specimen, the very model of a knight and champion. The tension between the untested boy on the inside and the huge man's body he presents to the world permeates the narrative, investing the story of Able's coming-of-age with an idiosyncratic flavor of its own.

One of the central achievements of The Knight -- an achievement Wolfe sustains in the second volume -- is its fresh, vivid rendering of some very familiar elements. Able's experiences in the Seven Worlds include knightly quests, pitched battles, trials by combat and assorted tests of honor. In the course of his adventures, he encounters flesh-eating ogres, bellicose giants, undead witches and warriors, seductive sorceresses and (of course) maidens in distress. Each of these encounters seems newly minted and original, and that is no mean accomplishment. One of the many high points is an airborne battle between Able and a fire-breathing dragon named Grengarm. This beautifully described set piece ends the opening installment, setting the stage for this larger, ultimately superior second volume.

As The Wizard opens, Able returns from an extended sojourn in Skai, the sacred realm above Mythrgar where gods dwell, and where time moves at its own, much quicker pace. For Able, 20 years have passed, while only months have elapsed in Mythgarthr. He is now, save at rare vulnerable moments, both a knight and a fully integrated man. He is also a wizard, although a complex vow prevents him from using his magical abilities. Accompanied by a telepathic flying unicorn and a pair of wonderfully characterized talking animals (a shape-shifting dog and a self-satisfied cat), he moves through the various levels of the Seven Worlds, searching for Disiri and gradually uncovering the hidden purpose of his life.

That purpose involves delivering a crucial message (a message that lies dormant in his memory, awaiting its proper moment) and dispensing the principles of knightly justice to all who cross his path. Able's quest takes him from the peasant villages ruled by King Arnthor (royal offspring of a dragon) to an enchanted island, and from the giant-built stronghold of Utgard to the contiguous worlds above and beneath him. Along the way, he finds (and loses) a magical sword, converses with gods, suffers loss and imprisonment and ultimately rescues Arnthor's kingdom from an encroaching race of quasi-human cannibals.

The Wizard is a larger, more expansive volume than its predecessor. The narrative is broken down into a smaller number of longer chapters and proceeds in a much more fluid fashion. Having established the novel's background so thoroughly in The Knight, Wolfe is now free to linger over dramatic moments, to explore the mysteries of his magical kingdoms and to develop even his most minor characters with care and intelligence. The result is a satisfying, wide-ranging novel that contains enough marvels and mysteries (not all of which are resolved or explained) to populate an entire series.

The Wizard Knight is, in the oldest, truest sense of the word, a romance. It is the work of a man who believes in his bones that the knightly virtues he so lovingly describes -- faith, honor, courage, fidelity -- are essential elements of the human soul, elements we ignore at our peril. This underlying belief powers the story, carrying it past those moments when Wolfe's typically garrulous characters ramble on and the narrative momentum flags. Mostly, though, Wolfe keeps this complex creation thoroughly under control, driving steadily toward a moving conclusion that celebrates the benign magic -- and ultimate healing power -- of love and friendship. As the talking cat tells us in one of his less sardonic moments: "Magic and art have a great deal in common." Gene Wolfe has spent a lengthy, productive career proving that very point. In the two substantial volumes of The Wizard Knight, he proves it once again, transmuting the overworked materials of traditional fantasy into something strange, memorable and new. •

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree," a critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, and is editor of the recent anthology "Night Visions 11."

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