on 20 April 2000
At one time it was common to see some run of the mill fantasy author lauded as the "the new Tolkien", either in magazine reviews or, modestly, on his or her own book jacket. Almost invariably, however, the novels themselves were disappointing parodies or imitations of Tolkien and a few other good fantasy and SF authors, lacking in originality, literary flare and, perhaps most importantly, any sense of place and atmosphere in the worlds they imagined.
Where all these writers failed Gene Wolfe, in his four part "Book of the New Sun" succeeded majestically. Although the book is in some senses clearly derivative of other SF works, most notably Jack Vance's "Dying Earth Series, Wolfe draws largely on classical history to and mythology to create and boundlessly vast world that is all the more mysterious and fascinating for the fact that it is almost as strange and new to Wolfe's hero, Severian, as it is to the reader.
Expelled from his place amongst the Guild of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence (commonly "The Torturers") Severian is obliged to travel on foot to his place of exile. The journey is his first time away from the citadel at the centre of the colossal but decaying metropolis Nessus (Rome, Contantinople?). The reader, therefore, has the chance to discover the world (Earth many millennia in the future) with the books protagonist. The result is a layering of reality not unlike that achieved by Ridley Scott in his early films, most notably Blade Runner. The universe of the story is not composed of a few truths and verities that are presented to reader as cast in stone. As in our own world room is left for varying shade of opinion and perception, distortion, half truths and half remembered truths. Reading the book Severian's world and its inner logic seems to the reader to become more tangible than his or her own.
It is precisely here that Wolfe suceeds were so many other fantasy and science fantasy authors have failed. In creating a world that is nothing like Tolkien's but has a firm basis in layers of history, mythology and in Wolfe's own imagination, the writer comes closer than any other author (certainly any author I've read) in crafting a novel comparable to Tolkien's precisely because of it is nothing like anything that Tolkien wrote, except in the quality of Wolfe's writing, the breadth of his sources and the sweep of his imagination.
If you like good fantasy read this book. Even if you don't normally like fantasy but are enjoy history, myth or simply captivatingly good writing, read this book. In general, just read this book!
on 9 August 2001
I bought this book on the strength of the number of five start ratings and the praises from worthy names in the SF/Fantasy field. Well, wasn't I suckered by the hype! Yes, this book is well written, (although Wolfe's style can be confusing at times), and evidently has all the ingredients for a fantasy fable with real depth and character, but, for all the literary allusions and subtleties of plot, I increasingly found it difficult sustain interest in Severian and his adventures. Characters, though well drawn, just seem to pop up in the most bizarre situations and then leave, whilst the stoic Severian continues on his almost aimless wanderings. The book often heads off on philosophical tangents, or spends inordinate time on the most trivial detail. I do not know how this can be compared to Tolkien's Ring trilogy, and the allusion is very deceptive. I found these first two books very heavy going, but I will endeavor to finish the saga in the hope that Severian redeems himself. Three stars for originality only.
on 16 May 2000
This is a great book, but I'm not sure if it can really be described as fantasy. For me it works precisely because it is SF. If part of the aim in sci-fi is to do new and surprising things then Wolfe succeeds big time. His genius is in rendering the (extremely) far-future totally convincing, and paradoxically this is acheived by making it utterly alien. Where most SF basically transfers our own concerns into a technologically or socially 'advanced' society, Wolfe makes Severian and his world virtually incomprehensible. At various points in the novel space and time travel, teleportation, genetic engineering and biomechanics all feature, but they are all depicted as ancient, decaying and irrelevant. Furthermore, Wolfe fills the text with half remembered myths and historical misinterpretations from our own age and the millenia which have followed. Attempting to work out the possible source of these stories, and solving the other mysteries of the text, is great, and turns the reader into a kind of textual detective.
On the downside, the sheer 'strangeness' of this future can be quite offputting, as can Wolfe's laboured use of language. While both of these factors are vital to the novel's structure, they do take a bit of getting used to...
on 10 August 2009
Maybe this negative review is a reflection of the readers abilities?
Its difficult to be critical of a work that has received as many accolades as this one, but here goes.....
I found the authors prose and style frustrating. I found his depictions of people and places vague at best.
I didnt find myself understanding/empathising/ disliking or relating to the protagonists in any way.
At best dull. At worst? Perhaps the fault lies with me.
After finishing the book I decided it must be re read at a later date to reach the same conclusions as others who labelled this a masterpiece.
Sadly on second reading I abandoned the book halfway and reached the same conclusion as the first time
And while the protagonist may have embarked on a journey, as the reader I was left behind and disinterested
Why cant I see what others see in this?
on 21 June 2013
Recently voted the best fantasy book ever after The lord of the rings, and the Hobbit.
Well, I beg to differ. It's always amazed me why Tolkien gets such an easy ride. At their heart, his books are conservative, contain stilted passages, and yet, many people would have us believe that fantasy begins and ends with Tolkien.
And for a while, you believe it. The first fantasy books that most people read are Tolkien's works. And then you stumble upon Gene Wolf and the contrast is like night and day. Like Michael Moorcock, Wolf's books are packed full of ambition and ideas. Rich in imaginative imagery, they can with some justification be called epic fantasy. It doesn't always work, but by god you're glad they tried.
on 3 January 2008
I was generally quite disappointed with this book, finding that although many of the characters seemed rather interesting, the complete lack of coherence in the storytelling made getting to know them incredibly difficult, with Severian gaining and losing travelling companions entirely without explanation or mention, and entering and leaving situations in exactly the same manner.
I suppose I should have expected this, having read 'The Wizard Knight', in which sudden jumps in the timeline of the story aren't explained until much, much later, but I was hoping that this had been a more recent affectation - and I was proven disappintingly wrong in 'the book of the new sun'.
I haven't even read the second half of the series yet - and I didn't find myself sufficiently drawn in in the first half to give me any motivation to do so at all.
on 30 June 2005
From what I've read so far of 'The Book of the New Sun' tetralogy (i.e., this ;)), Wolfe deserves at least a part of his considerable acclaim. He expertly lays out his rather gothic, intricately detailed scenes, and proceeds to fill them with a plethora of characters. Some of these characters will only appear in a single chapter or two, but Wolfe is always careful to clearly delineate each creation, pumping them full of personality and luscious description that fills the words with vivid physicality. The plot can occasionally appear a bit unconnected, and Wolfe is prone to philosophical flights of fancy that don't always fit with the picture of the character he has built up, but any failings are more than made up for atmospherically. It is in this that Wolfe excels - his world is immersive, outlandish, but consistently engaging. He is also highly inventive, producing streams of neologisms as well as reviving medieval terminology (e.g., 'leman', 'destrier'), which provides a certain degree of archaic authenticity to Wolfe's world of Urth. As this is also intended to be Earth, but a million years in the future, that authenticity is especially well applied. My one problem with is that, in this volume, Wolfe is somewhat conventional in his treatment of women; he tends to use them to decorate his text rather than engage fully into an investigation of gender issues. The female characters are invariably attractive, and almost always attracted to his main character, Severian. Still, this one chauvinistic failing aside, 'The Shadow of the Torturer' (first of the two books included in this volume) is a rewarding piece of fiction.
This second volume in the tetralogy, 'The Claw of the Conciliator', has many of the strengths of its predecessor, but also some weaknesses. In particular, the chapters in which Wolfe attempts stylistic and structural innovation, such as his play and 'extract', fall short of his usual writing. Of course, that still means falling short of a rather high standard, so while these sections are less enjoyable than others, they still manage to expand Wolfe's New Sun mythos. The narrative also continues the occasionally disconnected sensation prevalent in the first, which is a part of Wolfe's style, albeit one which can be confusing when the jump-cuts follow in quick succession. This is noticeable at the beginning of the second book, where it takes a while to establish a connection with the end of Wolfe's previous work, 'The Shadow of the Torturer'. One point of special interest is Wolfe's greater emphasis on science fiction elements, though these are cleverly interwoven with the fantasy milieu in a way that doesn't jar. Hence the reason these books are categorised as science fantasy rather than either one or the other genre.
on 25 February 2002
Having been introduced to the book of the New Sun several years ago, it was great to be able to buy the series and re-read and re-read again! The story of Severian is one that gives you the feeling that you are only ever hearing a small part of it, and to me this only enhances the biblical nature of the book. On every reading I have discovered more connections and hidden meanings, and all this book has ever done is make me think, think, think !!
The language with its archaic and cabalistic vocabulary may appear daunting at the beginning, but truly this only adds to the colour of the story. Wolfe adds many anecdotes, fables etc. and again this adds to the impression that this book is not just a fantasy story but a collection of myths from the end of the world and the biased and all-too human story of a man, written by himself and cast into space-time ! This makes for a truly cosmic plot that links science, religion and myth. The amount of philosophy in the story is also terrific, giving the book a real literary and intelligent edge, something which a book from the same series (Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth) severely lacks. Severian is such a complex character ( if you read you will know why ! ) but he always suffers from human failings and is as much a true anti-hero as the likes of Elric. From this perspective The Book of the New Sun should be likened a lot more to Elric's story than to the LOTR. The overall impression left on me by this book is one of mystery and magic on a cosmic scale, and omissions (such as the fight at the wall and the identity of the mausoleum owner etc.)
only add to the mystery of the story. This is truly a masterful work of Sci-fi and of Literature. As a final word, the 5th book of the series, The Urth of the New Sun, although given mixed reviews, to me is a worthy sequel, adding spirituality to Severian's story, tying up loose ends and giving a more cosmic perspective.
If you are expecting another LOTR you are sure to be disappointed, but if a mysterious and sometimes mystifying read is what you are after this is it !
on 14 January 2010
I'm quite amazed at the amount of negative reviews on here. I can only think it's because the average reader of fantasy isn't particularly discerning (evident given the best-sellers) or intelligent, and is upset at the least difficulty in reading a book. I will state this now: The Book of the New Sun is not an easy book that offers simple resolutions. It's a difficult text both in terms of language (which is often densely poetic and allusive) and plot (which resembles modernist writers perhaps more than it does the average fantasy text). If you're expecting to read a stereotypical fantasy novel, avoid it: it's not typical to the genre at all. If you want to read something that's beautiful, challenging, and for many people life-changing, then I recommend it highly. There's as much philosophy and psychology in here as 'plot', and that's what seems to have turned the majority of people here off it.
on 7 August 2014
On the surface, this book should have become a favourite of mine - I'm a big fan of distant future epics (a la Silverberg or Vance) and the premise of a professional torturer as the main character seemed intriguing.
Sadly, after plowing my way through it twice, I still can't see what all the hype is about. The first few chapters are actually rather gripping, but the blurb's promise of a vast, cosmic epic with philosophical overtones soon boils down to a meandering plot that doesn't go anywhere, with lots of navel-gazing and trite ruminations about time and mortality thrown in that utterly destroy the flow of the story. Characters appear and disappear at random, subplots are started and left hanging, and it's almost impossible to feel any interest in - leave alone empathy with - any of the characters.
The setting also feels underdeveloped. For me, the appeal of distant future fiction lies in seeing Earth as we know it changed and transfigured almost (but not quite) beyond recognition - and to look back to our own age through the eyes of the characters, who can only see it through the distorting lens of thousands (or even millions) of years. It's all about finding a delicate balance between the familiar and the uncanny - sadly, I have found very little of this in this book. References to ages past and forgotten are made, but not fleshed out enough to provide any real sense of wonder - Lovecraft's short story "Till a' the seas" delivers more of it in its scant five pages than Wolfe's book does in its five hundred.
Unlike other reviewers, I actually liked the writing style - at first. Wolfe obviously knows his Thesaurus and has no qualms showing it. The massive use of archaic and literary terms is probably meant to add to the whole idea of "antiquity in the future" - it could have worked out wonderfully with a properly developed setting and storyline. Unfortunately, as there isn't much of either, it soon starts to feel contrived and only makes the reading more awkward.
I can't give the book one star as there are good ideas and intriguing scenes scattered throughout, but the impression I'm left with is of an over-ambitious failure.
Anyone looking for engaging, sense-of-wonder-filled visions of the Earth's far future would better check out the works of Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance, Clifford D Simak and Arthur C Clarke, just to name a few, and give this stuff a pass.