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The Book of the New Sun #1-4

The Book of the New Sun

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Recently voted the greatest fantasy of all time, after The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is an extraordinary epic, set a million years in the future, on an Earth transformed in mysterious and wondrous ways, in a time when our present culture is no longer even a memory. Severian, the central character, is a torturer, exiled from his guild after falling in love with one of his victims, and journeying to the distant city of Thrax, armed with his ancient executioner's sword, Terminus Est. This edition contains the first four volumes of the series.

950 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 1983

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About the author

Gene Wolfe

476 books3,008 followers
Gene Wolfe was an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He was noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, to which he converted after marrying a Catholic. He was a prolific short story writer and a novelist, and has won many awards in the field.

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award is given by SFWA for ‘lifetime achievement in science fiction and/or fantasy.’ Wolfe joins the Grand Master ranks alongside such legends as Connie Willis, Michael Moorcock, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Joe Haldeman. The award will be presented at the 48th Annual Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose, CA, May 16-19, 2013.

While attending Texas A&M University Wolfe published his first speculative fiction in The Commentator, a student literary journal. Wolfe dropped out during his junior year, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War. After returning to the United States he earned a degree from the University of Houston and became an industrial engineer. He edited the journal Plant Engineering for many years before retiring to write full-time, but his most famous professional engineering achievement is a contribution to the machine used to make Pringles potato crisps. He lived in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

A frequent Hugo nominee without a win, Wolfe has nevertheless picked up several Nebula and Locus Awards, among others, including the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the 2012 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. He is also a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.


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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 221 reviews
Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,468 reviews3,635 followers
May 18, 2022
On the final analysis, The Book of the New Sun is a dystopia… But it’s far from all, the book is also a picaresque novel… Severian – a gloomy and outlawed picaro – embarks on the quest of his life, to find his future and his destination in the dying bleak world. But there is even more to it – his exotic adventures in the luxuriantly decadent world can’t be nothing but thoroughly decadent as well – so the book follows in the footsteps of the darkest myths of the past…
I was no sooner calm than I realized that I had dropped Terminus Est, and at that moment losing that blade seemed more terrible than the chance of death. I dove, not even troubling to kick off my boots, forcing my way through an umber fluid that was not water purely, but water laced and thickened with the fibrous stems of the reeds. These stems, though they multiplied the threat of drowning many times, saved Terminus Est for me – she would surely have outraced me to the bottom and buried herself in the mud there despite the meager air retained in her sheath, if her fall had not been obstructed. As it was, eight or ten cubits beneath the surface one frantically groping hand encountered the blessed, familiar shape of her onyx grip.
At the same instant, my other hand touched an object of a completely different kind. It was another human hand, and its grasp (for it had seized my own the moment I touched it) coincided so perfectly with the recovery of Terminus Est that it seemed the hand's owner was returning my property to me, like the tall mistress of the Pelerines. I felt a surge of lunatic gratitude, then fear returned tenfold: the hand was pulling my own, drawing me down.

Terminus Est – This Is the End – is another legendary sword.
Severian, like an ancient mythical hero, is protected by gods, he can raise the dead and work other miracles.
‘Were you born as you are? Or was Piaton actually thrust upon you in some way?’ Already, I think, I had begun to realize that my life would depend on finding out as much as I could about this strange being.
The head that spoke laughed. ‘My name is Typhon. You might as well call me by it. Have you heard of me? Once I ruled this planet, and many more.’
I was certain he lied, so I said, ‘Rumors of your might echo still…
He laughed again. ‘You were on the point of calling me Imperator or something of the sort, weren't you? You shall yet. No, I was not born as I am, or born at all, as you meant it. Nor was Piaton grafted to me. I was grafted to him. What do you think of that?’

Evil waylays Severian at his every step so he must fight and destroy it and keep advancing toward his mysterious goal.
A true mythical hero always finds his way, even in the underworld.
Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews269 followers
February 7, 2017
The Book of the New Sun: SFF’s greatest and most challenging epic
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is considered by many SFF readers as the greatest, most challenging, and most rewarding SF-fantasy epic ever written in the genre. At the same time, its baroque language, ambiguous plot, unreliable narrator, and depth of symbolism are likely to discourage most casual readers. Therefore, new readers need to dedicate themselves to unraveling the many layers of plot, religious symbolism, literary references, and narrative sleight-of-hand. They also need to understand that it is essentially a single integrated work, so reading individual volumes is not enough to render judgement. You need to read all four volumes to appreciate what Gene Wolfe has painstakingly crafted. If you do so, you will be rewarded richly indeed.

I’ve actually read the entire series twice in the past two decades, and decided that I would listen to the audiobook editions narrated by the excellent Jonathan Davis to give me a new perspective on the whole creation. He is the ideal narrator for a work this ambitious, as he tackles the baroque story with gravitas, confidence, and enthusiasm. I can’t imagine a narrator better suited to the task.
THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is that type of work, one that rewards multiple readings and reflection and still retains many of its mysteries tantalizingly out of reach. If you are someone comfortable with complexity, mysteries, and a lack of explanations, you should be able to enjoy Wolfe’s elusive style.

This time I also prepared myself by reading Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, an 826-page analysis covering Wolfe’s output through 1986, including all of his short stories and his novels The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, Free Live Free, and THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. Aramini’s analysis sheds much light on the key underlying themes of the story, namely the death and resurrection of the Urth via the coming of the New Sun, the ambiguous messianic nature of the protagonist Severian, the healing power of the Claw of the Conciliator, and Severian’s duty to undergo testing by alien powers to determine if humanity is indeed worthy of this rebirth.

There are so many themes and ideas in Wolfe’s epic that it has spawned an informal school of analysis, including books such as Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus, Robert Borki’s Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” and Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader. Therefore, it would be presumptuous of me to try to analyze his magnum opus in a brief review such as this. Rather, I will just touch on the most important themes of the book and dispense with a discussion of plot details, which you can discover on your own.

To drastically simplify things, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is the story of the young apprentice Severian raised in the guild of torturers called the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. He recalls to the reader his complex path from lowly apprentice to the Autarch of the Commonwealth, the most powerful ruler on far-future Urth. This world lies millions of years in the future, to the point that our own world is no longer even a memory. It is a baroque fantasy world filled with mysterious terms such as archon, carnifex, cataphract, chalcedony, fuligin, hipparch, lazaret, monomachy, optimate, pelerine, psychopomp, quaesitor, thaumaturge, and uhlan. None of these terms are coined by Wolfe, but rather reflect his erudite love of obscure and archaic terms. They lend an air of incredible antiquity to the world of Urth, and the story takes direct inspiration from Jack Vance's THE DYING EARTH.

Severian encounters all manner of friends & foes, allies and enemies, lovers, thieves, soldiers, actors, priests, witches, commoners, malevolent creatures, inscrutable aliens, and other powerful beings whose intentions are unclear. What they all share is an interest in the fate of Severian, for though he does understand this himself for much of his journey, he is destined to not only become Autarch but to serve as the representative to the stars to determine if the dying red sun of Urth is worthy of being renewed in both a symbolic and literal sense, ushering in a New Sun and renewed era of humanity. It is an outcome that is constantly alluded to but never fully explained, though Wolfe later explored this is more detail (while still retaining much mystery) in a companion coda called The Urth of the New Sun (1987).

The religious symbolism of the story is both explicit and complicated. Severian is positioned as the obvious messiah, the living embodiment of the New Sun, and as he wields the cross-shaped executioners’ sword Terminus Est, the Christ-like imagery is plain for any reader to see. And yet throughout the story, Severian himself is a naive and conflicted character, one who struggles first to set aside his training as a torturer and executioner, and later as a man fighting to understand his role as a possible bringer of redemption and resurrection to a corrupt and dying world. This goes far beyond a Christian allegory such as C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, for instance. Of equal importance is the religious talisman that comes into Severian’s hands by accent, the Claw of the Conciliator. This object seems capable of bringing the dead back to life and healing fatal wounds when Severian wields it, and is associated with the Conciliator, a figure of the ancient past who is both Christ-like and may also have extra-terrestrial origins.

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN also incorporates a number of stories-within-stories, told by various characters and also in the form of stage plays performed by the characters (echoing the story itself from the author’s perspective) during key moments in the narrative. One could write a dissertation on interpreting the meanings of these stories as they relate to the overall themes of the book, and this effort is far beyond me, but Marc Aramini does discuss the implications of a number these stories in his book Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, including Dr. Talos’ play “Eschatology and Genesis”, “The Tale of the Student and His Son”, “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog”, “The Cock, the Angel, and the Eagle”, “The Armiger’s Daughter”, as well as some extremely vivid dreams of Severian. This literary device is equally vital to understanding the layers of meaning in his book Peace.

The story is further complicated by the roles of Abaia, Erebus, and their servants the undines, underwater beings of great power that seem intent on conquering humanity, but at the same time provide aid to Severian at times and may even benefit from the inundation of Urth if Severian is to succeed in bringing the New Sun. They are constantly observing Severians’ progress, but it is unclear whether they seek to aid or prevent his quest.

We also have the even more inscrutable role of the Hierodules, alien beings from other worlds that reside on Urth and also take a keen interest in Severian and his path to becoming the Autarch. Despite their implied powers, they sometimes seem to indicate that they serve him, but this in never made entirely clear. They appear to have a connection with the current Autarch, but it is not apparent whether they favor Severian over his rule.

Finally, there is the ambiguous role of the reigning Autarch himself, and his mysterious advisor Father Inire. They obviously wield great power, and if they were to decide Severian were a threat to them they could easily have him killed. Yet they instead appear in various guises in his adventures, never clearly his ally or enemy, always with opaque intentions and tantalizing comments. Father Inire in particular seems to control the power to travel between the stars via the sinister power of mirrors and labyrinths (an obvious nod to Jorge Luis Borges), but does not demonstrate to what end he might use them.

In the end, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN does not easily yield up its secrets to interpretation or analysis, but this is most certainly the source of its lasting appeal to discerning literary SFF readers over the last 35 years. There are layers of meaning that remain obscure even after multiple readings, but it is clear that Wolfe has crafted a masterpiece that is worth the attempts to conquer it, a literary Mt. Everest that every serious reader in the genre will be drawn to again and again, and there is much to be gained in each attempt, whether the peak is attained or not.
Profile Image for Chris Hawks.
119 reviews32 followers
February 14, 2012
Um...wow? I have now read this book twice in the past year, and am looking forward to regular rereads every December.

I had heard lots of fantastic things about Gene Wolfe, and this series in particular, so I figured this was the best place to start. The first time through, I thought it was good. A little slow in parts, and other times it was difficult to keep up with what was going on, but overall? Very enjoyable. I rated it a modest 3.5 stars, figuring I'd revise my rating up after subsequent rereads. A couple months later, I was still thinking about TBotNS, so I revised my rating to 4 stars.

Then some random impulse possessed me (I, who give little time to rereads, and had already done one this year) to do a reread in December, a year removed from my first reading. As anticipated, it was even better; but I was surprised by just how much better it was. As expected, much of the book made more sense, puzzle-pieces fit together more readily, and "good" parts from my first read felt like old friends. But many of the "slow" parts now raced by, and the handful of short stories retold by the narrator Severian—which before had mostly bored me—I now savored. I found myself moved (and rendered misty-eyed) by unexpected passages. It was, in a word, MAGICAL.

My new rating was to be 4.5 stars, but it wouldn't stop there. For throughout much of the book, I felt almost like I was studying a religious text—which indeed, it is, at least in-story. There's a depth to Wolfe's book that invites scrutiny and searches for meaning. Not being much of a critical reader myself, I'm fine with the realization that I'll never grasp 90% of the true substance of TBotNS; but just as someone like myself can be absolutely terrible at Go, yet appreciate the profound brilliance of the game, so too can I recognize the genius of Wolfe's masterpiece. 5 stars it is.

This review tells nothing about the actual story of the book, and I will not apologize for that. Rather, I think that that is the way TBotNS is best approached; know that it ostensibly takes place millions of years in the future, and go from there. Be warned that though the first time through may confuse, it will also reward, and subsequent visits bring yet greater rewards. As for me, I'm looking forward to many years of rewards.
Profile Image for Warwick.
844 reviews14.6k followers
October 2, 2022

I experienced a strange decline and fall with this series of four books, each of which seemed to me to be less interesting and more frustrating than the last.

It begins really well, introducing an apprentice in the guild of torturers on what appears to be the Earth of a far future. The opening chapters, with our hero Severian exploring the immense castle where he's grown up, is nicely claustrophobic and even gave me a few echoes of Gormenghast. And the world-building in general is excellent, with a good sense of the world's ancient past, and many half-understood intimations of advanced technology and alien races.

Unfortunately, once Severian leaves home on the inevitable quest, the whole thing turns into more of a picaresque, where it is hard to keep caring about what happens because of the random way that characters seem to appear, travel with him for a while, and then get discarded by the author. It is also often far from clear where exactly Severian is going and why.

Without the impetus of narrative interest, one is left scaling the cliff-face of Gene Wolfe's prose style, which is, I'm afraid, terrible. He adopts one of those cod-medieval registers that was already a cliché in 1981, so that, for instance, no one can be fair-haired but instead must be ‘fair of hair’. (One character here is described as ‘haughty of port, wide of shoulder, and mighty of thew’.) Women get an especially raw deal in these descriptions, which is unfortunate because we're already inclined to be suspicious over the way that every female character is desperate to sleep with the hero, without having to factor leery descriptions into the bargain. Wolfe is so obsessed with one character's tits in particular that he simply cannot get through any mention of her without sounding completely unhinged:

Above the waist her creamy amplitude was such that her spine must have been curved backward to balance the weight.

Her creamy amplitude? I think I just threw up in my mouth a bit. Later, when they're building something together:

Those long legs, so slender below the knees, so rounded to bursting above them, were inadequate to bear much weight beyond that of her own body; her jutting breasts were in constant danger of having their nipples crushed between lumber or smeared with paint.

All this is well beyond authorial indulgence, and into territories where as a reader you are biting your knuckles with second-hand embarrassment. What makes it genuinely juvenile is the sense of detachment from real anatomy: at one point, watching a group of women at a distance, Severian says bizarrely, ‘One could see from the way these women held themselves that their thighs were as full as the udders of milch cows.’ Their thighs were full? Of what!?

And then there's Wolfe's use of archaisms and coinages. This was actually one of the things that made me want to read him, because I love an author with a rich vocabulary. But here, inventive word choices are not made in the service of any strange or wonderful prose effects, but just to add a layer of obscurity to certain nouns, especially those representing a) soldiers, b) weapons, or c) items of clothing.

No one in these books puts on a robe and hat; instead, they find themselves ‘arrayed in lapis lazuli jezerant, cothurni, and a stephane, the whole set off by an ebony baculus and a voluminous damassin cape’, which I hope you can picture clearly. None of the military personnel Severan encounters are just horsemen or infantrymen; they are always ‘peltasts’, ‘hobilers’, ‘lightly armed cherkajis’, or some similar nonsense. When a sentence begins, ‘A couple strolled by our alcove’, you hold your breath waiting to hear what bullshit they are wearing; sure enough, ‘the man robed in a sanbenito, the woman dressed as a midinette’. ‘The men who followed him on foot were’ – OK, here it comes – ‘antepilani’. Of course they were. Carrying? ‘Three-pointed korsekses, demilunes, and heavy-headed voulges’. Oh for fuck's sake.

The overall effect is like Benny Hill beating you to death with a copy of Roget's Thesaurus. But even when the words are plain, the meaning often isn't. There is a feeling, all the way through, of having to make out Wolfe's story through a kind of semantic blur, which can only partly be excused by the wish to evoke a sense of mystery. Quite often I found myself reading a paragraph two or three times to understand what was being described. To take one example, there is a moment where Severian is confronted by a strange, otherworldly creature, and Wolfe tries to describe it in such a way that it remains somehow indescribable:

I have already said that from behind, when it opened itself toward the dimarchi, it seemed a reptilian flower. That impression persisted now when we saw it in its full terror and glory, but it was joined by two others.

Two other creatures? No, he means two other impressions. In that sentence, the first ‘it’ refers to the creature, the second ‘it’ refers to his impression. This is terrible. He goes on:

The first was the sensation of intense and otherworldly heat; it seemed a reptile still, but a reptile that burned in a way never known on Urth, as though some desert asp had dropped into a sphere of snow. The second was of raggedness fluttering in a wind that was not of air. It seemed a blossom still, but it was a blossom whose petals of white and pale yellow and flame had been tattered by some monstrous tempest born in its own heart.

This is just wordy confusion masquerading as meaningful opacity. And the same thing recurs, to a greater or lesser degree, at all points through the four books.

Fans of this series like to say that it can only be properly understood on re-reading. While there are some interesting revelations in the final chapters, I can't imagine anything inducing me to go through these volumes a second time – which is a shame, because I really did want to love it.

The best thing about this Folio Society edition is the excellent illustrations by the great Sam Weber, who, if he is occasionally as voyeuristic as Wolfe, at least expresses it with the kind of honesty and technical skill that I found sadly lacking in the text.
Profile Image for Joe Frisino.
39 reviews2 followers
February 11, 2012
I just raised my rating from 4 stars to 5 after my second read-through. The Book of the New Sun ranks among the best books I've read in my 55 years on the planet. I can see why the NYT called it "a major work of twentieth-century American literature" and the Washington Post called Gene Wolfe "the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced."

The story is set so far in the future that the Sun is dying. That is all I'll say about the plot...no spoilers here! Very well written. Deeply conceived. Full of hints and clues that you don't recognize until they reveal themselves later in the narrative. The narrative is so convincing because he shows you Severian's [the protagonist] world and rarely explains it. In this way your own speculations about the physical world, society, class structure, the character's experiences, history, cosmology, technology, philosophy, etc., engage you in this world's creation--with the readerly rewards that accrue thereof.

I stopped short countless times to gaze in wonder though a window to the imagination he'd just opened. Some of these ideas he explores in depth. Others come and go in a sentence or two--how many more are still there waiting for me to find? Beings for whom time flows in the opposite direction than it does for us--who know your future because the first time you meet them is the last time they meet you. Evolved beings who've created a reality that is outside of time and not subject to the cycles of destruction engendered by the expansion and contraction of our universe--think Big Bang to Big Crunch and back again...and again. The Moon, glowing green because it was forested by men at the dawn of mankind--a dawn that is still millennia in our own future. Entire mountain ranges carved in the distant past into titanic statues of long forgotten rulers, so ubiquitous that Severian is overwhelmed when he first sees a mountain uncarved. A researcher from one of mankind's possible futures dwelling in a house with three stories, each of which exists in a different Age--moving between them is as simple as going up and down the stairs. As Severian descends across the face of a high cliff he passes though not just the geological record, but the rock-entombed cities of earlier civilizations of man.

What I've glimpsed through these portals has now become part of my universe. Thank you Gene! (May I call you Gene?)
Profile Image for Tom LA.
605 reviews236 followers
September 9, 2022
Ursula K. Le Guin is frequently quoted on the jackets of Wolfe's books as having said "Wolfe is our Melville."

Critic and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, reviewing this book, wrote: "Gene Wolfe is engaged in the holy chore of writing every other author under the table."

It's impossible to talk about Gene Wolfe's cycle of the New Sun (of which this gorgeous Folio Society edition includes the main 4 books, as the series was originally planned by the author) without spoiling the plot. This is not because the story is based on concepts that are given away early in the book - quite the contrary, in fact, is true: Wolfe's style is so peculiar that a first superficial read will send you in a dazed stupor, and if you go too fast, you're going to miss everything and come out believing that the book is a jumbled mess. The fact is, you can only fully understand the plot if you go backward.

If this confuses you, you're not the only one!

How does Wolfe achieve this? Well, first of all, consider that his background was not a literary one: he used to work at P&G as a mechanical engineer, and he was THE mechanical engineer who came up with the mechanism to prepare, cut and sort the famous "Pringles" potato chips.

This helps me, at least, understand where the unique beauty of this series comes from: having read the 5 books, if I look back in a metaphoric sense (with my eyes closed) what I see is not a straight line, or a clear painting, or even a chain made of a ring after another after another. What I see is more similar to the inside of a very sophisticated clockwork mechanism, with many levers, springs, bolts... and the absolute miracle is that everything clicks together perfectly well.

Wolfe is revered (seriously revered) by many SF authors and Fantasy authors as well. From Neil Gaiman, who wrote the preface to my edition, to George RR Martin and Ursula Le Guin, both of whom have called The Book of the New Sun a "masterpiece".

1. Protagonist
TBoTNS follows the story of Severian, a torturer in the decaying Citadel who, in the first few chapters, shows mercy to a prisoner he's fallen in love with. Rather than being killed for his crime, he's exiled, given an ancient sword (Terminus Est) and sent to the distant city of Thrax. On his way out of the vast urban sprawl of Nessus, his adventures include fighting a duel with a flower (more deadly than it sounds), accidentally stealing the Claw of the Conciliator (a glowing jewel) from a temple and fishing a girl, Dorcas, out of a lake where the dead are sunk.
The story is recounted by Severian himself from a position in the future. He is unreliable to a certain extent.

2. Language
Wolfe decided to use a lot of odd words – "fuligin" for black, "carnifex" for torturer, "destriers", which are sort of super-horses. This all adds to the otherness of the world Wolfe has created... a world that is our own Earth but millions of years in the future, in an age when our sun is dying and therefore it shines with a purplish color in a dark-blue sky. The Moon has been terraformed and therefore it shines GREEN at night. I didn't understand some words until I looked them up, but I knew what he meant by them, and I loved his "note on translation" at the end of the first book, when he tells us how he went about "rendering this book - originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence – into English".

3. World-building
Some say that the world-building is the best element of this series. I disagree, I think the best element of the series is the stunning brain power behind it, which is that of a top engineer mixed with the imagination of a great poet. And you can feel this not only from the world-building, but from every little detail, from a short dialogue to a sketched description.
This is a world which Wolfe never explains directly – the reader has to piece its realities together, which is hugely satisfying, because everything DOES click together, it's not just a couple of things here and there.
By the way, in my opinion this series falls squarely in the category "Science-Fiction", even if I've seen discordant opinions on this point.

4. Mood
The mood is pretty dark throughout, although it gets more and more positive and bright towards the end. Here we need to go back to Gene Wolfe's biography: he fought in Korea, saw unspeakable horrors there, and came back to the US with a bad case of PTSD. He would fall on the ground for any loud noise.
So, Wolfe was a soldier, and the fact that his protagonist is someone who has been trained to kill (a torturer) is not a coincidence. There is a realism in how Wolfe describes a man going about killing as a profession, with the hair-splitting and mental compartmentalization that it entails, that gives me the chills. Just like it's not a coincidence that, despite the huge cast of characters, a deep sense of loneliness pervades the whole series. This comes with reflections about one's sense of duty, loyalty to a cause or to a "guild", and, of course, about killing. But very rarely these reflections are expressed by the author or by Severian. They are mostly for the reader to wonder about.

But aside from this base chord in a minor key, let's not forget that this is also, at its core, an adventure story, and a very fun one: the action scenes are masterfully executed.

I would also add that, unless you are a genius (I'm certainly not), you're probably going to miss at least some of the clues that Wolfe peppered his book with. Therefore, if you ever decide to read this magnificent work, do it as a read-along or read it while listening to the EXCELLENT and very detailed chapter-by-chapter analysis done by the "Alzabo Soup" Podcast.

Another great resource is the YouTube channel "Media Death Cult", where the guys from the Alzabo Soup joined a book-by-book conversation with the channel's creator.

Yes, it might feel confusing the first time you read it. Yes, Wolfe makes you do some work. And yes, this is not a book like any other that you've ever read.

But it's SO rewarding, SO clever, SO imaginative, SO much fun, SO original ... and it has probably the broadest scope that I've ever found in Sci-Fi, with the only exception of Arthur C. Clarke. It will stretch your imagination to the utmost limits.
61 reviews
November 13, 2009
I read this at the recommendation of a friend, otherwise I probably would not have finished it.

It's a very odd book. The premise is interesting enough, and the writing is actually pretty good as well, if from a bit of an odd perspective.

However, somewhere between those two it falls apart. There is no thrust to it. It feels aimless. Individual scenes are good, but have little to do with the scene before them or after them. There is great detail spent on things that are not relevant to the plot, and things that are relevant to the plot are often vague and underdeveloped. This is all, I suppose, somewhat realistic, but it does not make for a good story.

The end ties things together somewhat, but not nearly well enough to justify a disjointed 900 page book.
Profile Image for Nicholas Kotar.
Author 37 books273 followers
April 5, 2016
In the fantasy genre, coming of age tales abound. Commoner becomes emperor stories abound. Nobody becomes great wielder of magic stories also abound. The Book of the New Sun is all of these. But it's also a story told in the first person by a possibly insane former torturer who claims to have perfect recall, but who may have multiple personalities. Oh, and did I mention he is a Christ figure?

I won't even begin to try to summarize the series, though. The back cover jackets do a decent job, but they fall short. This is, after all, Gene Wolfe. And Wolfe does not like traditional narratives, tidy storylines, clear endings, obvious character motivations, or reliable narrators. So if you delve into this world, be prepared: you're in for a very wild ride.

The set-up is interesting and chillingly prescient. It is so far into our future (way farther even than the world of Dune), that the sun is actually dying. There is very little light on the earth, and that physical darkness is mirrored in the abysmal darkness of humanity in moral terms. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is taboo any more. There is very little virtue; people merely survive, and the bad ones survive obscenely.

In this world we find a strange, innocent soul. Severian is a young torturer, who commits the unthinkable--he falls in love with one of his victims and allows her the easy exit of suicide, rather than subject her to the intricate and horrendous tortures of a guild that has made torture into artisanal craft. Even stranger than this--he continues to practice his trade (though it is mostly execution, not excruciation) and it does not make him callous, cruel, or corrupt. He is childlike, even as everyone--human and superhuman--begins to vie for his attention, and it becomes clear that he is destined for something great and terrible.

But that's all too tidy and not at all Wolfian. The actual account is nowhere near that linear. We are interrupted by Robin-Hood style bandits who turn out to be far worse than the corrupt king they battle; a troupe of actors whose leader may or may not be the Devil himself; ugly, lamprey-faced aliens that could actually be angels; carnivorous monsters who speak with the voices of the people they devour. And then there's the healings, the transformation of water into wine, the satanic parody of the Eucharist. It's very nearly too much to swallow.

But through it all, Severian's simple, humble voice keeps us anchored. We begin to see that for a world so far gone in a moral sense, there is a kind of brilliant irony in making a former torturer--the worst of the worst--become the eventual Redeemer of a planet on the brink of death. But is he the Redeemer? Can we even trust him? Has everything he recounted simply been the hallucinations of a fractured personality gone mad?

Who knows? And it doesn't matter, because ultimately, the story is a gorgeous one. Though the world he describes (eerily recognizable in subtle hints) is darker than black (fuligin, in the parlance of the novels), it provides the ideal canvas for brilliant explosions of beauty that are searing in their intensity.

No, this series is not for the squeamish. It's ugly, dark, and frightening in parts. But underlying it all is vivid hope, joyful because it is so pierced through with grief.
Profile Image for Bart.
394 reviews91 followers
May 17, 2021
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.


Even though Wright might be right in spirit, Aramini’s law still holds: “One of the most fascinating aspects of the critical discourse surrounding Wolfe involves how infrequently any two people will agree with each other.” That is because Wolfe has indeed set a trap – but his trap isn’t there to catch readers unwilling to question their assumptions in a post-structuralist way… The trap is there to catch post-structuralists and puzzle-solvers altogether. To understand that, I’ll have to turn to the Spiritual.


Full review on Weighing A Pig Doesn't Fatten It
Profile Image for Earl Biringer.
36 reviews2 followers
August 16, 2016
I don't get it. It's sloppily constructed, intentionally vague, and peopled with ridiculous characters. There is distinction between wit and mere cleverness, and this one clearly belongs in the latter category. I'm not sure exactly what happens (and upon perusing the other reviews I find I am not alone in that), but I also don't care what happened. Getting through the fourth book was a laborious chore that I only embarked upon in the faint hope that it would make sense of the first three books (the second and third of which were read for the same reason). Though it wears a cloak of science fiction it is mere fantasy, complete with all the idiotic plot devices which make fantasy unbearable - extended dream sequences, magic swords, mysterious people who all know more than the narrator but refuse to let him in on their secrets, prophecies and demons and angels.

Profile Image for Robin.
20 reviews18 followers
June 29, 2016
Where do I start with this?

This is probably the most intellectually stimulating work of fantasy (or science fantasy, whatever you call it) I've read. Wolfe doesn't pull his punches, he expects his readers to catch all the little hints and references he drops, and then he starts playing around with it to amuse both himself and the reader. This book has its (often humoristic) meta. It has intertextuality. It has an unreliable narrator, approaches science fiction under so many angles, and a puts up a damn creative defence (or at the very least discussion) of christianity.

All while telling a fantastic, coherent story with imaginative prose. The best part of it is, anachronistic as the work is, that the bigger picture of the story is slowly woven into something that starts making sense. Most books start up a plot from a firm base and then build onwards from there, like a tower, but BOTNS is more like a tapestry where you discover more colours and patterns as you go on. As the final pieces all fall in place near the end, it becomes something beautiful and different entirely.

Dense prose and dry at times, yes, but after reading long enough I felt it simply grows on you with this fascination that keeps you turning pages, wanting to delve deeper, making you eager to know what happens next.

Infused with the catholic beliefs Wolfe holds, yes, but as Pullman - Wolfe's ideologically opposite, yet similar counterpart (though I believe Pullman merely aspires what Wolfe successfully achieves) - once said: "Every kind of work has a moral voice, whether we want it or not."
Has BOTNS stimulated my curiosity more thoroughly than any other tale of fiction? Yes. The philosophical discussions in the book are actually engaging, in that genuine way that Tolstoy could sometimes pull off in his work.

It's been a long time since a world could pull me in like this, but Wolfe has done it. Kudos.
Profile Image for Bryan Crystal-Thurston.
147 reviews2 followers
January 3, 2020
I got through seventy pages in three months, and then I put it down. I realized I got no joy from it, that I would find reasons not to read it. Seeing Neil Gaiman's praise on the cover made my heart sink, but I admit defeat. I feel like I just watched all the raw footage from "Planet Earth", the hours of following around some bird waiting for it to do something, and I don't even have David Attenborough to narrate. Actually, I finally understand why people say, "I don't really get science fiction."

I don't doubt the prowess of the author or the beauty of the prose. This clearly took some writing, I just wish it led to something more fulfilling. All the time and effort went into saying things in a complex way rather than saying complex things. The plot meandered and never really held my interest, even when I could get through the fog of the unreliable narrator and the futuristic language. I feel like I would have gotten just as much by trying to read Harry Potter in French. At least then, I know something interest will happen in the end, and hey, maybe I can learn some French along the way.

See, the beauty of Harry Potter is that all the effort went into making the story interesting, rather than the writing. You can zip through those books in a day and get everything you need. You can also read them slowly or re-read them and get more out of them because the little details mean something. They are complex and accessible simultaneously. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling spent thirty pages describing all the things in Hagrid's hut? Actually, I'd rather read that than this book. This book was like listening to someone describe the intricacies of their obscure PhD research. I guess that's why millions of people have read Harry Potter and I know one person that has ever read this book.
Profile Image for Saul.
15 reviews3 followers
August 30, 2023
It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. It was as if this book had always been on my favourites shelf, and had (according to some unknowable law of causality) placed itself into my hands for the first time at the precise moment when I had accumulated the necessary background knowledge to appreciate it. Or perhaps the causality ran in the opposite direction, and I had, like a character in a Borges story, manifested a book I had dreamed of and sought for so long in vain. A book that itself is essentially a Borges story expanded to epic-length, unravelled as a Nabokovian puzzle, reaching cosmic heights and theological significance. Or maybe I just like to be a little goofy and pretentious on Goodreads sometimes.

Early on in the story, our narrator says something that turns out to be much more important than we realize at the time:

"Have I said that time turns our lies into truths?"

I believe this phrase (which I have since learned was stolen from Proust) is the key to what is happening in this book. Not "happening" in the sense of the first-order events themselves, but in how they are interpreted, by the characters themselves and by us as readers.

The narrative is filled with shifting interpretations. There are events which seem supernatural at first which then turn out to have material explanations. There are truths that seem to turn into lies which then turn out to be truths in the end. There are questions that seem unresolved for the entire book whose answers are hiding in plain sight (though are often implicit). This can be a frustrating experience depending on the reader.

This book is a dream for symbol-enjoyers and pattern-noticers. Tracking them all down is part of the fun, and adds to the richness of the world. But I think it is a mistake to make too strong a correspondence to the meaning of the symbols in our world. Yes, we are beaten over the head with messianic references throughout Severian's journey, but I think it is incorrect to think of it in the end as merely a Christian allegory.

Here is my view. I think there is a strong correspondence with our world, but it is one of a higher-order. It is not about the reality of any particular symbol, but the idea of how symbols can be real. It is virtually universal in human history to believe intuitively that this is true, but from our limited vantage point it is impossible to discern the mechanics behind it. What Gene Wolfe has done is created a world where the curtain can in fact be pulled back to some extent, the ultimate reality can be glimpsed behind the confusing stream of first-order events, and it is found to accord with the mythology present in that world.

What is even more impressive is that we aren't simply granted a God's-eye-view of this. It is revealed to us through the eyes of a character in the world, in the cryptic and bewildering way we would experience and think about it ourselves. We are forced to climb up the hermeneutic spiral to new planes of interpretation. Sometimes we are helped, but often we need to make the jump ourselves. This is the journey-within-the-journey that makes this a truly great work of literature.
Profile Image for Ian Mathers.
457 reviews12 followers
August 14, 2008
I actually have a slightly different edition (hardcover, from the Science Fiction Book Club), but this is the only omnibus of all four volumes I could find on here. I ordered this as one of my six free books or whatever when I joined, because the description sounded neat and it was good value for money; I stumbled upon one of the finest writers, in any genre, North America has produced. Still mysterious, beautiful, profound and terrifying in turn, this series is very much a must-read for you. Yes, you.
Profile Image for Claudia Cristina.
26 reviews6 followers
June 23, 2020
Gosh , Am I the only one to see the emperor naked ?!?! The book makes me queasy and not only mentally but physically, it goes against the grain .One of the few if not the only book I will not finish . I have looked at the 2nd part and it seems to go the same way so I will not open it .
8 reviews2 followers
September 12, 2017
I read this tetralogy. re-read, re-read and re-reading again. never read anything like it and probably will never read again. like a drop of quicksilver in the folds of your brain. you know you read something important. you just don't know what.
Profile Image for Pyramids Ubiquitous.
499 reviews25 followers
March 12, 2023
Despite a full cast of characters, The Book of the New Sun is a thoroughly solitary journey where life is incredibly fragile and death illusive. Wolfe gets top marks for world-building, atmosphere, and prose. The angle that he is merely translating this work and that many of the words do not survive translation adds to the immersion. The reader must rely on their imagination as details of the world are left intentionally vague. The storytelling and plot are not the highlight, but it is not entirely without excitement. Wolfe is more concerned with using this saga to make observations that many Fantasy writers wouldn't dare stab at.

The Book of the New Sun leaves readers with questions by design. This is true about the world and the story but extends itself also to its philosophies. Some of the ideas that Wolfe encounters are so far beyond the scope of classic fantastical storytelling. Wolfe looks at the ideas of greatness and exceptionalism and posits that they may simply be a matter of chance. Philistinism is explored and, even further, the principles of mass bodies and the ungovernability of a culture built on individual expression (the more perspectives to consider, the more impossible becomes their consideration). The cyclical nature of time and progress is a constant theme throughout the dramas that unfold. Wolfe looks at the idea that as an organism we have a tendency to inch very slowly toward progress; that each civilization (and, possibly, each individual) is built on the accomplishments and experiences of past generations to reach a possibly unobtainable ideal. The Book of the New Sun completes the package with great takes on classic tropes, including an iconic weapon. While the tale is bleak in its coloring, it does not lose its optimism.
Profile Image for Newton Nitro.
Author 4 books103 followers
September 28, 2016
Finalmente encarei os cinco livros que formam a elogiada e clássica SAGA DO NOVO SOL, escrita por Gene Wolfe, um escritor americano de fantasia e ficção científica lendário, aclamado por autores como Neil Gaiman, Abercrombie, Michael Moorcock, George R.R. Martin, entre tantos outros. Os cinco livros e suas 1200 páginas estavam na minha lista de leitura à muito tempo, e finalmente eis que chegou a hora! E que saga! Que viagem espetacular!

The Shadow of the Torturer (New Sun 01)

The Claw and the Conciliator (New Sun 02)

The Sword and the Lictor (New Sun 03)

The Citatel of the Autarch (New Sun 04)

The Book of the New Sun Ombibus (Vol. 1 a 4) | SFBC, 1998, 950 páginas | #fantasia #ficçãocientífica | Nota 4 em 5 | Lido de 12.09.16 à 28.09.16 | NITROLEITURAS


Recentemente eleita como uma das melhores sagas de fantasia de todos os tempos, o Livro do Novo Sol de Gene Wolfe é um épico extraordinário, situado em milhões de anos no futuro, em uma Terra que se transformou em um mundo misterioso e fantástico, um tempo quem que a nossa cultura atual não é nem mesmo uma memória.

Severian, o protagonista da saga, é um torturador profissional, exilado de sua guilda depois de se apaixonar por uma de suas vítimas. Viajando para a distante cidade de Thrax, armado com sua antiga expada do Executor, a Terminus Est, Severian embarca em uma jornada de autodescoberta e de revelação de mistérios sobre o estranho e bizarro mundo em que vive. Esta edição reúne todos os 4 primeiros volumes da saga: The Shadow of the Torturer (New Sun 01), The Claw and the Conciliator (New Sun 02), The Sword and the Lictor (New Sun 03), The Citatel of the Autarch (New Sun 04).

Sempre tive vontade de conhecer a obra de Gene Wolfe, tão citado por mestres da fantasia contemporânea como Neil Gaiman e George R.R. Martin. E realmente, compreendo a influência de Wolfe nos escritores que se formaram na geração 70 e 80. A moralidade cinzenta, os toques poéticos na prosa, o cuidado com a caracterização dos personagens, está tudo lá, na Saga do Novo Sol.

A narrativa começa como uma jornada de amadurecimento, como jovem Severian abandonando a vasta metrópole onde vivia para tentar descobrir quem ele realmente é. À medida que Severian segue em sua jornada, ele cria aliados e inimigos, e aos poucos, fica consciente dos problemas na corte do Autarca, um monarca misteriosos, quase como um deus vivo, e que comanda o maior império do mundo, mas que enfrenta uma inssurreição comandada pelos também misteriosos Hierodules. Além disso, Severian também escuta rumores de uma terrível guerra contra estrangeiros vindos de uma cultura completamente alienígena, situada nas terras do norte.

A saga começa de maneira maravilhosa, Wolfe é um mestre em jogar o leitor em uma sensação de deslumbramento com poucas frases. A prosa é poética e cria imagens fantásticas, fluindo de um modo quase hipnótico e envolvendo o leitor em uma atmosfera estranha e diferente. Imersiva, e dando ao cenário uma aura de decadência civilizatória que me cativou de cara.

O que chama a atenção é a originalidade. Com cuidado com a prosa e talento poético, Wolfe criou um mundo estranho e misterioso, o clima bizarro lembra a sensação que tive ao ler o primeiro livro da saga da Torre Negra, do Stephen King (apesar de serem absolutamente diferentes!).

A saga é cheia de quebra-cabeças, enigmas, mistérios que vai se encaixando ao longo da narrativa. É daquelas histórias cujos mistérios mantém o leitor maquinando o tempo todo, e esperando aqueles momentos de AHÁ! quando são solucionados.

Gene Wolfe faz uma "fantasia cerebral", e a Saga do Novo Sol serve como um Ulysses de James Joyce para a literatura de especulação. A narrativa é cheia de quebra-cabeças, tudo que acontece é importante e é referenciado novamente ao longo da jornada de Severian.

Para apreciar a história inteira e o intelecto monstruoso de Gene Wolfe, recomendo LER TODOS OS QUATRO LIVROS, um atrás do outro. Como é muito bizarro, leva um tempo para acostumar com o estilo da história, que as vezes soa como uma alegoria, outras como mitologia, e outras como um memorial. No final, fica a sensação de ter-se visitado uma outra realidade, com todas as suas idiossincrasias. E sem contar com os questionamentos filosóficos da narrativa, sobre a natureza da realidade e da relação entre Criador e Criatura, entre o homem e o que ele cria, mesmo que sejam os próprios deuses que sua imaginação gesta.

O arco narrativo do Severian é vertiginoso, ele muda muito, de formas muitas vezes inesperadas! Essa é uma daquelas séries que se baseia no protagonista. Se o leitor se identificar com o protagonista, acabou-se, o vício é inevitável! Se não, larga a série no primeiro volume!

Recomendo para quem curte fantasia mais "literária", que já lei livros mais existencialistas, e quem gosta de ser desafiado pelo escritor. :)


“And it came to me that these trees had been hardly smaller when I was yet unborn, and had stood as they stood now when I was a child playing among the cypresses and peaceful tombs of our necropolis, and that they would stand yet, drinking in the last light of the dying sun, even as now, when I had been dead as long as those who rested there.”

“. . .Consciousness came and went.

Consciousness went and came like the errant winds of spring, and I, who so often have had difficulty in falling asleep among the besieging shades of memory, now fought to stay awake as a child struggles to lift a faltering kite by the string.”
― Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun
307 reviews4 followers
March 24, 2018
I feel that "classic" works of any medium should be divided into 2 categories:
1. Classics of the Art - works that appeal to people who participate in the craft. They push the boundaries of what the craft was originally thought to do.
2. Classics of the Heart - works that have a timeless quality to them, that can be enjoyed apart from any historical context.

So when I heard that "The Book of the New Sun" was a Sci-Fi/Fantasy (SFF) classic, like "The Lord of the Rings", I assumed that like LotR, it was a Classic of the Heart. Most of my disappointment from this book has to do with the expectation I went in with. The Book of the New Sun is very firmly a Classic of the Art. It appeals to people who are invested in literature, and for those who are invested in the craft of SFF. However, it will hold little appeal if you are not in either of those camps.

I've heard it said multiple times on Goodreads that Gene Wolfe needs to be read a minimum of twice. Having read the New Sun quartet, I can see that. The book seems VERY arbitrary and random the first time you read it; the main character seems to wander through his own story with no apparent goal or purpose. Everything has an explanation, and everything wraps up in the end. EDIT: I have now read "The Urth of the New Sun", and I can no longer refer to this as a quartet. It is a quintet, and you must read all 5. Book 4 stops the story, but it does not end the story. Book 5 ties all of the loose, disparate pieces together for a true conclusion.

So what makes this book unique? What makes it a Classic of the Art? First off, it is a cross between a SFF story and a philosophy text. It is told in first person with an imperfect narrator. As Severian recounts the events of his life, he will often wander into tangents as to the deeper meaning of things. Many of these wanderings are truly thought-provoking, and would appeal to literature buffs and people who want to explore the true literary merit of SFF. Second, it is a story of Earth (or Urth) millions of years in the future, with a dying sun, and in a period of Dark Ages, but it never explains explicitly how the world got there. It throws out tidbits of its history (the moon is Green, so it was obviously terraformed at some point; humanity went to the stars also), but is written from the perspective of someone who just accepts things as they are. Third, it has very interesting ideas. A sword with a mercury core that enhances the strength of the swinger? Pretty cool. Fuligin, a color darker than black that is so black it makes things seem 2D? Neat, and also real now that Vantablack exists. In my time reading this book, these unique points made me never regret having picked up the book.

So what makes this book NOT a Classic of the Heart? Simply put, it is hard to follow the story. Book 1 ends with jarring abruptness, and Book 2 picks up some time later without explaining what happened in between. Book 5 begins with a 100-page semi-psychedelic stream of consciousness. Even the events that lead to Severian becoming Autarch (not a spoiler, he tells you in the beginning of the book that he is writing as the Autarch) seem like a random string of events that were set up only 1-2 chapers prior. There is a pivotal scene in Book 2 (regarding a creature known as the Alzabo), that the reader won't understand for hundreds of more pages. Worse though is that Severian isn't a likeable character. There's no redemption ark, because he never sees his employment as a torturer as a thing that is wrong. He has sex with almost every woman in the story, sometimes minutes after meeting them. Until the last half of book 5, I never rooted for him; I never wanted him to win; I never cared what would happen next. That's a cardinal sin for a story of this length told through a first-person perspective.

So I'm firmly middle of the road on this series. Gene Wolfe is excellent at the craft of writing, and I can understand WHY this book is a Classic of the Art. However, I just didn't care enough about the story or the characters, and I don't see any places for a casual reader to get attached to them either. I give this book 3 stars. Some people will love it, and some will not.
EDIT: After reading "The Urth of the New Sun", I'm bumping this up to a 3.5. It was the ending the book needed.
Profile Image for Tyler Bumpus.
Author 5 books3 followers
February 10, 2016
Like many readers, my second instinct after hearing about a seminal work of fiction is to get the gist of what it is (the first being to jot down its title/author). Just a smidgeon. A crumb of datum to warn me what I'm in for.

The thing that surprised me about The Book of the New Sun is that it's impervious to this approach. From reviews I found hyperboles. Blurbs about its sci-fi and fantasy trappings, its layers, its unreliable narration, its imaginative scope and allusions to everything from Bhagavad Gita to Bible, Aesop to Borges to Lovecraft. Plus vague condemnations of pervasive weirdness, incoherence and misogyny.

In other words, nobody has a clue what to actually make of it other than to admit that it holds the power to bore, enthrall, repulse and enlighten.

I cannot offer much better, I fear. Nothing that hasn't been dissected in companions like Solar Labyrinth and Lexicon Urthus. It is a work born to obsess quacks and academics, and to affront the easygoing and high-strung in equal measure.

Because BotNS, like all strong myths, has no real contemporary agenda. It reaches deeper into the faculties, demanding reader agency. It will not simply tell you what it's about. Like an artifact discovered outside of its native place and time, it's a puzzle with no one solution. This saddles the unsuspecting reader with the burden of the archeologist piecing together a world lost (or, in this case, yet to dawn).

Personally, I found it a frustrating and fascinating experience, like many of my most memorable reads. A book that rewards as often as punishes, opening up to those that question their preconceptions and shutting to those who cannot. Whether that's your cup of tea is for you to decide.

You'll notice I've not broached a synopsis, as I see many here have nobly attempted. I don't believe I will. The most I'll say is this:

When the journey of a monster and the journey of a savior are superposed, there are overlapping points at which the conflicting stories find themselves in utter agreement. This book seems to be all about those strange points of congruity.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
307 reviews9 followers
February 15, 2017
This is compared to LotR in scope and epicness and also I guess in meandering plotlines.
Lord of the Rings at least HAD a plot.

This book has a fairly bland main character, no "MacGuffin" even 20 percent in, as far as I can tell, and women who parade around with their dresses ripped and boobs hanging out for no reason other than to provide something pretty for the main character to look at.

Eowyn she ain't.

This is a nope, nope, nope.
Profile Image for Kellen Mahoney.
1 review1 follower
March 3, 2023
I could read this over and over again for the rest of my life and I would still be astonished every single time. This is the most thorough exploration of the human condition I’ve ever encountered, and it’s all masterfully disguised as pulpy 80’s dark fantasy
Profile Image for Amelia.
123 reviews19 followers
April 8, 2017
The New Sun series is one of the best works of literature of the 20th century. It is a masterpiece on so many levels.
Profile Image for Gerrit Gmel.
179 reviews3 followers
June 11, 2022
Oh boy, this is a hard one to rate. Five stars because it certainly is art, and because it's very well executed, but it doesn't make it to my personal pantheon because, well... it might be just a little too weird and not quite satisfying enough for that. Or maybe it should be 4 stars because it's not quite as satisfying as other books...? But then again I just read 1000 pages and could have easily kept reading another 1000... so that's 5 stars... right?

The genre is somewhere between sci-fi and fantasy, set in a world way in our future when the sun is about to die. So while humanity has evolved a lot past our current point (sci-fi), they forgot pretty much everything and are back to a middle-ages type life with monsters and artefacts created in the previous ages (fantasy). The mood is dark and contemplative but not depressing. Neil Gaiman's introduction to this edition was really quite important for my reading pleasure, a lot of imagery is not directly evident (the moon is green because it was terraformed, but humans forgot how to go to space…), and it is fairly abstruse in parts, very much on purpose. The book is meant to be re-read, and that's a bold thing to do for an author. If you take that on board and deal well with incomplete information and uncertainty, then this is quite the ride!

The writing is excellent, it's a page turner despite being frankly bizarre, the reader discovers the world in small chunks of information, and that is somehow immensely pleasurable. When we grow up we discover the world, and we discover that the world has too much information in it to learn it all, so part of growing up is figuring out what matters to you and what doesn't. The book does this in an imaginary world, and I've never read anything quite like it. I think the best approach to reading this is to just soak it all in and let the whole world wash over you. Try and figure it all out, but don’t be disappointed if some paths lead nowhere, or if you won’t get to go down every path you find.

So... if you're in for a wild ride that's unlike anything you've ever read, jump in, but do it slowly and carefully. Enjoy the discovery process and immerse yourself in it. If you absolute hate sci-fi and fantasy, or if you hate brainy books: skip this, it's certainly not for everyone; true art never is...
Profile Image for Edward Rathke.
Author 10 books130 followers
June 7, 2022
I'm slightly speechless now that I've reread this series.

The novel is just wild, taking strange digressions, dilating time in fascinating ways. The lore and world are both mysterious and solid. The novel takes endless narrative risks that may not be successful but are interesting in ways that are hard to ignore.

Probably I'll have more to say about this later, but I don't really know what to say on a reread.

It's great in fascinating ways, which is something that makes it even more powerful.
3 reviews
August 8, 2014
It's difficult for me to "review" this book because of the profound affect it had on me when I first read it. I will admit to being biased.

I read these books within a year or so after their individual release(s). My personal prelude to this series was LOTR/Sim, Zelanzy, Moorcock, Asimov, Heinlein, Vance, (as a kid I cut my teeth on Lewis, Hobbit, Lieber, Feist, Anthony, etc.) I had read through what many consider as classics of the genre, most of them multiple times. I tell you this because I think it is important for a prospective reader to know that there was a solid foundation of sci-fi/fantasy for me prior to starting this - and being such a devout consumer of the genres, I was always looking for something more challenging, hoping one day to find something epic. A friend discovered Shadow of the Torturer while I was polishing off Thomas Covenant and he was raving but wouldn't tell me anything except "just read it." I picked up that book and was blown away by Wolfe's style within the first chapter, the first few pages no less.

My experience with the series was sans-hype. I was entranced, bewildered, shocked, angered, confused, satisfied, happy, jealous, etc. Yes, I endured the seemingly pointless passages, and was mad at the protagonist, the author, the cover art on books 2-4, the synopsis and irritated at Ursula LeGuin's incessant one sentence proclamation plastered everywhere on all 4 books. That said, years later I could not stop thinking about The Book of the New Sun and Severian. I can say that no book has ever captured my innermost fascination with all things fiction like this one has. My first re-read happened almost immediately after closing the last page of the 4th book. And the mysteries that seemed so confusing at first began to be revealed, even within the first chapter. No, within the first few pages. I was hooked again. I re-read it all, slower this time.

I also want to say that I always thought I was one of a very small number of people who even knew about this series. I'd mention Wolfe to self-proclaimed serious readers of the genre and they had never heard of him. So this many years later I am pleasantly surprised to find that a whole lot of people are calling this one of the best fiction series ever created.

Why is it that we are spoiled on all other authors after reading Wolfe? I found it hard to even begin another book after this. I took to reading non-fiction for many years. In retrospect, I believe that my constant diet of sci-fi/fantasy ended after reading Wolfe. It just took me a couple of years to realize it.

Now it is a few decades later and I picked the books up again. Time has only increased my fascination with this series. I still rank it as one of the best things I have ever experienced from a reader's viewpoint.

I do not recommend this series to anyone who a) wants an easy read b) doesn't like to go back and re-read anything they just read (i.e. skipping back a paragraph or so to understand what you just read) c) needs a cast of characters index d) doesn't like reading words they don't know the meaning of e) reads out of obligation because someone else called it a "masterwork" f) either doesn't know or appreciate the sci-fi/fantasy genre (in fact, it may be better if you have never read any sci-fi/fantasy at all) g) want a like-able protagonist or a one-dimensional hero h) wants no loose ends i) demands linear storytelling j) is interrupted a lot k) is squeamish l) is easily bothered that the male protagonist is somewhat of a misogynist m) thinks the emperor has no clothes because he doesn't give answers to every single thing (like what the heck are notules?)

I would recommend this series to anyone who has read it "all," many times, and is looking for something more. To that person, prepare to be more than satisfied and quite possibly changed from the experience.

One of my favorite songwriters recently said that if she were to explain what she originally meant by various phrases and lyrics in her songs, it was the equivalent to stealing from the listener - because their interpretation was their property.

Much of The Book of the New Sun is interpreted by a feeling I get when I read the text. And that is just fine with me. I don't want to know more about the author, or read someone else's guess at how many Severians there are, or whatever. This is an excellent series if you are into serious sci-fi/fantasy. Have a good time.

P.S. You do not have to like, or even read, Urth of the New Sun if you read and liked the original series of 4 books. Seriously, it's not blasphemy or anything. The Book of the New Sun stands on its own.
Profile Image for Julian Meynell.
671 reviews23 followers
November 17, 2017
The Book of the New Sun is one of the greatest works of literature ever written.

The Book of the New Sun is really not four novels, but instead one book divided into four parts. It's fundamentally a picaresque novel, although all the incidents are related and produce an overarching narrative, but this is secondary to the picaresque nature of the novel. The novel is set in the far future. The novel is set millions of years in the future, possibly hundreds of millions of years in the future and while it is often considered fantasy, it is really science fiction.

The book is essentially a long journey with a large variety of characters and incidents through a surreal ever changing landscape. The main character of the novel is Severian, a journeyman in the guild of torturers who is also the narrator. We see the world through his eyes and Severian is very much bound by mythological and magical ways of seeing the world, so that he inevitably sees the world through this perspective. The world has descended to a quasi medieval setting, although it contains many elements more at home in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries and the books structure is heavily influenced by the writing of that period. Severian is an unreliable narrator, but at least primarily because he sees the world through this persepctive and so science, history and culture are all influenced by it. There may not be anything truly supernatural in the book.

The book is a remarkably easy read in many ways. I sped through it at an ever increasing pace, but despite the fact that it is incredibly readable on the surface it is a very demanding work. Much in it is not explained or explained misleadingly. It would be tempting to read the book as a kind of mystery for the reader, where the point is to figure out what is really going on and many people read it this way. However, in many ways that is to miss its greatness. Part of the point of it is that there is much that is fundamentally ambiguous. Wolfe attaches an appendix or two to each of the sections of the books where he tries to make sense of certain aspects of the society depicted. I think that these appendices are sincere in that they raise many questions to which Wolfe himself does not know the answers.

The characters in the book are sharply drawn and while to some degree stylized individuals, they are still real people in the way, for instance the characters in King Lear, Don Quixote or Gargantua and Pantagruel are stylized but real. The book is clearly about narrative itself. It contains oral tails and plays within its structure. Its also very beautiful and full of philosophical speculations which are clearly meant to be neither entirely right or entirely wrong. I can't say that I know or understand the book or what it means.

Just as an aside, this book clearly influenced Simmons and the Hyperion novels. I love those novels but this book is in a different league.

The book is very beautiful and compelling. It's clearly one of the best books ever written. In fact, I think that it is a plausible candidate for the best book written in the last fifty years. I would never have suspected that I would have said that before I read it. I was aware of Shadow of the Torturer which is why I read it, but knew little about it. It demolishes all similar books.

One of the greatest works of literature of all time. Who knew?
Profile Image for Adam Vine.
Author 18 books94 followers
May 12, 2017
I've read "The Book of the New Sun" cover-to-cover four times, and each time it becomes richer, deeper, and more enjoyable. Neil Gaiman wrote an entire article on why you should read Gene Wolfe, who the New York Times called "Science Fiction's Difficult Genius" and who Ursula K. LeGuin called "Our Melville." Wolfe is a writer's writer. His stories are shadowy, labyrinthine puzzles, impossible to fully grasp on the first read-through. Oh, you will think you know what's going on, and who's-who, and who that guy's mother is. The first time. Maybe even the second. But trust me, you have no idea.

The Book of the New Sun tetralogy is set in far-future Argentina, when the sun is dying, and follows the confessions of Severian, a disgraced young journeyman in the Guild of Torturers who is kicked out for falling in love with and subsequently showing mercy to one of his victims. Over the next four books, we travel with Severian and his mercury-weighted executioner's sword all over the Americas, as he collects heads for a paycheck, battles mad scientists and their giant homunculi, resuscitates his grandmother from the lake of the dead, faces an army that can only speak in short government-approved aphorisms, time-travels, journeys to the stars, and ultimately, becomes leader of the free world. If you are already skeptical of this list of events, that's great - you're off to a good start at successfully reading Wolfe.
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