by Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
Gene Wolfe‘s imagination is truly formidable. A industrial engineer (and devoted Catholic) who has become a living SF legend, Wolfe’s work is rich, dense, and not always exactly what I’m looking for. But that’s no slight: when Wolfe’s writing what I want to read, it’s amazing; when he’s not, it’s still fine, it just tends to get a bit… overly complicated and less than satisfying – but a return to form is always just a few pages away.
Brittany will be posting her impressions of Wolfe’s early short story compilation, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (not a typo, FYI), and I imagine her take on Wolfe will be equally conflicted.
But the Book of the New Sun is the big one: the magnum opus (he’s since spun off a coda and two additional series, the Book of the Long Sun and the Book of the Short Sun).
The four novels that make up the tetralogy are packed so densely with episodes alternately incredibly compelling and kind of… kind of like you just want to get through them as quickly as you can, that, sitting here now recalling the bits I remember, I’m truly astounded at the way the story is so compartmentalized in my brain.
The plot unfolds in a distant future inspired by the work of the writer who has appeared more times then any other on this blog, the great Jack Vance. The first novel, the Shadow of the Torturer, opens with its protag, Severian (who is blessed/cursed with a perfect memory), serving as an apprentice in the guild of torturers. His kind of weirdly idyllic childhood is interrupted by a key chance meeting in the nearby necropolis and the professional discipline he’ll expertly develop over the next few years is kind of slow-burn compromised.
While I suppose I could offer a more comprehensive plot synopsis, I’d really be doing everyone (particularly you, dear reader) a disservice. Suffice to say, a lot happens very quickly: Severian makes a judgement call that ultimately results in his exile from Nessus (the capital city), is challenged to an alien poison flower duel, demolishes a church, meets a young lady who’s been submerged in (for lack of a better description) internment water for who knows how long, meets another young lady who’s definitely hiding something, gets a crazy note from a bus boy, and becomes aquatinted with a fairly unique traveling acting troupe. Oh, and he’s given an awesome sword called Terminus Est and dispatched to a place called Thrax: the city of windowless rooms.