Last year, I wrote a review of Ursula Le Guin’s oeuvre in a local newspaper as a sort of memorial to her. My love for her works truly knows no bounds. She gave us all texts to hold dear to our hearts and against which to judge the rest of sci-fi for years to come. In terms of acting as a transitory figure between old sci-fi and our modern moment, there is no one else that served their role as brilliantly as she did. If you haven’t read her works, you are basically looking up at the night sky and ignoring Sirius.
In this piece, I want to deliver another bouquet of flowers to an author that is still with us, but is getting up there. Gene Wolfe is the Polaris to Le Guin’s Sirius. Gene Wolfe is the writer for me in terms of classic sci-fi. With influences ranging from the gospel of Luke to golden-age giant Jack Vance, Wolfe is the man for writing epic science fiction that is built on the bones of classic pulp.
And the book I chose to center this review around is 100 percent pulp. “The Book of the New Sun” follows Severian, the torturer, who walks around carrying a huge sword swung across his shirtless back. His only articles of clothing throughout most of the series are a cloak with a hood, pants and a leather mask that covers his face. His muscled chest is copper in tone, and he has sex with many women throughout the series. And he kills many more.
Did I mention that the writer is a Roman Catholic and that Severian has many Christ parallels? Are you turned off to this series yet? Because by this metric, “The Book of the New Sun” sounds like the most trite, Euro-jank fantasy to ever be put to paper. But you should never judge a book by its cover—and this series has awesome covers—because this book becomes so much more than what any summary can provide.
The biggest compliment that I can give this series is that it is genuinely fun to read. I’ve called this text a book written by Gene Wolfe, but that isn’t entirely true. The book was actually found by Gene Wolfe in his backyard in a metal chest. This book is Gene Wolfe’s translation of this odd artifact. The original and only author of this text is Severian the Autarch.
This book is a memoir of Severian’s life from his early days as an orphan living under the walls of the Torturers’ guild to his rise to power as the Autarch that rules all of Urth (and yes, it is spelled that way). Severian’s journey is ostensibly archetypal. He writes the the hero’s journey in the boldest of fonts in this book, and its handwriting is Severian’s own. But underneath the surface, there’s more to this story.
The other character on display in this series is the world of Urth. The story is from Severian’s perspective, but the variety of places of which we are exposed to throughout this book is utterly amazing. Half the joy of this series is trying to unravel exactly where—and when—the story takes place.
And this is something I have yet to come across again in literature. Like a conversation, Severian speaks directly to you, the reader. You become versed in Severian’s experience, and you gain the ability to pull apart the facts of this world and place them in moments within a grand narrative whose scale remains hidden up until the very end of this monstrous book.
It’s hard not to spoil this series because of the complexity of the narrative, but there is a cheat card for me to pull here. The amount of fan sites dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of this fictional world is truly enormous. “Urth.net” is a website that hosts an email chain group of readers who have been devoted to analysing Wolfe’s works since the late ’90’s. Ultan’s library is a literal dictionary for the terms that Wolfe uses in the series (none of which are madeup words).
This is all daunting, I know. The biggest issue with this series is that everyone to whom I recommend it always leaves it half-finished. It took me two years to get through these books. But I can assure you that it is worth every second. Everything about these books is truly masterful. Discovering just what the Undines are was enough to give me chills, and when Severian actually encounters one at the end of the second book, you will be left in awe.
And this excellence of the text’s style extends to every aspect of the series. There is a section about the efficacy of prayer in the fourth book that is absolutely stellar. I don’t pray, but there was something about the way this section is written that left me spiritually fulfilled.
I’m not even very Christian, but man, I was picking up on all of this Christian imagery and themes, and I thought it was pretty beautiful. I’m not trying to be like, “Hey guys, look at all this Christian stuff,” but I have to point out how masterful the balancing act must have been here. If you look at other Christian fantasy series, it’s usually easy to see lazy reproductions of Christian ideas without much thought to how they affect the setting of the world. But with “The Book of the New Sun,” Wolfe presents a portrait of Christianity that is both self-reflective and critical. Wolfe is adamant about his idea of Christ being a literal torturer and what that means for our existence, and Severian is a living example of this sort of intense theological questioning.
If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then it probably won’t be the most enjoyable read. But if you are a fan of ambitious, genre-breaking, iconoclastic and non-Tolkien fantasy, then please give this unique and thoughtful series a try.