Tag Archives: Gene Wolfe

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN – Gene Wolfe (1980-83)

The Shadow of the Torurer (Maitz without title)This is a 5500 word essay on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.



The first time I read The Book of the New Sun must have been somewhere in 2011, and it has remained a strong favorite in my mind ever since, easily top 5 ever. As The Folio Society recently published a more or less affordable version of their limited edition treatment of the book, I decided that was a good excuses to whip out too much cash on a book I already owned, and reread the entire thing.

Much has been written about Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, and I have no intention whatsoever to add to certain debates surrounding these volumes – on the contrary: to me these debates miss an important point, as I will try to explain later.

Deep down I was reluctant to start the reread. My other encounters with Wolfe’s prose haven’t always been fully successful, and I feared The Book of the New Sun to be a lesser affair than I remembered. I have to admit that to a certain extent is was – but that is not to say it became a bad book: I still rank it among my favorite reads.

Before I’ll get to the bulk of this review, first some introductionary remarks to those unfamiliar with the book.


The Book of the New Sun was first published as 4 separate volumes: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Two volume editions have been published as Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, and single volume editions have been published as The Book of the New Sun, and also as Severian of the Guild.

When I started rereading it, I intended to review only The Shadow of the Torturer, and then turn to some other books before starting the second volume. But it quickly dawned on me such a review wouldn’t do the novel justice. A review of Shadow might have worked if it had been my first read, but since my memories of the other volumes – not perfect, mind you – had such a gravitational pull, I could only finish the entire thing before writing this. That is not unlike Wolfe himself, who intended to write a novella, but when is was done it turned out to be a tetralogy, only finishing the final draft of the first book when he had finished the second drafts of the remaining 3 parts.

Because he was pressured by his publisher, Wolfe published a coda to this story in 1987, The Urth of the New Sun. I will reread that too someday, but I feel I shouldn’t take it into account for this review, as Wolfe didn’t conceive of it while he wrote this. The same goes for the two related series The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun – published between 1993-1996 and 1999-2003. I won’t take their subject matter into account either: they weren’t part of the quadruple canon, and as such can’t really be used to weigh the original artistic merit. I feel that lots of the interpretations of TBotNS based on certain things in the later series could be considered a form of Hineininterpretierung.

Those who dread being sucked into a 12 book ‘Solar Cycle’, such fear is unwarranted. The Book of the New Sun was conceived as a stand-alone, and if you like it a lot, there’s no harm in reading the coda, Urth. But Long Sun and Short Sun are generally considered works of lesser quality – except by hardcore Wolfe fans – and their main stories are only very tangentially related. I’ve read the first 3 of Long Sun (reviews here), but chances are I’ll never start its final book.


The Book of the New Sun is a dying earth novel, set on Urth, a far-future version of Earth, or an Earth before our own, in some different time cycle. It’s a world that has lost most scientific abilities, and resembles a society straight out of a fantasy novel – even though remnants of technology exist, and certain of the upper classes still have access to flying ships. In the backdrop of the story, there are aliens that try to enslave humanity, and yet other aliens that want to help our race to revive the sun, which has dimmed to such an extent stars are even visible by day. The moon’s light is green, as it has been terraformed in the past, but humans forgot when and how, and can’t get there anymore.

It is the first-person narrative of Severian, a young man belonging to the guild of the torturers – “The Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence”, who is disgraced and exiled, and ultimately “backs into the throne” seemingly by accident, and turns out to be something of a messiah. Like in other works by Wolfe, Severian is an unreliable narrator, but more on that in a minute.

The Book of the New Sun is considered by many as one of the towering achievements of science fiction or science fantasy, and I’ve read serious people putting it on the same level as Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu. It won lots of awards, and tends to be found near the top of many lists of best speculative fiction. Word has it that this weird and strange book can only be fully understood after three readings.

So what to write about this illustrious work?

I will talk first about its religious themes – Wolfe was a devout Catholic – and how the question whether this book can be enjoyed by agnostics or atheists too ties into the trap that Wolfe has set, a trap that has ensnared many of those writing New Sun exegesis on message boards, Facebook groups, mailing lists and Reddit.

As an intermezzo, I’ve written a short passage about Severian’s outlook on free will, and I’ll end with some thoughts on my rereading experience, and my current appraisal of New Sun – will I read it a third time?

This entire text is spoiler free.

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THE KNIGHT – Gene Wolfe (2004)

The Knight gene wolfeSomeday I will reread and review the four parts of The Book of the New Sun – one of the most imaginative books I have ever read. The consensus seems to be that Wolfe never topped that, but the appraisal for his other work is less unisono.

My own experience is similar. The Fifth Head of Cerberus went down relatively well, as did Urth of the New Sun, and I liked the first two parts of The Book of the Long Sun – a lot, at times – but dropped out of the third.

Enter The Wizard Knight – a later work, published when Wolfe was 73. The nature of this work is a bit unclear: is this a duology or one novel in two parts? The Knight was published a few months before The Wizard, some say for commercial reasons – Kill Bill: Vol. 1 came out in october 2003 and might have set a trend. The omnibus The Wizard Knight was published fairly quickly, in 2005.

Lots of reviewers seem to treat this as one novel – it sure is one story. However, the back of my Tor paperback of The Wizard starts with this quote from Publishers Weekly: “The Wizard stands alone and might even be best if read before The Knight, but will surely drive readers to the first as well….”

So I think it is fair to review The Knight separately, as the first part of a series, but I’ll reserve my judgement about the full story for when I’ve read the final volume too.

After the review, I’ll make some remarks about Wolfe’s politics as a reaction on an essay of his about The Lord of the Rings that might be of interest to some readers, even if they aren’t interested in The Knight.

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4 SHORT REVIEWS

After I finished the fantastic Version Control, I read the excellent Keith Rowe biography by Brian Olewnick. I might still review that, but it’s a hard review to write for an audience unfamiliar with Rowe’s particular branch of experimental music.

Sadly, after those 2 great books, I’ve hit three I did not even finish. That and the relentless summer heat didn’t really urge me to start writing the reviews. Fortunately, that streak of bad reading luck came to an end, as I’ve also read a great, recent SF novella by Peter Watts, and finished yet another book on Rembrandt.

As the summer drought is still not over, I’ve decided I simply won’t bother trying to write longer, in-depth reviews for these books. I won’t even try to write up Hard To Be A God, the 1964 political allegory by the Strugatsky brothers, and the first book in that row of DNFs. I stopped after only 40 pages, not enough to write something meaningful, except that it was all too obviously allegorical for my tastes. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s those 4 mini-reviews…

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LAKE OF THE LONG SUN – Gene Wolfe (1994)

lake-of-the-long-sun

If Nightside The Long Sun was about the protagonist’s self discovery, this second book in the series is about Patera Silk slowly discovering the true nature of his world.

The 4 volumes of The Book Of The Long Sun are set on a multigenerational starship – a fact that Tor reveals on the back cover, but one that is only revealed to the reader in this second book. It’s understandable that Tor did so, as The Long Sun is extremely hard to market: it’s an odd book: a lot more accessible than Wolfe’s magnum opus The Book Of The New Sun, but less lush, and a lot less compelling – at first sight maybe even boring. Tor might have increased its sales, spaceships sell, but the spoiler doesn’t do the reader any service: it takes away part of the joy of discovery, and it sets wrong expectations. Multigenerational starship yes, but no space opera or high tech scifi of whatever ilk. Continue reading

NIGHTSIDE THE LONG SUN – Gene Wolfe (1993)

Nightside Of Long Sun

It was earliest morning, when even small trees cast long shadows and scarlet foxes trot denward through the dew like flecks of fire.

That’s a line from The Urth Of The New Sun, and it’s one of my favorite lines ever. Since Gene Wolfe wrote it, and Nightside The Long Sun is the first volume of The Book Of The Long Sun, a series set in the same universe as The Book Of The New Sun – one of my favorite reading experiences ever –  I started this book with high expectations, the hideous cover notwithstanding. Add to that the fact that Kim Stanley Robinson has called The Book Of The Long Sun his favorite SF novel.

Indeed, novel. The 4 books in this series are actually one big book: the 333 pages of the first volume all of a sudden just stop, and Lake, the sequel, just picks up where Nightside stops. So, my definitive judgement on the Artistic Merit of this Book will have to wait until I’ve read the 3 other volumes – something I will most definitely do.

That doesn’t mean Nightside is a very good book. As with all Wolfe I’ve read, the same list of adjectives – bizarre, strange, baffling, different, mythical, mysterious and oddball – springs to mind. And harsh, and deadpan. Nightside is set in a giant generational space ship, of the spinning cylinder Rendezvous With Rama-type. It was sent from a far, far future Earth (or Urth, or the Whorl) to some distant planet. Yet Nightside doesn’t register as SF at first – as in The New Sun, the inhabitants of its world don’t understand their surroundings, aren’t even aware they are on a spaceship, and are not able to repair or even understand the technology – AI entities in the Mainframe that sometimes appear on screens are worshipped as gods. The ship has been flying for ages, and its origins are mostly lost to the book’s characters. Continue reading

THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS – Gene Wolfe (1972)

The Fifth Head Of CerberusI once read that most of Wolfe’s main characters aren’t fully aware of the true nature of their world nor the role they play in it. This is for sure the case in The Book of the New Sun-cycle, and its successor, The Book of the New Urth. To a large extent, it is also the case for the protagonists in the three interconnected stories in this book, that predates Wolfe’s most succesful cycle about 8 years, but already shows a lot of the same ambiguity, narrative techniques (most notably the unreliable narrator) and themes (like the theme of memory).

The title story (about 75 pages) deals with a boy who discovers his true origin, and is the most SF of the 3 stories of the collection, and the easiest, most ‘normal’ read. The second story (“A Story,” by John V. Marsch, about 60 pages) is very different stylistically, and reads as a mythical story. In that respect it resembles some of the stories that are told by some the characters in The Book of the New Sun, most notably in the 4th volume, where Severian participates in a story-telling contest. It’s excellent, but it’s not an easy read – one needs to pay attention to every detail. It has hardly anything to do with how most SF feels like. The third story (V.R.T., 110 pages) sits somewhere in between those two: not an easy read, but the prose is less dense than that of the 2nd story. I’d say it is, in a way, a cross between Kafka’s Der Prozess and an adventure novella. It has thrilling, baffling passages that alone merit the purchase of this book.

Since The Book of the New Sun is practically my favorite series ever, Wolfe has written a benchmark that makes for hard competition with himself. Yet, most fans of SF, mystery prose, intricate fantasy, the poetic and the bizarre will find The Fifth Head of Cerebus an intriguing, rewarding read nonetheless. But, be warned, it requires a bit of an effort, as most good things in life. I wouldn’t call it a full-blown masterwork, but a minor classic it surely is.

originally written on the 10th of January, 2015