The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm going to review the entire Book of the New Sun series here, rather than split the reviews up between the volumes.
Other people have said that The Book of the New Sun is like nothing they’ve ever read. That’s nearly true, for me, but Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota (for which she cites Gene Wolfe as an inspiration) is remarkably similar in quite a few ways. Both four-volume series feature suspiciously unreliable narrators who know much more about their world than they’re telling us (and can’t seem to report the facts quite accurately anyhow). Both are masterworks about a wondrous future where humanity is striving for the stars. And both deal with the potential of having religion revealed and a vessel of a god working godly powers upon the Earth. Or Urth. I found myself trying to talk about BotNS and slipping into theories about Mycroft’s past in Terra Ignota. I’m struggling to articulate the philosophical similarities, but there are discussions to be had about the nature of god and identity and goodness in both, and I would love to have read/re-read these as a paired set for a course or book club. For now, I will review BotNS on its own terms (as much as I can).
Severian lies. That’s the first thing I ever heard about this book. I’d heard it was great, I even knew Palmer had named it as one of her influences, but the first specific fact about the content of the book was that Severian lies. Apparently, there is some debate about this fact. I am inclined to think that those who believe Severian does not lie are extremely literal-minded sociopaths. Somewhat like Severian himself! Severian tells us perhaps in the first few pages that his memory is perfect. He can recall any memory and relive it like it is happening just now in front of him, and says in fact that is what he is doing, as he is writing this chronicle to his reader (or Reader, as Mycroft would say). We’ll see about that.
He is a student of the Guild of the Seekers for Penitence and Truth when the book begins. A torturer, in other words. Shadow of the Torturer, the first book, is structured like the beginnings of a bildungsroman. Severian grows up, becomes a journeyman, meets a lady. He leaves the guild to take on a new role, meets another lady and then another lady, and gets into a swordfight but with plants instead of swords. He thinks a great deal about his ladies and whether he loves them. In many ways, the first book sets you up to expect a fairly traditional fantasy story with some occasional weird window dressing, then ends just when your epic fantasy novel would start to pick up.
If the first book cuts off its story arc midway, the second, Claw of the Conciliator has no real arc at all. Severian wanders into and out of various situations with no real direction or sense of how his own story is building - even as he narrates it to us. He is still generally making his way to his new post, with many detours and no sense of urgency. He gets there by the third book, Sword of the Lictor, which also has him wandering - but with much more self-direction, and it feels like the book is telling one singular story of a journey rather than some stuff a guy did on a road trip. He is still uncertain about some fundamental facts of the world (and the reader is even more so). The second and third books are both chock full of atmosphere and worldbuilding and fascinating vignettes and characters, but the second feels directionless in the whole, and even after reading book three I was not sure I’d like the overall series unless the fourth book brought the whole thing together for me, and it would have to do a whole lot of work to make that happen.
Citadel of the Autarch, book four, did an impressive amount of work without making it look like work at all. Severian, and more importantly, the reader, finally has enough information about the world to make some informed decisions and/or guesses. I would say that the shape of the series becomes clear in retrospect, but it would be more accurate to say that some of the many shapes the series could possibly be are visible but still distant beyond a hazy fog. Part of what many people love about the Book of the New Sun is that it’s a puzzle. People like who like to solve puzzles seem to obsess over the book, but this one is one that isn’t meant to be solved. It’s supposed to be turned over, prodded, combed through, dis- and re-assembled. Lots of the pieces fit into many slots. There are pieces leftover that still fit in the puzzle somehow, just not in it, y’know.
The best parts of the books are just how strange this world is. Set maybe a million years in the future, told in the style of an epic fantasy, following a totally-truthful liar who knows nothing about the world beyond his towers and who witnesses some of the strangest bits of his Urth’s locales and peoples.
I don’t think anyone volume of the series could satisfy a reader, and I’m not sure even one reading of the whole series has satisfied me. There’s a “coda” in the form of another novel, Book of the New Earth, and I think it would take several (re-)readings of all five books to even approach satisfaction. It has definitely engaged me, though, and it was worth it to read all four, despite my doubts.
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