Monday, April 8, 2013

Cacogens and Chiliarchs - Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun, #3-4)

Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun, #1-2)

Some sf/fantasy books transcend the medium and become a measuring stick, a standard against which future books compared.  Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is one of those works.  I'm going to reveal my thoughts on the epic and I may reveal some spoilers so you may want to turn back now.  After all, as Severian says, "It is no easy road."

Still here?  Good.

The Book of the New Sun is the story of Severian, an apprentice torturer who is exiled from the city of Nessus after helping a "client" by enabling her to kill herself to escape torture.  Severian is ordered to go to Thrax to serve as carnifex and gets into a slew of trouble along the way, eventually becoming the new Autarch, or ruler.

It's a lot more complicated than that.  For one thing, Severian is an unreliable narrator, relating the story more like a normal person would rather than the way most books are written.  He leaves things out, doesn't reveal pertinent details until later, and sometimes comes across as not quite sane.

The setting is a lot like Jack Vance's Dying Earth.  The sun is red, Urth is slowly being covered by ice, and man's former glories are strewn about.  Wolfe makes the setting feel much more alien by peppering the text with words like Autarch, chiliarch, cacogen, exultant, optimate, destrier, and more, and never revealing what the words actually mean, leaving the reader either to google the word or infer the meaning from context.  It's a little jarring at first but soon I was looking for ways to work armiger into a sentence.

The writing reminded me more and more of G.K. Chesterton as I went on, particularly when the extent of the Autarch's involvement in the story was revealed.  Much like the reveals of which of the characters are policemen rather anarchists in The Man Who Was Thursday, I eventually was thinking "How many characters were actually the Autarch or working for him?"  The Book of the New Sun also contains hints of Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance.

Here are some moments I found particularly memorable in The Book of the New Sun:

  • The avern duel - Where else have you seen two men fight with razor sharp flowers?
  • The alzabo - Severian injests a drug and a piece of Thecla's flesh, allowing her memories to mingle with his
  • The fight with the man-apes and the reveal of the Claw of the Concilliator - Severian has his Bilbo Baggins moment and finds out the bauble he carries has power
  • Big Severian and Little Severian - Severian encounters an orphan with the same name as his.  Their relationship reminded me of Roland and Jake from The Gunslinger. 
  • Severian's dealing with Typhon - There isn't a whole lot of action in the Book of the New Sun so it was shocking when Severian dealt with Typhon.
  • Severian and the Autarch - The payoff of all the machinations lurking in the background was worth it when the Autarch finally gave Severian  a look behind the curtain.
I initially only rated the Book of the New Sun a four but had to upgrade it to a five when I kept catching myself thinking about it a year after I read the final page.

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