on 22 October 1999
Ah, "The Book of the New Sun". A classic which I've found myself compelled to read at least once every year since a friend introduced me to it in the late 80s. Where to begin? Well, my favourite aspect of the series is the fact that Wolfe has created a protagonist who is a TORTURER by trade and upbringing and nevertheless manages to make Severian incredibly sympathetic. Indeed, he is the most likeable character in all of the books.
In creating this work, Gene Wolfe has taken the basic concept of Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" books and produced his own spin which, once read, is never forgotten. Another highly enjoyable component of the series (in my opinion) is the nomenclature. There are a lot of peculiar terms - "autarch", "carnifex", "cacogens", etc. The difference between Wolfe's use of these expressions and the typical garbage employed to describe the worlds of other sci-fi/fantasy authors is that, to the best of my knowledge, not one of these words is made up. Instead they are derived from a plethora of sources - old English, French, Latin, and so on. This level of research only adds to the believability of the author's conception of an ancient and decaying Terran empire.
There is furthermore the mythical/philosophical/religious story arc, the multitudonous subplots (many of which mesh together as the story progresses), the wonderful characterisation (even the most minor characters are beautifully fleshed out - I can't think of anyone who appears as merely a cipher) and the many little fables from the itinerant Severian's "Book of the Wonders of Urth and Sky" (I hope I got the title right). This is also a series which rewards re-reading - so much is prefigured that you will notice something new every time you revisit it.
In summation, you owe it to yourself to beg, borrow, steal or even buy these books. I guarantee that you will not regret it. In writing them, to my mind, Gene Wolfe has earned himself a place in Heaven.
Fantasy literature has often been looked down on as a teen market or a less than serious escapist out let. It’s twin sibling, Science Fiction, is often used to discuss big philosophical issues, mortality, the sustainability of culture, dystopian futuristic possibilities and even the very essence of where life came from but Fantasy literature rarely offers anything so deep. There are a few authors that bring something exceptional to the table, the grandeur and span of Tolkien’s story telling, the acid laced multiverse of Moorcock’s heroes and the Dickensian density of Mervyn Peake but much of the canon is derivative and sadly lives up to the low expectations many place on the genre.
That was why revisiting this series of books, books I read in my youth but probably didn’t fully appreciate at the time was enlightening for the fact that for everything I have said is often lacking in the genre, Gene Wolf, proves that there is a better way.
The story is simple but as I will explain later, it isn’t the story that is the real selling point. Severian is a young man brought up in the bosom of a very ancient guild, a guild of torturers, an organisation who via strict codes operate as the impassive face of justice as decreed from above. After allowing an act of what he sees as mercy towards a prisoner in his charge he is banished from the guild and so begins a journey through a world he has barely experienced. The first few chapters set off down a very traditional fantasy path but when Severian finally encounters the city around him to head into exile the scope of Wolfe’s writing is revealed.
We learn of the world at the same pace as Severian himself, much of it as mysterious and strange to him as it is to the reader and this is where perspectives change. Initially the descriptions of this city give it a medieval or ancient feel but hints are given that this is not just another arbitrary setting with the typical swords and sorcery settings plundered for the sake of familiarity. This is actually Earth in the far future, one where the technology of this distant time seems like magic to his (and thus our) uneducated eyes. Small pieces of detail make reference to our own times, a time now ancient history in the timeline of the books.
But like all good literature it is also the quality of the writing that stands it apart from the pack. The story is being told by Severian in later life, so we are reading a memoir of his life and so the narrative is surrounded with insights, reflections and hindsight’s from a position where the narrator is already aware of the full scope of the story, his final destiny and the effects of the choices that he made along the way. It is this quality, along with the strength of the writing that add some wonderful philosophical dimensions to the story, a chance to rethink the twists and turns of his life and their role in his journey.
To add to the mystery the back-story of society is coloured in very slowly and Wolfe’s use of archaic and often invented words add to the exotic feel. There is a complex class structure which we learn about as our protagonist does, the guilds and history of the world around him often hang half finished allowing the reader to mentally complete the picture and even Severian’s own childhood is only hinted at as the narrative requires.
It is a series, which is slow and subtle, rich in detail rather than action and all the better for it. It is also Severian’s story own we are allowed into only via his recollections and thoughts. Many fantasy’s can be summed up easily, A fellowship must destroy a ring to save a world, Thomas Covenant must defeat Lord Foul to preserve the Land, this series of books is much more difficult to predict and is much more about the journey, a slow unravelling of information which follows the ethic of “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”
on 5 January 1999
The Book of The New Sun, of which this is the first, can be read on as many levels as you choose: as bizarre, outre genre fantasy; as Christian allegory/parable/fable; as bizarre, outre science fiction; as Literature (in the sense that Conrad's "The Secret Sharer" and "The Heart of Darkness" with their confessional aura and poignant glimpses into the human condition are Literature) . But, mainly, this series is just a fine, fine read, simply the best there is in SF and, I'd argue, the mainstream of Lit. Besides the beautiful first-person narration, full of intimations of immortality and forebodings of doom, told in that baroque, dolorous style Wolfe practically invented, and the well-drawn, resonant characters, and the great, action-oriented plot that impels you along with Severian in his backing into the Throne, you can frankly go as deep into this series as you want to. The multi-layered meanings and levels of allusion run that deep! Gene Wolfe is the best living writer of science fiction/fantasy in the world and, with this series, validates the entire genre! Journey with Severian, the naive torturer's apprentice and saviour of humanity, on an odyssey through a dying Urth so old that archaeology and commerce are the same thing, where high-born exultants eat the dead to gain their memories and overthrow the Autarch ("Ruler of Self"), who is the epitomy of human knowledge, all the emperors of Rome within one skull; where aliens wear alien masks underneath human masks, to frighten humanity back to its senses; where monsters appear as gods to prevent Severian from bringing the New Sun to reenervate the dying Old Sun; where, ultimately, Severian learns the true meaning of love and sacrifice! Read this one or remain impoverished beyond your darkest imaginings!
on 19 August 2016
Wow. I mean seriously... Wow. I am just beginning my second reading. Just a chapter in to that second time round and I am reeling at the dense web that I only tenuously grasped the first time round. I suspect that when I have finished I will want to give it more stars. Oh... I can't.
A week later.... Oh wow. But may I be rude? If you found this staid or slow, you need to go back to your Conan ( which by the way is.where I began ever reading) . This is as good as any writing gets. If you don't get this,u or can't set aside your genre prejudices, then you are blind to one of the greatest pieces of contemporary (how old am I?) writing there is. This is spiritual biography (maybe mine not Gene's). It is discursive philosophy; it is moral fable; it is a a book about books and writing. I can say this while also feeling/believing differently about the world than I think Wolfe does. But this is a book that allows. I hate organised religion and I am an apostate from Wolfe's faith- Catholicism. But if there could be such a thing as a Catholicism of imagination, then this is it. If you are bred in absolutes, moral truths and final meanings, and yet find them deeply suspect, this book is therapy - whatever you now believe or not. I have seen a quote from Wolfe which I now paraphrase badly (I cant be bothered to check and I do not have an eidetic memory): all great works of art come close to meaning the opposite of what they intend.
Read this book, or rather all four, and do not expect it to resolve. It's a matter of faith.
PS I read a line somewhere in the tetralogy and I swore blind it was a quote from Dante, so fantastic was it as a piece of poetry. I could not find in the Divine Comedy and finally had to conclude it really is Wolfe. That's how good this book is.
on 1 July 2012
Out of all of the editions to own, this might have the distinction of being the most garish cover, which is saying something given the cover art that has been on Claw paperbacks over the years... I have to say it doesn't really motivate me to buy this over the ebooks or the second-hand paperbacks -- had this been a beautiful book as well as a great text it would have been an instant buy.
If you are collecting the 50, this is an essential. It is one of the great sci-fi quadrilogies of the last century. Think of the wonders of Coleridge's Kubla Khan, add a dash of the quirkiness of Jack Vance, rewritten with the prose mastery of Dumas or Balzac. It is a grand vision that will transport you, whirling you away to the furthest ends of the earth on the wings of archons.
on 10 January 2002
I had recently finished reading Memory Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams and was on the prowl for another series of books to read. I had not heard fo Gene Wolfe, nor any of his books. It was Amazon.com and people who have placed lists of their favourite books, that informed me of Shadow and Claw. I read through the reviews and then placed an order for both halves of the book of the new sun.
I must confess that I was very confused when I started reading Shadow of the Torturer, since Severian was talking about people, places and events which had not been introduced. For exampe, when Severian talks about still being wet from the Gynoll. Being a bloke, I wanted everything to be nice and linear, which the chapters are but not the content of these chapters. You are often told about something at the beginning of a chapter and only actually told what this "thing" is at the end of the chapter. We are told later in the chapter or a subsequent chapter what the Gynoll actually is, and it is most innocent.
Furthering this point, as in mentioned in someone elses review, either on the UK or US Amazon site; Severian nearly drowns at the beginning of Shadow of the Torturer, and we are only told what actually happened near the end of the second book, The Claw of the Concilitator.
Due to this, and the fact that, as with most fantasy/Sci-fi novels, new terms are used/invented for normal day things; the first book is hard going. But stick with it, since it is one of the most captivating series I have read. I am currently half way through the City of the Autarch, the 4th and final volume in the book of the new sun, so unless it all goes horribly wrong, I will stand by my comment :o)
At times I have screamed at Severian, since he seems to not care about the women he travels with, yet at other times he does. But this just goes to show how todays morals and decent behavour, coupled with Severians upbringing, is different to what todays society deems acceptable...
on 4 January 1999
I've read a fair amount of science fiction and fantasy over the years, including all of the classics of "The Golden Age." It took me a long time to admit it, but this is the best of them all. This is the best science fiction book I have ever read.
In this book, Severian, apprentice in the Guild of Seekers for Truth and Penitence, is sent to the library of the Autarch, the ruler of the Commonwealth, for several books, and meets the head of the Librarian's Guild. This man explains how the Librarian's Guild attracts its apprentices. In each library is placed a copy of The Book of Gold, which attracts exactly those youths who will make good librarians. These children are taken into the guild. No apprentice can say, later, just what The Book of Gold is about. It is, simply, the most wonderful book in the world.
Wolfe has said that, for him, The Book of Gold (or one of them, anyway) was Jack Vance's book _The Dying Earth_. _The Book of the New Sun_, of which this book contains the first two of four volumes, is an homage, in large part, to _The Dying Earth_. _The Book of the New Sun_ is a story of the far future, when Earth's sun is dying, and all of the people with the inclination to do so have left the dying planet. This book is about the remaining inhabitants, both human and extra-human, and the world as it is left to them, and what is to become of it. It is also a book to give the old, tarnished word "redemption" a new lease on life. Wolfe is a practicing Catholic, but while this informs his viewpoint, this is not your average book of Christian allegory. It's a reworking of some elements found in the New Testament, and a lot of elements definitely not found there.
A lot of other words get a new lease on life too. Many other reviewers below seem to feel that some or all of the many difficult words in this book are made up. None are. Neither are any of the proper names. The quest to find them is a difficult one: just because a word is not found in the OED does not mean it is imaginary. The common noun "anpiel", for example, is drawn from the proper name "Anpiel", the name of the angel who takes care of birds...and I admit I had to write to Mr. Wolfe on my own to find this out.
But none of these amounts to a real reason to read these books. Read them, instead, to see how this kind of thing SHOULD be done: from the inside out, from a boy swimming in the river to the final alteration of the cycle of creation.
on 10 June 2014
This book (or books as it was Shadow and Claw) is often touted as one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time (it even says something along those lines on the cover). The author is also highly regarded by critics and has won many awards, so I thought that this may be a hidden gem. It isn't. There's a reason it is highly regarded by critics but virtually unknown to readers - it just isn't very interesting to read.
Wolfe's much lauded prose tries to be clever, it is deep and heavy going, but just lacks meaning; almost as if he has written it to keep the reader guessing as to what is going on. He may have gotten away with that, had there been an interesting story hidden behind the wordy prose. I have read many books that were tough to read, from The Last of the Mohicans and Frankenstein to After London (Wild England) and although the language was sometimes difficult to understand it was still accessible and interesting. But I found this book to be by far the least interesting. There is just nothing here that hooks the reader, indeed Wolf seems to go out of his way to make it hard for the reader to relate to the characters and events. He uses archaic words frequently which wouldn't be so bad (I have a dictionary) but he also uses made up words liberally and the difference isn't always clear if you come across a word you've never seen before. This and the prose that seemed full of words but light on content seems to distance the reader from the plot and the characters. As a reader and although the book is written in first person perspective you don't feel part of it, more a distant observer.
The characters were likewise lightweight. I honestly didn't care about any of them, they had no depth and nothing of any interest about them. The main character, Severian, occasionally elicited slight interest but as the plot never seemed to go anywhere that quickly evaporated. All the other characters seemed pretty pointless and two dimensional. Characters are introduced and discarded almost entirely at random, it is like a book made up almost entirely of cameos, they don't drive the plot in any way shape or form, they just appear to form sub-plot dead ends. I thought the story may pick up when Severian leaves the city, but it took him something like four or five days to actually leave the city. Nothing of any real interest occurred in those five days except an event that occurred when he was exiting through the gate, but Wolfe thought it best to skip that bit and only refer to it in the second book in passing comments.
Unfortunately that is how I found the whole book, a good premise and idea for a story but with all the interesting events, characters and plot lines removed and merely alluded to in the clever prose, leaving a catalogue of decidedly uninteresting events and many, many loose ends. I am sure that these are neatly tied up in the final two books, but I won't be finding out. I just didn't find the books humorous, gripping or interesting enough to read the next two.
I don't think I am alone in my thoughts on this book. Wolfe's writing style may be regarded as witty and clever by critics, but it is clearly the reason that he has never had much commercial success. Wolfe may very well be a great `author' but he is not a great storyteller. There are many far better Sci-Fi novels out there.
on 28 August 1999
The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun are two of the most beautiful, unremitting, and absolutely marvelous works of the twentieth century and that I have ever read. They represent one of the life's works of a master craftsman and I wholly endorse, indeed, beg your reading them without any reservation.
on 29 November 2014
I don't need many words to review The Book of the New Sun: simply brilliant.
You want more words? Best book of its decade, and in my personal all-time top ten.
My last words on this book? Fully fleshed-out characters, intriguing worldbuilding, compelling dialogues, intricate interweaving of character storylines, this has it all.
I wonder if Gene Wolfe ever considered following up on this masterwork; I'd buy it in a flash.