Gene Wolfe is best known as an author of science fiction and fantasy, and there is an element of the fantastical to this set of novels set in ancient Greece. The Latro of the title is a mercenary (probably Roman) who fought for the Persians at the Battle of Plataea, where he suffered a head wound and developed severe amnesia. A helpful doctor gave him some scrolls and a writing implement and from there on he writes down his experiences, so that he can remind himself of them as the memory fades. It is the story in these scrolls that we read.
If that isn’t enough of a gimmick, Latro also seems to have developed the ability to interact with gods and ghosts. Thankfully the book is far more than this twist. For me where the book shines is the feeling of being immersed into ancient greece – not so much the places (Latro tends not to get too descriptive in his writing) but the people, who they are, how they interact, what they believe. From a historical perspective, it is great fun seeing Latro meet the likes of the poet Pindar, the Spartan general Pausanias and the Athenian politician Thermistocles.
As ever Wolfe loves playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator and there are some twists and turns that will have you leafing back through the book to check for any hints you missed. Personally I’m very much looking forward to re-reading these soon. For all that, it is far from a cartoonish book, the characters and the setting feel subtle and realistic. It’s gentle, enjoyable, engrossing, confusing, shocking and challenging at the same time. I can’t recommend it highly enough.