The Book of the New Sun
by Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 25, 2022
Edits and Addenda on Nov 30, and Dec 4, 11, & 21
Among the first pages uploaded when the site went live on July 27, 2000 was a profile article on Gene Wolfe, which I began a few months prior to that date while posting on the old Prodigy Books & Writing Community message board. It has been edited several times since to add comments about new books, and most recently when I started a re-read of his most famous work. I had devoted quite a few paragraphs there to this series instead of on a separate page because it had been some time since I had read it, and at that time I was concentrating more on author profiles rather than individual book reviews. Now some of those comments will be on this page, with other edits and additions after re-reading. I've already changed a couple of things since these are my current reactions, not the faded memories of decades ago. I'll reveal my speculations as I go along, some of which might need to be altered due to later revelations. I will update this page as I finish each book. The individual titles to be discussed are:
The Shadow of the Torturer / The Castle of the Otter / The Claw of the Conciliator / The Sword of the Lictor / The Citadel of the Autarch / The Urth of the New Sun
I still have hardcovers I got from the Science Fiction Book Club which feature cover art by Don Maitz. For many years the first four books have been available in a two volume set, in print and e-books. I don't think you can get an e-book of each separately, although you can for audio files. I will also talk about a fifth novel, and an essay collection devoted to the genesis and development of the story. The picture above is from the SFBC omnibus edition of the first four, which I had at one time but not now, but it is no longer available except as used from Ebay or other sellers. There is also an omnibus edition from Gollanz in the UK titled Severian of the Guild, and maybe some in foreign languages but I haven't researched that. More recently the Folio Society released both a two volume and a four volume set, both in slipcases, with black & white and color interior illustrations. Too rich for my budget, but they are gorgeous. The purchase links I'll provide are for what you can get from Bookshop or Amazon in the US, but various editions should also be available at most libraries and used bookstores.
Sometime around 1975 Wolfe began writing a story with the working title of "The Feast of Saint Catherine," although in the finished work that personage would be referred to as Holy Katherine. He had every belief and intention that it would be a novella he hoped to place with Damon Knight for one of his Orbit anthologies. As the story was nearing completion Wolfe was faced with a dilemma. Not only did portions of the plot present some difficulties for resolution, he felt the fictional world he had created deserved a more extended treatment. He decided to expand it to novel length, but Wolfe was not the first to discover that at times stories have a way of writing themselves. After more than 150,000 words he was forced to conclude the story demanded to be a trilogy. As fate would have it, what eventually became known as The Book of the New Sun turned out to be a tetralogy, four volumes published separately over a three year period beginning in 1980, and totaling nearly half a million words. That was a compromise with his editor, since if it was to be just a trilogy the third book would have been even longer than the first two combined. Wolfe was already on my radar after his remarkable Fifth Head of Cerberus, along with other short stories, but what brought this book to my attention was Algis Budrys' review in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He reviewed each book as it was released; this statement was among comments for the second volume:
"As a piece of literature, this work is simply overwhelming. And mind you, as craftmanship and as literature, what we're talking about are attributes that are world-class as prose, not 'just' as SF; we are in no further need of proof that 'genre' SF is not essentially limited to genre standards. There's no question any longer but that all we were waiting for was practitioners smart enough and gifted enough."
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The first two books have been combined as Shadow & Claw, which can be purchased from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Most of the cover illustrations might lead people to assume this is fantasy, and while there are many fantastical elements, it is really science fiction (or if you want to split hairs, maybe science fantasy). Set so far in the future, perhaps a million years, it appears like the remote past, but a close read is necessary to pick up the futuristic parts: aliens on Earth (although here it is known as Urth); communication with other worlds; robotic/cyborg constructs; high energy weapons; both terrestrial flying craft and spaceships. Anything that appears to be fantasy is the result of that million years of scientific developments, some of which had been appropriated from alien cultures, along with vast spans of time when a lot of that was lost, and only sometimes regained. Our time is mostly forgotten, with the possible exception of a few books that survived the millenniums. What at first appears to be a medieval milieu concerns the order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, the guild of torturers in service to the Autarch. It is written in first person by a man named Severian, who is blessed (or cursed?) with an eidetic memory. Every thought and action he has ever experienced, every sight, sound, or smell, brings memories to the surface of his mind. Thus his story is very detailed, but we cannot always be confident he is telling the truth, and on several occasions he states he is not revealing everything. I am almost the polar opposite of Severian; multiple times through this reading there were passages that did not bring a spark of remembrance, except for this first book, since it is the one I've re-read most often.
The Shadow of the Torturer won World Fantasy and British Science Fiction awards, and was a finalist for the Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial, Locus, and Balrog.
The story is so detailed it may be easy for some readers (myself included) to miss a few things on the first read, concentrating on some dialog or descriptions while missing others. One detail I originally missed was the fact that the Matachin Tower, the guild's stronghold where Severian had spent most of his younger days, had been built inside an abandoned spaceship. How old it might have been I still don't know. There is a lot of foreshadowing as well, some of which is still vague later on if you miss or forget certain scenes. Wolfe also uses a lot of archaic words that won't be found in all dictionaries, but maybe the OED, I'm not sure. Some can be surmised through context, but if reading for the first time I would suggest you have the essay "Words Weird and Wonderful" close by. That was published in The Castle of the Otter, then later in Castle of Days. More on them later. At other times Wolfe used Latin words for some things, as an indication that Severian thought of them as being from an ancient age. Animals are mentioned that are extinct in our time (smilodon for instance), but instead of them having been resurrected by cloning, the name was used for a similar creature, either an alien species, or one created through combining Urth and alien DNA. There is a very brief appendix titled "A Note on the Translation," where Wolfe implies he was granted access to a manuscript from the future, which he had endeavored to recreate in language as accessible as possible.
At the start of Shadow Severian is a young teen, perhaps pre-teen. He is an apprentice of the torturer's guild, but later becomes a journeyman, but it's vague as to his age at that time. Even though he has a comprehensive memory, like everyone else he would have little memory of his first couple of years, and he is unsure as to his age for his earliest memories. For several years he is known as Severian the Apprentice, then Journeyman, then Lictor (executioner). After many experiences he is Severian the Lame, and even later Severian the Great. He is telling the story from a time after he became the Autarch, the supreme leader of the Commonwealth. That is not a spoiler; he mentions it in the last sentence of the first chapter, as well as many other times after that. Some of the Seekers' apprentices were children of the guild's clients (victims of torture), and some of those victims had been high born, even members of the House Absolute, residence of the Autarch and seat of the Commonwealth's governmental agencies. Severian's rise to power is somewhat serendipitous, and at times it is easy to speculate his parents might have been exultants, the highest of the high born. The collective title for the series refers to our dying sun, which is so dim the brighter stars are visible even at noon, and of what prophecy had foretold, that the "Conciliator" would bring about a New Sun.
The job of an apprentice was mainly cleaning cells and barracks, helping in the kitchen, bringing journeymen their meals, etc. They were not allowed contact with the guild's clients, nor even learning the mechanics of the torture devices. So why, even before he became a journeyman, had Severian been allowed to act as a companion to one of the clients, the Chatelaine Thecla? She was convinced she was there in error, that she would be released shortly. Her crime seemed to have been one of association; her sister had reportedly fled the House Absolute to be with her lover, the political dissident Vodalus. Severian and Thecla sat and read and discussed several books he had brought her from Curator Ultan's library, and he was successful in getting her better food and more comfortable furniture for her cell. This and later things led me to believe Severian's superiors, primarily Master Palaemon, knew of his heritage, that his family had been of at least the same social level as Thecla. Severian falls in love with her, and while she expresses similar emotions toward him, that was probably just to get sympathetic treatment. Unfortunately for her, and for Severian, she was not released, but instead had to undergo torture, which Severian had to witness and participate in. He goes against the rules of the guild and succumbs to her pleas for the means of suicide. Instead of being put to death himself, which he expected and thought he deserved, he is instead expelled from the guild but given the assignment of being the Lictor of Thrax, a town several hundred miles north of Nessus where the story began. Master Palaemon explained that the guild was not able to pass judgement, they only carried out the orders of the courts, government agents, or the Autarch himself. If Severian was to be brought up on charges in the courts it would reflect badly on the guild, which the majority of people weren't aware still existed. Best to keep it that way. Or did Master Palaemon spare him because he was aware of his heritage, or his destiny?
All of this happens in just the first third of the book, covering what I suspect was about fifteen years. Severian recalls earlier events, his years as an apprentice, his elevation to journeyman, meeting Thecla, his fateful decision. The rest of the book, from the time Severian is expelled from the guild until he leaves Nessus through one of its gates, is no more than three or four days. He had very little knowledge of what to expect outside the Matachin Tower, or the few other places he had been within the Citadel, other than from the books he had read with Thecla. The rest of his story is basically a travelogue of Urth, or at least The Commonwealth. In one of the essays in Castle of the Otter Wolfe says his primary reason for expanding the story so much was his decision for it to be not only Severian's coming of age tale, but a more universal tale of a man exploring his world, while at the same time being pulled into a war he would rather avoid. Wolfe was a draftee, a veteran of the Korean War, an experience that may have had an effect on the telling. On numerous occasions the war against the Ascians in the north is mentioned. I can't recall where I read it now, either one of the later novels, or Otter, maybe a review, but in the original Wolfe article I said that the action was taking place in what in our time is South America. This book mentions moving north meant going into warmer climes, with cold to the south.
Severian is a brave man, but not necessarily an intelligent one, at least in the beginning. He is very naive about the ways of the world, and of the ways of women. It is implied he was a virgin before Master Palaemon directed the journeyman Roche to take him to House Azure, a brothel close to the Tower, and on this reading I thought he may have done that so Severian would be more inclined to be intimate with Thecla. [EDIT: Something from the second novel might indicate Palaemon had colluded with another on this issue. More later.] On one occasion Severian says he never went back to House Azure, but that could have been a lie, since he later slips up and talks about being with other women. When? A different brothel? Or as happens frequently in the narrative, while recounting one event it might remind him of another, so he may have been talking about something that had occurred at a later time. He fell in love quickly with Thecla, and then shortly after her death he falls in love (or maybe it's just lust, but he says love) with Agia, one of the first women he comes into contact with after leaving the Tower. Then there's Dorcas, whom he also says he loves. Does he even know what love means? Oh, another thing about Dorcas. Remember what I said above about maybe not catching some details the first time around? Not always, because I would be extremely surprised if anyone doesn't realize who she is the first time she appears. If Severian did he kept it to himself through the end of this book at least [EDIT: and the second book].
It is evident that Severian becomes more intelligent and sophisticated later. The prose is mesmerizing in parts, sometimes confusing, sometimes very lucid and informative. The confusing parts seem to be intentional, maybe as a way to keep the reader intrigued enough to continue, although I realize it might be off-putting for other readers. I've already started the second novel, hoping it won't take me too long to update this page, but for now I'll leave you with the sentiment Severian ends this book - "Here I pause. If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road."
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The Castle of the Otter came from a small press, Zeising Brothers, but went out of print quickly. It was later reissued in combination with another story collection. Castle of Days is available from either Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Posted November 30, 2022:
Skipping ahead, I'll mention a few other things about The Castle of the Otter, which wasn't released until after the fourth novel, although a few of the essays had seen print in magazines before that. The title derives from an error in a news item in Locus Magazine. Shortly after the second book came out, Locus reported that Wolfe had just delivered the third volume to the publisher and was feverishly editing the fourth and final book, The Castle of the Otter. The following month they posted a retraction, and while closer, they were still wrong, saying the book would be The Castle of the Autarch. Player with words that he is, Wolfe was intrigued by the title as originally reported. He had kept copious notes and outlines in order to better organize and control the expanding plot, and several people had inquired about background information on his writing habits and the creation of the story. One article reveals communications between the author, his agent Virginia Kidd, and his editor David Hartwell, who before the first book was published had left his position at one publishing house and moved to another. He was allowed to purchase the contract Kidd had negotiated and continue the editing. All three had been accused of having the series in total completion before publication commenced, and thus manipulating the release schedule for maximum monetary returns. Wolfe reports, though, that he had the four volumes completed in second draft only before he went back to the first book and gave it its final polish. This was done in order for all the intricacies of the plot to work out to his satisfaction in the final book. One of the most amazing aspects about the whole ordeal is the confidence shown in Wolfe's ability to "deliver the goods" by both Kidd and Hartwell. Contracts for the tetralogy and a story collection were signed by all parties before either agent, editor, or publisher had read one word of New Sun.
One article concerned the origins of the story ("The Feast of Saint Catherine" mentioned above), and "Words Weird and Wonderful" only covers the first book. Those words are not in alphabetical order as a regular dictionary or glossary, but rather in chronolgical order as they appeared, and separated by chapter. Easy to follow along if you have that section bookmarked as you read, although it's possible not every word unfamiliar to you will be there. Some words are understandable in context, others not so much. For instance, you won't find "cacogens" at dictionary.com, and most google hits refer back to these books. Here it is described: "Literally, those filthy born. More broadly: degenerate. In The Book of the New Sun, an ethnic slur directed against those born off-world." Yet it doesn't specify if that means an alien, or a human whose parents went to space, gave birth somewhere else, then their offspring returned to Urth. Or does it mean a human/alien hybrid? A lot of the words reappear in the later books, and others are added. There may be another place online that lists all of the obscure words but I haven't gone looking for them. There is a Wolfe Wiki for instance, perhaps more than one.
In addition to essays that talk about the symbolism of the sun, as well as the rose, which refers back to the Saint Catherine story, another is about proper names. In "Onamastics, the Study of Names" Wolfe says all the proper names are historical ones, even if they haven't been used in millennia. Several of the characters mentioned don't appear until later books, including those featured in a play toward the end of Claw. Also, Urth is obviously a transliteration of Earth, but also refers to one of the Norns from Norse mythology. From Wikipedia: "Uršr is commonly written as Urd or Urth. In some English translations, her name is glossed with the Old English form of uršr; Wyrd." Among other things, wyrd can mean fate or personal destiny. There are too many things in Severian's story that are either fabrications after the fact, or else he was not only destined to be Autarch, it was someting planned by many others in his life. The woman who would later be known as Saint Catherine was supposed to be tortured on the Wheel, but when she touched that device it fell apart. She was then beheaded. That torture device was sometimes later referred to as a catherine wheel, and something similar was just one of the torture devices used by the Seekers of Truth and Penitence. If Severian was only a disgraced journeyman I am sure it would have been easy for the guild to have killed him and disposed of his body, maybe only the Masters being aware of it. The other journeymen could have been kept in the dark. Yet Master Palaemon, obviously fond of, even proud of Severian, not only let him live, but gave him a means to continue the same type of work elsewhere, and also gave him an instrument to be used for such work: the sword Terminus Est.
Other articles are "Cavalry in the Age of the Autarch" and "These Are the Jokes." The former hasn't come into play in the first two novels I've re-read so far so I'll skip over that. Some of the "Jokes" are a lot like Wolfe's narrative style, with the punchlines missing; the reader is supposed to be able to figure them out. It's obvious that apprentice, journeymen, and master torturers have weird senses of humor, as does Wolfe. "The Rewards of Authorship" is an interview which covers everything from Wolfe's reading habits and writing regimen, along with advice to other writers, and how it is to interact with fans. I will return at a later time to talk more about Castle of Days, which combines Otter with a previously released story collection, Gene Wolfe's Book of Days, all of which revolve around holidays and other celebrations. It made sense to combine the two titles since the Seekers used the Feast of Saint Catherine as the time for elevating apprentices to journeymen. A third section goes into more depth about the writing life, others Wolfe liked to read, what he thought of certain reviewers, etc. It begins with another interview, which Wolfe conducts with himself.
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As mentioned above, The Claw of the Conciliator has been combined with the first book in Shadow & Claw, which can be purchased from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Posted November 30, 2022:
Since I didn't go into a lot of detail about events in Shadow, I didn't mention that Severian came into possession of the "Claw" shortly after he left the Citadel, although he wasn't aware he had it for a while. Agia, the woman he had met, the one he said he loved almost at first sight, got him involved in an ordeal I also don't want to reveal too much about. They went to several places in Nessus, taking a carriage ride at one point. An incident that she had probably pre-planned involved a race with another carriage, which resulted in them crashing into a tent which was actually the travelling temple of the Pelerines, a religious order that possessed the Claw of the Conciliator. In the chaos Agia stole the Claw and hid it in Severian's sabretache, a leather satchel worn on his belt, in which he carried his introductory letter to the archon of Thrax, a cloth, oil, and whetstone to sharpen and polish his sword, and one of the books he had read with Thecla. The Pelerines could read minds, and since they knew Severian had not stolen the Claw they did not search him. They did strip-search Agia, but apparently she was able to hide her thoughts as to where the Claw was. Agia later fails in an attempt to retrieve the Claw. The Conciliator was supposedly an ancient figure, and although not specified, might have been an alien who came to Urth long ago. The Claw was a jewel with miraculous properites, and was undoubtedly the reason Severian survived a duel he fought later that day. On other occasions he used it to help himself and others who had been injured, but the powers of the Claw seemed to wax and wane for unknown reasons.
The Claw of the Conciliator won Nebula and Locus awards, and was finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Ditmar, and Mythopoeic.
Another thing I didn't mention is that Severian had fallen in with a troupe of actors led by Dr. Talos and his servant, the giant Baldanders. Or was the doctor Baldanders' servant? Hard to tell. The first book ended at the Piteous Gate, which led to the northern road to Thrax. Severian was with Dorcas, Dr. Talos, Baldanders, and Jolenta, another woman they had recruited to play various parts in their stage performances. A new character, Jonas, is introduced in the final pages. Severian said he was thinking about going back into Nessus to find the Pelerines (although he did not say it was to return the Claw). Jonas tells him they had left the city through the Piteous Gate the day before, so he is compelled to follow their path. Some argument or fight breaks out in the line ahead of them, but we don't get the resolution to that scene. Claw begins a day or two later, although I'm not positive it's not longer than that. Severian and Jonas are in the mining town of Saltus, where Severian has been hired to be the executioner of several criminals. They had been separated from Dorcas, and while Severian wants to reunite with her, he didn't intend to follow up on his promise to stay with Talos. Several adventures come before the reunion, including Severian learning some unique properties of the Claw, and meeting the rebel Vodalus and his consort Thea, sister to Thecla. In the first scene of the first book Severian talked of the first time he saw Vodalus, or at least a man who he thought was Vodalus. The next time they meet Vodalus recognizes Severian as the boy who had saved his life in the necropolis. I am absolutely not going to mention something else that happens during that meeting, at least not now; it may come up in discussion of later books.
They find out Dorcas and the others are to perform at the House Absolute, so they head in that direction. On arrival Severian discovers the House is not a large building, but rather all is hidden underground. After being detained by the praetorian guards, Severian and Jonas eventually make their escape, and again it seems that persons behind the scenes are aiding Severian so he can make his escape. It would take a while to describe the situation in which Jonas exits the picture; it involves a scientific process previously described, Thecla having told Severian about something relayed to her by Thea. It would also be confusing to relate others Severian meets before he finds Dorcas again. Remember, I'm not positive what Severian reveals is the truth; some things could be him altering his story to justify his ascension to the throne. But if we are to believe him, the man who ushered him into the House Azure brothel in the first book, is the same man he encounters in House Absolute, the one who helps him find his way out. That man, who tells Severian he will discover the way he is to defeat the Autarch, is
the Autarch himself. ????
I've said several times there are confusing things here, that Severian might not be the most trustworthy narrator. Even though he had been banished from his guild he still felt loyalty to it, but in many other ways he was not an honorable man. At the end of Claw he says, "That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin." One thing for which I would not forgive him is how he treats women. He was naive, and relatively inexperienced when he left the Citadel, although he had intimate relations with Thecla (another thing I don't think would have been allowed any other journeyman). He did not have sex with Agia, but that was more not having the opportunity. Even after she betrayed him he thought positively about her, but I think only from his own interest in her body. He told Dorcas he loved her, she returned that sentiment, and they were intimate several times. Yet he took advantage of Jolenta when he was alone with her, with Dorcas back in their camp waiting for him. "Took advantage of" meaning she was asleep at the time, possibly drugged. That is one of the most unforgiveable sins in my estimation, even if Jolenta might have welcomed his affections if she had been awake and sober. Another mark against him about Dorcas: he has to know who she is, and by this time if the reader hasn't figured it out they haven't been paying attention. That he did not tell her seems to indicate he either was oblivious to the facts, which goes against everything else he has revealed about himself, or he did know but didn't tell her out of selfishness, his desire for her to stay with him.
So why do I recommend these books if Severian is that dishonorable? It is mainly about the rest of the narrative, the massive world-building of the cultures depicted, the intricate descriptions of the technologies Severian encounters, even if he doesn't give us the full details. Perhaps he doesn't know the full details, or he is playing with us, revealing only what he wants us to know. He might be the ultimate unreliable narrator. Yet the world he travels through, those he meets and the events he witnesses, are so rich in detail it is easy to believe Wolfe's contention that he is just translating a true story from a future text. Not that I would like to live in Severian's time, nor meet him personally. He and his world are brutal and unrelenting. But still fascinating. Severian ends the second book the same way he did the first, and while he warns that to continue is to travel a dangerous road, I am compelled to follow.
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The third and fourth books are combined as Sword and Citadel, which is available from either Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Posted December 4, 2022:
There is another short time jump from the previous book to The Sword of the Lictor. Severian and Dorcas are already in Thrax, and have been for several days, maybe as much as a week, and their journey there took perhaps another week. The archon (magistrate) is impressed with Severian's work and dedication, which consists of observing trials and keeping records of the sentences, whether they be for incarceration, torture (what a guild member calls excrutiations), or execution. Even if he would never be allowed to return to the Matachin Tower, Severian still considers himself a journeyman of the guild, and prides himself on his efficient abilities. Other torturers might think of it differently, but Severian felt his services were better than other alternatives, and at least if he had to execute someone it would be as quick and painless as possible. However, several things make his time in Thrax less than ideal. Dorcas continues to be depressed, and when she finally tells him what she has figured out about herself, and that she wants to return to Nessus, Severian acts as if he didn't know, or doesn't want to accept the facts. He wants her to stay with him, but knows he can't go back, and besides, he still wants to find the Pelerines and return the Claw, but to do so would be to abandon his post. That becomes moot since he once again defies the rules. In Nessus he allowed a prisoner to commit suicide to avoid further torture, now in Thrax he is ordered to kill another woman, but he helps her escape instead. After having sex with her of course.
The Sword of the Lictor won British Fantasy and Locus awards, and was a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, British Science Fiction, and Balrog.
So Severian is on his own, fleeing to the north where he thinks the Pelerines are, and where the war against the Ascians continues. I mentioned in the previous section that it has been speculated the action is taking place in what is now South America, and moving north would be to go towards a warmer clime, but Severian is also going into the mountains (the Andes?), so it gets colder. If that speculation is correct then Nessus might correspond to Buenos Aires, Thrax could be in the vicinity of Asunción (Paraguay), and the high altitude Lake Diaturna is described (including the reed boats) in such a way as to bring to mind Titicaca. On several occasions he talks about the land he traverses being the pampas, a common modern term for an area of Argentina. [EDIT: Then again, if Wolfe was translating a future text, that word might not have been an accurate substitution for what Severian wrote.] During his travels Severian encounters a poor woman and her son. Her husband is missing, her daughter supposedly hiding in the attic. They are being terrorized by an alzabo, an alien animal I could have mentioned earlier but didn't. It verges toward fantasy, but then again it is alien, and the chemical properites its glands secrete could result in its ability to mimic the speech of someone it has killed and eaten. At the same time it attacks, Severian discovers Agia has taken refuge with the family, apparently aware of his route of travel. He had the opportunity to kill her at least twice before, but didn't for reasons that only made sense to him. She escapes, the alzabo is driven off, but he suggests the woman and her son flee before it returns. Another encounter is with autochthons (indigenous tribesmen), who imprison him but he eventually makes his escape. Other alien creatures are on his trail as well, which had happened before he had arrived at House Absolute, again while he was in detention there, and another time in Thrax. He had figured out who was controlling them, and that they had imported them from off-world.
At various times it seemed that Severian implied space travel was in the past, not something still happening in his day, but I either misread that or it was what he believed at that point in his narrative. Jonas claimed to have been on spaceships, but his method of returning to Urth might have been similar to how he departed, a sort of teleportation portal, which he apparently knew the location of in House Absolute. Severian believes Hethor, the one he suspects is controlling the alien assassins, had to have brought them on a ship recently since they are of a type he had never heard or read about before. Also, at the same time he finds Dr. Talos and Baldanders again, they seem to be in partnership with hierodules (literally 'holy slaves'), cacogens that he witnesses departing in their ship. The way he describes that departure sounds like they were moving through other dimensions, not just upwards from Urth. And if we are to believe all he tells us, he had previously encountered Typhon, an ancient Autarch, perhaps the first, who had come to Urth from elsewhere. Typhon tells him of the vast ships he had authorized to travel to other worlds, one of which was probably The Whorl, as depicted in the sequel/prequel series The Book of the Long Sun. If teleportation is utilized, it is possible temporal anomalies are also possible, so the time for Severian's tale could be much more, or much less, than the speculated million years from our present. Some of Jonas's comments implied he was from a far distant past, much closer to our era, as well as having traveled great distances in space.
Throughout his travels and his fights, Severian is occasionally injured, but since he still has the Claw he is either healed, or the damage is minimized, since for reasons he does not understand the Claw's powers fluctuate from barely functional to almost instantaneous, and miraculous, cures. Using it he has healed several people, and some were brought back from the dead, although Thyphon might not have been one of them if his statement was correct. Severian still doesn't know exactly what the claw is or where it came from, and the bare claw is all he has now since the jewel that had contained it had been shattered. He also hasn't entered the Ascian war theater yet, but that is to come in the next book. Each book has begun and ended in a similar place: from the gate of the Citadel's necropolis to the Piteous Gate leaving Nessus; from the town of Saltus to an ancient town whose name had been forgotten; from the fortress of Thrax to Baldanders' fortress on the northern shore of Lake Diaturna. Where will the fourth begin and end? We shall soon see.
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The fourth book is joined with the third in Sword and Citadel, which can be purchased from Bookshop or Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.
Posted December 11, 2022:
After Severian's encounter with Baldanders and the hierodules, he continues his journey north, towards the war, while also being wary of getting caught up in it. He hides when he sees or hears others along the road, but on one occasion he knows he has been spotted, so he runs further into the forest. After running as far as his strength would take him he sits down in the shade of a tree, only to spy a body behind another one. He touches the man with the Claw, and believing there was no effect he turns to walk away, but the man sits up and moans. Severian attempts to communicate with him but the man doesn't seem capable of speech yet. He is at least able to get him on his feet and guides him toward where he thinks they will find medical aid. They do find a field infirmary, where at least some of the nurses are Pelerines. Severian tells one of them about the Claw, and while they know of that artifact, they are sure Severian is mad or living in a dream world, since the Claw is a jewel, not something that looks like an animal claw. While being nursed back to health, Severian has many discussions with other patients, some of whom tell stories as a part of a contest to win the heart of a woman soldier. Another in their tent is an Ascian prisoner, who speaks in what sounds like rote phrases, almost like a communist or socialist manifesto. Severian wonders how an Ascian knows their language, but one of the others guesses he may have been an interpreter.
The Citadel of the Autarch won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the Prix Apollo for its French translation three years later. It was also a finalist for Nebula, British Science Fiction, and Balrog, and was on the Locus ballot in both the science fiction and fantasy categories.
The first chapter of this novel speaks to my suspicion that Wolfe's own war experiences influenced part of the story. Severian writes:
"I had never seen war, or even talked of it at length with someone who had, but I was young and knew something of violence, and so believed that war would be no more than an new experience for me
War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulinimus [one of the hierodules] and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities."
Some may think I have revealed too many things already, while I feel I've barely scratched the surface, giving you just a few highlights. Knowing certain events is not the same as knowing previous things that led up to that event, what the consequences of that event would be, or what the character's motivations were. Keep in mind that Severian's story is intricately detailed, but if you count from when he left the Matachin Tower to when he returned was no more than three months. I'll try to be brief on details of Severian's war adventures and later. After being released from the field hospital he is incorporated into a cavalry unit. He is involved in several skirmishes, during the third of which he sustains a leg wound. While mostly healed later he is left with a limp, the reason he will eventually be referred to as Severian the Lame. Remember Vodalus, the political dissident? He shows up again, apparently working with the Ascians, maybe as one of their field commanders. But before we meet him again, the Autarch arrives, who tries to rescue Severian and get him away from the action. His flyer is shot down, which leads to both being captured by Vodalus. And guess who else is there. Agia, working with Vodalus, then later working against him. Someone (something?) else rescues Severian, taking him on another ship and leaving him on the western coast of the continent. Also remember the speculation about South America. Maybe not the eastern part, but the west, since Severian walks north on that western beach and comes to the River Gyoll, and taking passage on a ship up the river comes full circle to where his story began, the Citadel in Nessus. I'm not going to tell you the how and why of it, but by this time he is already the new Autarch. It involves a process I still don't want to reveal, something Severian experienced during his meeting with Vodalus in the second book, and which also involved Thecla.
When Severian returns to the Matachin Tower he surprises the castellan by exhibiting some torturer's techniques on the guards holding him, and knowing several of the secret passwords. Master Palaemon is pleased to see him, and not at all surprised to know he is the Autarch. He also suprises other guards by knowing how to unlock a room that had not been used for many years, possibly the last time an Autarch had visited. Severian had a few errands he wanted to take care of before journeying on to House Absolute, one of which debunks my previous notion of his parentage. No, I won't reveal that, only say that Severian thinks two people previously met are among his ancestors. The reason many people still consider this a fantasy story has a lot to do with Severian not fully describing weapons and craft. As for the latter, he sometimes was vague on whether he was talking about a flying or a floating vessel. Of the weapons, there are a lot of details on types of swords, knives, maces, etc, but not so much on the high energy weapons, and mainly because some of the words that describe them are archaic and don't make it easy to visualize them, or they are words familiar to us even when the weapon is not. For instance, the weapon that causes his leg wound is referred to as a lance, but it was really a high energy device. I thought of it like the staff weapon Teal'c used on Stargate SG1. Also, there are the cacogens, the hierodules, however you want to refer to them, obviously from another planet, along with the many animals that have to be from off-world. It took Severian a while to realize Jonas was not human, but rather a machine that had suffered damage, with organic materials used to repair him. A reverse cyborg if you will.
Some think it would have been best for this to have been published as a single book; I've read another this year that was even longer than these four combined. In at least one way I think it worked as four titles. Think of it like a season of a television show, many of which you can binge watch all at once these days. You may want to continue the story right away, but you have to wait, and also have time to rewatch while the next season is being produced. By the time I reached the "conclusion" in Citadel I had read Shadow four times, so this time was the fifth. Quotes around conclusion indicate Wolfe was already thinking of a continuation, since Severian mentions the task ahead of him, something previous Autarch's had either chosen not to do, or failed at if they attempted it. It would take another five years before we knew the particulars of that task, but maybe just a few more days until I can talk about it here, as well as attempting an overall reflection on the importance of the work. Stay tuned.
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Posted December 21, 2022:
As I said above, I'm not like Severian; my memory is frequently faulty. I think this was just the second time for reading The Urth of the New Sun, and many portions of it did not spark memories. This time I thought it could have had a different title, which I'll mention later. I had also said that each book began and ended in a similar place, but for Citadel the place was only metaphorical; beginning at the gateway to the war and ending at the gateway to space. Except Severian's journey to space doesn't happen until ten years after he became Autarch. His task is to travel to Yesod and connect to the "White Fountain," which is a white dwarf star destined to interact with our sun to replenish it. Wolfe was a devout Catholic, his faith and Christian theology influencing a lot of his work, but he also incorporated other religious and philosophical thought. Yesod derives from the Hebrew Kabbalah, and is associated in the soul with the power to contact, connect and communicate with outer reality. Of course I didn't realize it at the time of my first reading, but now know that Yesod is similar to concepts Wolfe used in the Wizard/Knight duology, although I had thought that was derived from Norse myths. Multiple levels of reality, or alternate universes. Yesod was said to be in a higher reality, removed from the universe that contained Urth. The ship Severian is on, which he never learns the name of, is captained by Tzadkiel, whom Severian thinks of as a god although that is denied, even though that name also comes from Hebrew teachings, one of the archangels. Tzadkiel can shape-shift (another trope Wolfe has played with on numerous occasions), and Severian had encountered him/her before seeing her/him in their true form, if it could be said they had a true form. Something happens to Severian that is similar to a development in The Book of the Short Sun, but I won't reveal that here.
At the end of Citadel Severian said he completed writing his story and would submit it to be saved in Ultan's library. Now he says he writes it all again, since his memory is perfect, and the second copy would be released into space. That is how this book opens, with Severian suiting up and exiting the ship, ascending the solar sails (although he describes them as if they were like sails on an Urth naval vessel), and throwing the book into the void. In addition to traveling to other universal realms or levels, the ship also travels up and down the time streams, which means the second book is the one found and presented to Wolfe to translate. But can we be sure everything was copied exactly, or that either version is the complete truth of Severian's story? Again, if we are to believe him, his return to Urth is to a time before his birth, his apprenticeship, his ascension to the throne. On several other occasions he somehow slips into the "Corridors of Time" to go even further into the past, a time in which it seems he was actually the original Conciliator. Thus all of the foreshadowing, the guesses Severian had made about his destiny, were apparently self-actualization. Then again, can we trust what he tells us? He continually says he forgets nothing, but also tells us obvious falsehoods, or could it be the book that came to Wolfe's attention was missing a few pages, or that Severian didn't write it complete the second time? For instance, there is another woman in his life I have not mentioned before, Valeria. She made a brief appearance in the first book, then another brief scene in the fourth. We didn't learn she became Severian's wife until this book. Yet when he mentions the women in his life, Thecla, Dorcas, Agia, he says he won't speak more of Valeria since he had already revealed so much. But. He. Had. Not. Or else he slipped in references here and there that I missed.
When I originally wrote about these books I said Severian could be considered a Christ-like figure, what with the miraculous healing and other events. Now I'm thinking he's more like Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, a man who had been a persecutor of Christians, but later converted into a true believer. You may say that the healing was the workings of the Claw, not any inate ability of Severian's, but I haven't revealed the true origin of the Claw (nor will I). The reason it (or Severian's power) worked some times and not others derived from his perspective, his desire for something to happen, but was also influenced by his physical and mental condition. The first time that power manifested was before he knew he had the Claw. Everything that happened to Severian was due to things he set in motion in the farthest reach he went into the past. Everything was foreshadowed, or actually foreplanned (that's not really a word, except it is now). The other title I thought would be appropriate was Ushas of the New Sun. That is what Severian called Urth after its interaction with the white dwarf, which caused massive destruction, floods and earthquakes. But it was also a rebirth of the planet. I'm not positive, but I think the first time he heard about Ushas was in the play written by Dr. Talos, in which Severian appeared as several characters. That play was derived from stories handed down over the millennia, stories originally told by Severian to people in the past. Ushas is a goddess from the Hindu Vedas, whom wikipedia says is "identified with dawn, revealing herself with the daily coming of light to the world, driving away oppressive darkness, chasing away evil demons, rousing all life, setting all things in motion, sending everyone off to do their duties". New Sun. New Urth. New Life. New Hope. Ushas. Or to look at it another way, something I mentioned to someone else recently; substitute the word Sun with Son, and I think you'll be close to Wolfe's intention.
On another page I said Wolfe is not for the casual reader. You have to be willing to not only read closely, but also re-read to plumb the depths of his allusions and mysteries, even if he has left a few clues out of the equation. My comments may frighten off more potential readers than they might entice. But that's okay. Not everything has to be for everybody, as attested by quite a few one star reviews for the first book I spotted on Goodreads and Amazon. My rating for all five novels is a consistent five stars. Read them or not, it's up to you. I love them, and this will not be the last time for me.
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