My reading challenge stalled out for a bit as I tried to make my way through #87, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. This entry was originally published as 4 novels in 1980-83. The kindle versions I found split the collection into 2 parts, so this review will only focus on the first two “books”.
This story follows Severian, a member of the Torturers’ Guild in a far-future Earth. When I first read that description, it turned me off of the story very quickly, but the Torturers’ Guild was more interesting than I gave it credit for. Yes, they do in fact torture people, as well as acting as jailers and executioners as part of the justice system of their future world. However, they have a professionalism and a moral code that makes their profession seem tolerable enough to me as a reader to at least engage with the story. They have a job to do and they do it, and you don’t get the sense that they are enjoying the suffering of their “clients”.
The first book, The Shadow of the Torturer, shows us Severian as he is finishing his training, entering full membership in the Guild, and eventually being disgraced and cast out from their tower. His disgrace is due to his strange loyalty to Vodalus, a revolutionary he encounters at the beginning of the story. That loyalty gets him entangled with Thecla, one of the Guild’s clients and the sister of Vodalus’ lover. Rather than let Thecla’s full sentence be carried out, Severian gives her a knife so she can kill herself quickly. Instead of being tortured and killed himself as he expects, Severian is cast out, given a sword and an assignment as executioner in a faraway city.
The rest of the book follows Severian’s journey from the Guild tower to the outskirts of Nessus, highlighting the city’s sprawl, some of the people who live there, and the general state of the world. Under the light of the dying sun we see a world that obviously used to be beautiful and almost magical which has now faded into decay. Places like the botanical gardens give hints about how magnificent things could have been, but most of the city feels more medieval than futuristic. Through this part of the story, other characters move through Severian’s orbit like in a dream, helped along with fantastic images like a duel to the death with meters-high poison flowers. Just when you think he has a fixed set of companions, they are separated in the chaos of the tunnel exiting the city, and the book abruptly ends.
I enjoyed the first book quite a bit, and on its own I would probably rate it 4/5 stars. Unfortunately the second book lost me, and it is the reason why it’s taken longer than usual to make it through this book challenge entry. In some ways the second book had more narrative cohesion than the second half of the first book. Severian has one constant companion, Jonas, for most of this story. He gets to meet Vodalus again at last, and enters his service. And he gets to enter the House Absolute, the seat of power of the ruler of this land. The plot still staggered around strangely like the first book, but large chunks of it lacked the dreamy quality that made it work so well the first time, and dragged a bit in a few places. After the second abrupt ending I was not compelled to keep reading and decided to call it quits for now instead of buying the second half.
There’s a definite sense of deeper meanings being written into this work, of allegory and rebirth and redemption. A great deal of that is probably lost without seeing how the next two books turn out. Like a book you’ve been assigned in a literature class, I can see the author is trying to impart more layers to this story but my brain steadfastly refuses to comprehend them unless I take the time to step away for a while to give it more thought. Unlike the Elric stories, which I really want to get back to once I finish this challenge, the underlying story here is less coherent, and I think I’m content to abandon this one. I do suspect that it probably does get better again, as all the dangling threads start getting tied up and those deeper meanings become clearer. If you’ve finished it and enjoyed it I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how book 2 compares to the later ones.
TL;DR: It had some interesting ideas but the plot slowed down and it lost my attention in the second book.
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
Rating: 3/5 stars
Verdict: Evocative writing and ideas but it couldn’t sustain the story long enough. Still worth checking out but be prepared to set it down if it’s not for you.
Next up: The Codex Alera Series by Jim Butcher