Tho other day, I finished The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe. This book, although I read it in collected form, is in fact two: The Knight and The Wizard (shocker, right?). Combined, the two clocked in at 920 pages of poorly-copyedited tree pulp brought to me at secondhand from Orion Books, a UK imprint. However, it preserved one of the most enjoyable of the salient features of the original publication: Some absolutely charming illustrations by Gregory Manchess, which head the chapters in both books.
This is all mere corporeal claptrap, of course. The story itself is what is important, the story and its setting.
The central character of this duology is a young man identified throughout the book as Sir Able of the High Heart, the name he is given by a mysterious deity who lives in a cave by the sea. Very soon in the course of the book, he is given the body of a fully-grown man by a fairy queen named Disiri, with whom he falls in love. He gradually acquires an entourage of servants and fellow-knights, as well as some supernatural allies of varying morality. The character encounters others, as well, and these encounters -- be they with the ambiguously demonic Garsecg or the angelic and gloriously described Michael (yes, that one) -- shape the character as he grows and changes.
Much of the character's personal growth occurs more obviously in The Knight; by the time the character has returned to Mythgarthr, in The Wizard, he is entirely himself, and knows himself well enough to be both a fully-realized character, and to recognize his full formation. He is able to use himself, as the powerful entity he has become, to help to better his world.
One of the characteristics of Wolfe's writing is his ability to display insight into deeper questions of spirituality, belief and other areas typically left to ethics and theology. Characters abilities and characteristics are explored with a depth that is difficult to achieve without lengthy digression -- but Wolfe does this beautifully. Two of the best examples of this are characters who are close to Sir Able but are not the main characters -- his sometimes squire, Svon (later Sir Svon) and his mentor-adversary, Garsecg. Svon, who begins the books as a disinherited but overly proud young squire, is gradually revealed to be a very complex character, with his own insecurities and his own regrets, some of which include the lessons he failed to learn when others tried to facilitate them. Garsecg, on the other hand, is characterized as a kind of mentor to Sir Able -- who nonetheless encourages him to morally questionable behavior.
Able himself is not above moral ambiguity, however, and this is the major flaw in the books. Wolfe takes a rather cavalier attitudes towards various fantasy races, although the only race entirely deprived of well-differentiated characters are the Osterlings, cannibal "easterners" who, by the end of The Wizard, have invaded Sir Able's adopted homeland. However, the giants are repeatedly characterized as "horrible," although many of them are "good," insofar as they help to advance the central characters' desires being fulfilled. But to Wolfe's credit, it is quite clear that these attitudes belong to the character, not to him -- and one of the finest of the brief pieces of spiritual exploration is a brief statement from Sir Able to another character, regarding Able's man-eating ogre-servant. He is described as a creature that is, essentially, evil -- he cannot live on anything other than human flesh, apparently -- but who is aware of his evil nature, and rues it. (Obviously, this is more succinctly stated in the book, but I'm not the writer Wolfe is.)
Overall, The Wizard Knight is intellectually stimulating fantasy, one that merited the incredible hype it received upon its release, and one that is to be enjoyed by fans of both The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King. Thank you, Gene Wolfe, for writing fantasy for theology geeks.