Review: The Book of the New Sun

No spoilers.

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun was published in four parts, as The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch. It tells the story of Severian, an apprentice of the torturers' guild, who undertakes a long and undulating journey through the bizarre lands of Urth. Totalling a little over 1000 pages, the books are written in the style of a memoir with a notoriously unreliable narration.

The story is about many things, but what I noticed most of all were compelling ideas about memory, truth, identity, and time. Right from the start, Severian claims to have a perfect memory, but does he really recall everything as they were? If not, is he lying to us? This is a sticking point for most readers, and, combined with some crazy warping of identity and time, makes for a marvellously disorienting and psychedelic experience.

The Book of the New Sun doesn't seem to be discussed much outside of a few enclaves of hardcore SF/F readers, probably due to its reputation of being dense, labyrinthine, and outright incomprehensible at times. Characters are often described as one-dimensional and bewildering, and the plot, when it can be followed, as one of many straightforward instances of the hero's journey. Fairly or otherwise, Wolfe has earned comparisons to Melville and Joyce.

There is truth in all that has been said, but my experience as someone who hasn't read any Gene Wolfe—or much SF/F, for that matter—has been overwhelmingly positive. I felt lost, enthralled, frustrated, and repulsed, often all at once. I was shocked to realise I'd finished the whole thing in two weeks.

These books are frequently described as literary puzzles; in order to make any sense of the story, one must presumably analyse every word in painstaking detail, cross-reference them with musty lexicons, and take copious notes, preferably on a Crazy Wall. This is a gross exaggeration. While Wolfe peppers his story with many, many archaic terms, the surface plot is easy to follow, and most events are eventually explained by Severian. The story as told by Severian is enjoyable on its own, but when you notice glaring inconsistencies and unspoken details, you start to pay closer attention and peer between the lines. Some books need to be re-read to be enjoyed, but this isn't one of them. If you re-read this, it's only because you already like it enough on the first time to dive in and discover all the nitty-gritty details you missed.

The prose itself is elegant but simple, and the archaic words lend their own distinctive charm. Many of them are taken straight from ancient Greek, and they say a lot about the Urth of Severian's era. I got the impression that none of the words are made up, and even the ones that don't appear in standard dictionaries have clear roots in the languages and mythologies of our own world. The Lexicon Urthus is a valuable supplement with definitions for these obscure words, but it also contains spoilers, which may not be ideal on a first read; I found a simple Google search to suffice whenever I was desperate to look up a particular term.

I was hooked from the beginning by the unique setting. The lines between fantasy and sci-fi are blurry at best here, if they even exist. While this kind of science fantasy setting isn't uncommon, it's so seamless and authentic that it feels like a living, breathing world that we've been dropped into. The atmosphere is hauntingly beautiful, with lush and vivid scenery belying a sense of decay and finality. The series is sometimes compared to Dark Souls, not just in storytelling style, but also in terms of ambience and tone.

Perhaps more difficult for me than the archaic terminology and obtuse narration was Severian's misogyny. It's important to distinguish between the author and their characters, and I also know nothing about Wolfe's personal views in this matter. However, that doesn't make it easier to read about Severian's reprehensible thoughts and actions towards the women he encounters. I say this not to criticise, but to give any potential readers fair warning, because while the misogyny isn't very graphic, it rears its ugly head throughout all four parts of the story.

That aside, it's clear that Severian is a complex and layered character whose narration colours the entire story, and isn't necessarily a hero we should root for, insofar as there are heroes in this story. I found the other characters equally intriguing and even more enigmatic, and it's a real joy to puzzle out their backstories and motivations.

Some advice from a first-time reader of The Book of the New Sun to potential readers: don't worry about missing details. The story holds up really well even if you don't spot them all. Be patient, and most questions will be answered in time. It's easy to put down the book for a while and pick it up again, thanks to the short chapters. This series is divisive and isn't for everyone. Despite loving it, it has also been a somewhat exhausting experience. I highly recommend trying Shadow and finishing at least that; if you dislike it, it's safe to say you wouldn't enjoy the rest of The Book of the New Sun.

Whilst I take a break from Gene Wolfe, I plan to check out the subreddit and the Alzabo Soup podcast, which I've had to force myself to stay away from in fear of spoilers. I haven't fallen down a rabbit hole this deep in a while.

Note: I've also posted brief, spoiler-free thoughts on Shadow, Claw, and Sword if you want to check them out.

Day 20 of #100DaysToOffload

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