Some works of fiction follow the rules of their genre, applying them like trusty tools to a familiar, well - worn machine. Others take those rules and revamp or retrofit them, then borrow spares from other sets and build something that is recognizable but completely, refreshingly new. Gene Wolfe's An Evil Guest is one of these books.

The novel is set about a century in the future, but despite the holographic video broadcasts and intergalactic space transports, the world feels like that of the 1930s, complete with tough - talking cops, wily dames and shady operatives; it's more pulp thriller than Space Age adventure. Though this results in a future with some oddly old - fashioned gender roles, it allows Wolfe to mine his many sources and inspirations - from the detective novels of Raymond Chandler to the fantastic tales of H.P. Lovecraft - to dazzling effect.

Dr. Gideon Chase is recruited by the U.S. government to track down the elusive and wealthy William Reis, whose years as ambassador to an alien planet have granted him unusual talents - talents the government would like to understand and control. Chase is at once a private detective, secret agent and sorcerer for hire, and not without talents of his own. But rather than confront Reis directly, he enlists the help of Cassie Casey, a woman whose latent abilities are awakened by Chase's magic, transforming her into perhaps the most gifted actress in the world. That is a skill she finds doubly useful, because she is soon at the center of a vast and deadly game of intrigue, with players ranging from secret government agencies to vengeful ex - husbands, from dark alien powers to the two men - Chase and Reis - with whom she has fallen in love.

Devotees of the Lovecraft Mythos will quickly recognize the source of the ultimate threat, but whether or not its readers have ever pondered the course curriculum at Miskatonic University, An Evil Guest is sure to sweep them along with a conspiracy that grows more thrilling and more deadly with every double - cross and dark revelation.

Jedediah Berry is the author of a novel, The Manual of Detection, to be published by Penguin Press in February. He is an assistant editor of Small Beer Press.

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