The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – review

Book Reviews

The Book of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe


The Book of the New Sun has achieved an almost tragic fame. Whilst this dense, labyrinthine four volume saga is widely judged to be the second greatest fantasy ever, it is also perceived to be so dense and so labyrinthine that it’s never really found the readership that it otherwise deserves – much to the chagrin of its adherents, to whom it is a genuine work of art and it’s author, moustachioed Texan septuagenarian Gene Wolfe, an unrecognised genius.

Set a million years in the future, in the crimson light of a dying sun, the Earth, now known as Urth, has past through ages of technological advancement and whole eras of astral empire only to collapse back into a pseudo-medieval world, her resources spent, her societies and nation clinging like weeds to futuristic ruins.

The Book of the New Sun is presented as the translated autobiography of Severian, an apprentice to the guild of torturers and executioners. Raised within the dark decaying confines of the guild’s tower in the decrepit citadel of the sprawling city of Nessus, he has had a cloistered upbringing. Taught little more than the arts of execution and excruciation he nevertheless begins to cultivate a strange humanity, tending for an injured dog and showing mercy, of a kind, to a beguiling prisoner. For this he is exiled and sent to practice his profession in some far flung town.

Clad in the guild’s customary fuligin – the colour darker than black – Severian is naturally feared and despised outside the citadel, save where an executioner is needed. Some see him as a harbinger of death, other prey on his naivety; he is a weird companion on our journey into a weird world, riven with political upheaval and religious fervour.

This is a world where things are rarely what they seem; one of swords and shields and energy weapons; of cavalry charges on genetically modified horses; of Lords presiding over courts of cloned concubines and coy aliens. Many of Earth’s indigenous species have been replaced by fantastical extraterrestrials, so poorly understood they become, in essence, magical creatures. We come across fragments of a past super science that the inhabitants of Urth can only assimilate as magical artefacts.

Whenever we’re in danger of assuming that this is just your standard fantasy, Wolfe will hint at the true origins of these creatures or objects. Yet they remain so astonishing, so laden with symbolism that none of the wonder is lost. Instead we are to re-orientate ourselves in world of ever deepening complexity. Even the more mundane features of Urth have the capacity to catch the mind and blow it open, such as the realisation that the sand on a beach is actually polychromatic, particles of coloured glass washed from the wreckage that lines the oceans.

Sometimes his clues are subtle. Many readers will miss, for example, that when Severian is studying an image of a lone soldier holding a flag, he is actually looking at a picture of an Apollo astronaut on the moon. On top of this there’s even a layer of textual intrigue when Wolfe, in his role as translator of Severian’s account, tells us that he has used obscure or archaic terminology to describe unfamiliar objects. Unlike in a tradition fantasy work, Wolfe has not created a single word. Thus the entire book is, in a sense, an approximation. It pays to read with a dictionary at hand – which may sound like a bad thing but it somehow makes The Book of the New Sun more involving, adds to our ever-shifting perception of the story.

If Wolfe’s Urth continually confounds expectations, so does his narrative. Severian’s first real act is to impetuously save the life of Vodalus, a mysterious Robin Hood figure aspiring to restore mankind to the stars and engaged in rebellion against their commonwealth’s ruler, the Autarch. But this is no story of insurrection. By the time Severian meets Vodalus again, midway through the second book, he has grown out of his youthful infatuation and is ambivalent towards their struggle. Then, even later, we’ll realise that the encounter with Vodalus actually blinded us to something more significant.

The Book of the New Sun is sometimes accused of being slow moving and at times like this you can see why. Tantalising narrative strands are offered up which either go nowhere or play our much later and not in the way we would have expected. After his exile Severian is blown, leaf-like, from place to place, event to event, with plenty of rhyme but little obvious reason. It can begin to feel like a scattergun approach; new characters appear, sometimes out of thin air, with little explanation; Severian might suddenly be challenged to a duel, which starts a new chain of events, until he is suddenly roped into acting in a play.

This would be a problem were these twists and turns not so much fun. Wolfe’s characters burgeon with possibilities and their interactions with Severian, who is essentially good natured if prone to unintentional callousness and bouts of pontificating, pulse with menace, humour or sexual frisson. The preparation for his bizarre duel (‘I had difficulty in taking serious a combat fought with flowers.’) involves numerous detours but the story never drags. Then to have Severian take part in some street theatre might seem not only implausible but anticlimactic, yet it’s utterly engrossing. Through it we begin to see that the wandering is the thing.

Inevitably, Severian is pulled into war. Like Tolkien before him, Wolfe’s own wartime experiences, as a G.I. in Korea, inform his combat scenes – a heady mix of gritty authenticity and surrealism, ‘When they drew nearer I saw they were nothing so romantic: merely small men – Dwarves, in fact – upon the shoulders of very tall ones.’ Yet as the saga’s themes fall into place these worldly events become of secondary importance. The question of why Urth is dying, why humanity can no longer traverse the stars and what the future holds, hinges not on battles or heroism but on the nature of mankind itself.

Thus the meandering journey becomes one of exploration with an increasingly spiritual, quasi-religious bent. Severian comes into possession of the Claw of the Conciliator, a relic of a Christ-like figure from Urth’s distant past who is fated to revive the dying sun. As he finds himself following in the Conciliator’s footsteps, with the claw apparently able to heal the sick and resurrect the dead, he must come to terms with his role as both torturer and saviour and whether they are one and the same. This could have descended into a trite analysis of the human condition but in a world where beings can alter their genetics and artificially prolong their lives in a variety of gruesome ways the issue is never less than pressing, and is usually profound. ‘That we are only capable of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin.’

At this point it seems fitting to mention the sex. For all it’s philosophical and literary depth this is also a very sexy book. Severian manages to copulate with almost every other woman he meets. At first I took this as clichéd, though effective, fantasy eroticism, a la Conan and its imitators. Once I began to respect the book I supposed it to be a natural reaction to the end of days. By the end I was scouring these scenes looking for deeper meaning. This, I think, is the essence of the book, it’s multilayered in almost every conceivable way and every level offers something to marvel at, delight in or ponder over.

It’s impossible to properly convey the scope of The Book of the Sun in a review like this, especially when anxious not to spoil anything – not just plot elements, how you come to interpret the book will change as you read and is as much a part of the experience. There are so many more things that could be mentioned: the fiction within fiction; the use of religious, mythical and literary imagery; the extent to which Severian is a reliable narrator; the skill of and verve of Wolfe’s writing – more than one thesis has been written on his work. Yet despite its complexities this is still an epic adventure story with enough buoyancy to support the casual reader. It can easily be enjoyed without that dictionary at hand. The chances are though you will want to explore this book’s depths and, like the best fantasy, it is an ocean.

At the behest of his publisher Wolfe wrote a sequel, more a coda, called The Urth of the New Sun. Many of the mysteries are elucidated and questions answered… supposedly. When I read it I will probably write a spoiler heavy, blog-style review of the sagas themes and such.