In the far distant future, as our sun starts to wane and die out, humanity clings to the ruinous cities left standing. Technology has gone backwards for the greater populace, but some of the highest classes maintain weapons and luxuries that dwarf our modern capabilities. They have lost the ability to create new things, merely maintain them. Amid the sprawling city of Nessus, there lies an ancient citadel that houses the once prestigious, but now nearly defunct and useless guild of the torturers. We follow Severian, our dubious protagonist, as he turns from young and reverent torturer apprentice to exile and wanderer.
These books succeed on many levels, but it is the tone and sense of place that shines most. The world of the dying sun is bleak, stars blink during the day-time, the green vitality of natural life is dimmed to some off-color we modern (ancient?) humans wouldn’t recognize. People seem to be just scrabbling by, amidst a rigidly stratified class structure that seems to have no mobility except down. The climate is various flavors of cold or otherwise swampy, oppressing, and toxic. This planet, Urth, has gone so far past resource scarcity that no one even acknowledges a lack. Mining is synonymous with archeology. Layers upon layers of civilization combined with future tech combined with aliens combined with magical happenstance, evoke an alien world that actually feels alien and not rote and cliche, like much sci-fi/fantasy of both Wolfe’s time (books written 1980-83) and our own.
Each novel follows the last with very little in time gaps or major tonal shifts, yet structurally, they are all very different.
The Shadow of the Torturer
We’re introduced to the narrator, Severian, writing from the present day while he uses his photographic memory to recount the events of the novel. It begins with his boyhood growing up as an apprentice of the torturer’s guild — his friends, his adventures, his schooling. In his narrow world, it is a great honor to be raised as a torturer and there is nothing dubious about it. This book is nearly a bilsdungroman; Severian grows up, ponders life and memory Proust-style, meets some interesting people, but by the time the book ends, he hasn’t even left the city. It is by far the slowest moving installment, which makes the faster paces of successive books jarring at first. There’s an inciting event in the very first chapter; Severian meets the leader of his government’s rebellion robbing graves in the citadel. It seems to imply the major plot of the series, but this is more of a footnote since almost the entirety of The Book of the New Sun is spent wandering from one place to another, and very little to do with the insurrection or government.
The Claw of the Conciliator
Finding himself in possession of the eponymous claw — a talisman somewhere between the Holy Grail and the One Ring — Severian attempts to complete several tasks at once (return the claw to its rightful owners, go find a job, reach certain locales, find certain people, etc) and does not really accomplish much of anything. It’s a wandering, aimless tale and the weakest book of bunch. I remember the least from it. As I mentioned above, the pace of the story accelerates and Severian bounds from one unrelated adventure to the next, occasionally too heavy reliant on coincidence. The most unsavory aspects of Severian’s character are on display here, but more on that later.
The Sword of the Lictor
While yet another string of adventures, this is far superior to the previous book, not least of all because of how freakin’ weird it gets. Aliens wearing leper masks under middle aged white man masks. Naked two-headed giants with grandiose pursuits. Hirsute, talking monsters that eat brains. Balloon skinned mermaids. The wilderness of the less populated regions of Urth appear incomprehensible. Some key revelations of earlier mysteries show many of the events underlying the first half of the series were not as they seem — an excellent tactic as it gets the reader questioning everything. Paradoxically, it is also a great departure from the other books. Severian spends much of it alone meeting new and strange people/creatures.
The Citadel of the Autarch
The first half of this book is a Canterbury Tales-esque session of several people in a military hospital exchanging stores across sick beds. This is followed by a sequence of bloody events that come to tie the framing story and the major political events of the first novel together while the hints of Christian allegory, until now in the periphery, are suddenly laid on thick. I have come to expect sort of milquetoast endings from long series, and while TBotNS is serviceable, it’s still jerky and not entirely satisfying. One of the biggest pitfalls sprawling narratives fall into is invalidating all the arduous traveling the protagonist has spent 800 pages travailing by allowing him/her to instantly get around the world to tie up loose ends.
Everything that makes up The Book of the New Sun, everything it explores and everywhere it traverses, is viewed through the lens of Severian’s first person perspective. He has picture-perfect memory and constantly stresses his precision of recollection as he is writing this story, yet is he is clearing boasting, lying, omitting plenty of what actually happens. He’s assuredly an asshole, always ready to exert power over those he can. He holds the torturer’s guild in great esteem, which made sense when it was all he knew as a child, but he takes his sweet time even approaching any sort of conclusion that torture is pointless and wrong. He makes excuses for volunteering for easy executions (someone else would do it anyway). As many goodreads reviewers have noted, he has major problems with women. He’s totally down with casual rape. He’s not the brutish uncaring sort but one who likes to think witty things to himself like (paraphrasing): women are weaker than men and indeed it is our duty to protect to them but one advantage they do have is never having to have their reproductive parts crushed between their pelvis and a destrier’s (horse’s) spine. Sexual abuse is the highest form of torture in the guild and Severian reflects on an an event in his youth involving his teacher, a prisoner to be tortured, and an iron phallus. Whilst cutting down some nameless goons, our hero makes a comparison between his sword (which he is obsessed with) to said iron phallus, which makes you think we might be receiving some social-genre commentary here. But no, pulp-style, he goes on to continue hewing down all sorts of characters like so much grain.
Since it is entirely Severian’s point of view, we can never come to know what he was being truthful about and what his character is honestly like. There can be no denouement. We can also never know if the issues with women lacking agency are due to the author’s characterization of Severian or due to Gene Wolf himself. I find the method of storytelling effective and Severian is a compelling protagonist, but it is troubling element of the book. I’m certain we’re supposed to judge Severian, but how much? Given the savior role he begins to assume, I don’t feel inclined to be charitable to Wolfe here. There’s author ordained problems intentionally placed in Severian’s head and there’s unintentional issues with the text itself.
This series has major critical acclaim. Plastered across the covers of all the books is Neil Gaiman quoted: The best SF novel of the last century. There’s some incredibly hyperbolic praise floating around out there from professional writers. Unlike Gaiman, I would hardly recommend this without reservation, but something Wolfe undoubtedly has that these other writers admire is an excellent hand with language and prose. The sentence-level craft is much higher than the vast majority of SF. The writing is as ponderous and grim as the world it depicts. Wolfe adopts a pseudo-archaic language that mixes obscure english words with sci-fi words he made up. He notes in an appendix that uses such words as ‘destrier’ to imply a horse without actually calling it a horse, because in the distant future what we know as horses would not be quite the same. It works to great effect — the world feels both ancient and alien — though there are a few occasions where it leads to gobbledygook nonsense.
“but they had among them a dozen or so bejeweled young women borne in gilded howdahs on the backs of caparisoned arsinoithers.”
(note those are all real words other than the last which is a modification of arsinoitherium)
I’m glad I read it all. It’s been a long time since I just read through a full series like this. Usually I have a book lined up before I finish the previous one but here I was stumped because I was so immersed in this bleak world amidst the dying sun.