There is something to be said about an author that Neil Gaiman, arguably one of the best writers of fantasy fiction alive today, calls the “greatest living fantasy writer.” And when that author writes what is considered to be his magnum opus, what is there to say about that? If you listen to other critics, you hear things like “Fantasy’s Ulysses” or the best book by “Our Melville”. Yet if such a book is so amazing that Ursula K. Le Guin gushes about it, why isn’t it a best seller like Sandman or Lord of the Rings? Such was the dilemma when I picked up The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Highly praised does not always equal very good. Would this monster of a book live up to expectations?

A few years ago, when Borders was still a thing, I was in said store with a friend of mine who has read his weight in sci-fi and fantasy books. I asked him, “Of all these books on this shelf, are there any that you think I would like knowing my strange tastes?” I had just had a terrible bout of reading fantasy fiction at the time, having just tried reading The Summoner by Gail Z Martain, a terribly boring and predictable book that had high praise. He pointed at a set of two books, the bound collections of the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun. I gave a cursory glance at the back of the first book and noted that most of it was covered with glowing praise for Wolfe and the book, comparing it to the major works of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Only a few lines said anything about the content of the first two volumes contained in the first book at all. “An epic tale of a torturer named Severian who is exiled for showing mercy to his victim,” it said about the first volume The Shadow of the Torturer. “A banished Severian undertakes a quest to discover the power of an ancient relic and learn about his destiny,” it said about The Claw of the Conciliator. Warily, I follows my friend’s advice and bought both collections.

Spoilers: His destiny is on the cover

It’s odd now that I think about it. At the time, I had been dismayed about how little was said about the book on its back cover. Having now read the four volumes of New Sun, I can now honestly understand why that’s about all you can say about them. There is so little and yet so much you can tell others about this massive tome. The plot is actually quite simple. Severian is a torturer in a guild of torturers living in the city of Nessus, a major city on the planet of Urth, the planet Earth a million years in the future where the sun is dying quickly. One day he saves the life of a grave robber outside his tower and become enamored with finding out more about the man, discovering later that he is the chief rebel of the empire. He then goes on to fall in love with one of the “clients” of his guild and allows her to kill herself rather than watch her suffer further. For this he is cast out of the guild. Severian then sets out on a journey out of the city, but before he leaves he falls into the possession of a sacred gem of power. From there he travels the world meeting strange people, getting into trouble, and bedding all of the women he meets before he discovers his destiny and the meaning of his life.

Trying to summarize the plot of New Sun is a lot like trying to summarize all of the Lord of the Rings: you can do it, but it either won’t give the book any justice or you’ll end up writing a book yourself. So many things happen to Severian, he encounters so many people and places, it is hard to decide which are important and which are not. So I hope you will forgive me if I don’t go into much detail about specifics.

New Sun is written in first person from Severian’s perspective throughout the entirety of the book. In fact, the whole account is his retelling of his life under the guise that Wolfe found this tome and translated it for modern-day peoples. Severian claims to have eidetic memory such that he has never forgotten anything in his life since childhood and as such, lets us read along as he takes us from his tower and youth to his tower and ultimate destiny. There are times when he foreshadows events later in his life, adding deeper meaning to whatever event he is currently describing. There are times when you question his memory and him as a man. There are times, and they are numerous, when you wonder if Severian is just a big jerk, especially when it comes to women.

Lllllllllladies

The Book of the New sun is also probably the first book in which I have seen what is commonly known as “world building” actually work. The same friend as before has suggested to me several sci-fi or fantasy books in which the author has tried to “world build” or create a world for the characters with its own history, places, cultures, customs, languages, etc and then writes about his characters in this world of his. These works tend to be quite long and involve the author using the characters to show his readers what a clever sod he is. In New Sun, the Earth is a million years in the future, most of humanity has left it millennia ago, the sun is dying and growing dim and cold, and yet there humanity lingers with all that implies. In short, Wolfe could have used Severian to show us how the world will look in that bleak time and how he as an author sees us ending up. Of course, to some extent that is true, but we really only see what Severian sees. We only understand what Severian understands (and he’s not the most clever man). In fact, there is much about this future world and all its intricacies that is left unexplained. We can speculate about what it is Severian has seen, “maybe it was a space ship” or “that was a teleporter” but all we get is “I left the tower” or “he stepped through that mirror and I was to ever see him again”. Then again, the scenes are so immersive that you may not even realize there are things to be discovered within them. “Oh, yes,” you might say, “that is obviously a phaser, but the forest Wolfe just painted is so amazingly gorgeous and I can smell the same as Severian does that I don’t really care.” Such is Wolfe’s world building.

You are treated to scenes like this.

New Sun is also chock-full of allegory. Wolfe was personally going through a conversion as he was wiring the four volumes of New Sun to Catholicism. Very few sci-fi fantasy writers that I know of even bother with discussing religion, at least in any way that isn’t “and then religion was stupid so no one did it anymore”. Aside from a couple, Tolkien and Lewis, I can’t really think of any in the last century. Wolfe follows Tolkien in this respect. His religion does not play much in the book until the latter half of the second volume, when Severian starts asking some philosophical questions. Later, in the third volume, is when Wolfe’s allegorical muscles work their magic. Suddenly you realize that everything in the book has had some religious or philosophical meaning, that the religions that are alive in Severian’s future are very much similar to our Christianity and secularism today. By the fourth volume, the allegory becomes the story, everything weaving together into Serverian’s destiny. This is, of course, not to say it is like Lewis. The overtones are completely ignorance if you know next to nothing about Catholicism or sacraments. You probably wouldn’t even notice them until someone pointed them out (sorry). But as soon as they are discovered, you find so much depth and substance that it is hard to absorb it all in one reading.

“Yes yes,” I hear you say, “you are heaping praise on it like those critics, but is it good?” That is a tough nut to crack. Having read all the volumes now, I can say, unequivocally, “Yes!” The caveat here is that you have to read all of it. The first book is where people have problems. When viewed as a single book, there’s not a lot of problem. THe first fourth of the book is the set up, the initial building of Serverian as a person. When views as the four volumes it is, you run into “the first book is boring and nothing happens.” This is unfortunately true. The excitement of the entire work is on a curve that slopes up until the end, lingering towards zero until the second volume. So if you are looking for swashbuckling and space battles, you aren’t going to enjoy it much I am afraid. If you are looking for the best world building exercise in modern literature and a deep introspection into humanity while on a hero’s journey with the protagonist, then you are in for a real gem.

Overall, The Book of the New Sun is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it can be dull at times. However, the payoff is living in a world that is your own and yet fantastical, living in the shoes of the most unlikely of heroes, discovering deep questions that linger and have linger and will linger still about our place in the universe and amongst each other. In short, if there is to be a work of fiction that should be called the fantasy masterpiece of our time, The Book of the New Sun is it.

Rating: ★★★★★

 

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