The Knight, Gene Wolfe
This is the first half of a “novel in two volumes”, so I’ll just make a few notes here and wrap it all up when I get through The Wizard, which is near the top of my reading pile.
Somehow this story takes a premise that dates at least to Mark Twain, a young boy from the American midwest transported to a magical fairy-world, and manages not to make it seem trite; at least as long as I was immersed in the story. Luckily, there’s very few jarring incidents in the story to break the spell and make me step back and think about how primitive a skeleton underlies the flesh.
One of the jarring elements, though I suspect it’s intentional, is the way the protagonist clumsily integrates himself into a new culture. Coming from middle America, he’s not prepared to bow and simper before knights or haggle with shopkeepers. Magically grown into the heroic adult body of the knight Sir Able of the High Heart, he mostly gets through this by bullying those he encounters. Those bullying incidents make it difficult to wish Able well, despite the way they’re subtly presented in his own re-telling. However I expect to see Able grow out of his bullying ways in the second volume, which would turn what starts out as an unsympathetic rendering of the protagonist into a carefully played thread of character development. (But Stephen Frug’s review implies this may not happen.)
And then, this is Gene Wolfe. If you’re looking for an unreliable narrator, you’ve got it. If you’re looking for layers and mysteries behind what is presented on the page, they’re there. If you swoon for poetic prose, well, in this case Wolfe has done an excellent job of mimicking the style of a teenaged writer without allowing clumsy construction to interfere with the story.
I’m looking forward to see how this story wraps up.