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An Evil Guest (SF) - Gene Wolfe ****

Gene Wolfe is one of the world's greatest fantasy writers. He has also written some popular SF, notably the Book of the New Sun series. His SF has never really been my thing, as I prefer his fantasy work, but this is a real oddity that spans the two. Arguably it is science fiction, as the odd happenings all have 'science' explanations. And we've got some science fiction tropes such as warp drive, hyperspace and projected 3D TV. But the whole setting is a dream-like mix of periods.

So, though An Evil Guest is clearly set in a future where we have interstellar travel and have met one other intelligent race, a lot of the everyday technologies, such as the mobile phones, are distinctly early-twenty first century. Meanwhile the characters - both how they speak and act - are straight out of the 1940s. If that sounds weird, it really is - and yet, being Wolfe, it works wonderfully.

The central character Cassie Casey, a struggling actress, is thrust into a complex situation where nothing is quite what it seems. In classic Wolfe fashion the reader, like the central character, is rarely sure what's going on. This is helped by dialogue that is indirect even by Wolfe's standards - no one seems happy to give a straight answer to a question if they have an opportunity to reply obscurely.

If this sounds frustrating, it really isn't, as long as you are prepared to go with the flow and trust Wolfe. Things do mostly become clear eventually. And the ride is great.

However, don't expect total clarity when you get to the last page. Wolfe's endings are famously open - and this one feels as much a beginning as an end. In fact, the ending didn't quite work for me, which is the reason the book is only getting four stars. Even so, it was an excellent read. In the puff on the back, Neil Gaiman describes An Evil Guest as 'a twenty-first century pulp adventure thriller with SF and horror elements that nobody else could possibly have written'. He didn't intend that 'pulp' word as the insult it once was, and his assessment is quite true.

Best of all, this is a book that just won't get out of my brain, and I know I'll read it again. If you do try it, here's one puzzle to consider. Just who is the evil guest of the title?

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Review by Brian Clegg

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