The Book of the New Sun

During the flight to Washington D.C. on Saturday, I finished Shadow & Claw, by Gene Wolfe, that I had started on my previous trip to the US and which is the first part of The Book of the New Sun (or alternatively is made of the two first volumes, The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, of this quadrilogy). I started reading these books upon the suggestion of a fellow mathematician in Paris Dauphine, who considers them as an higher (the highest!) kind of fantasy. After reading thru the first half, I cannot but agree with this assessment: The literary style of Gene Wolfe is much more involved and deeper than the usual fantasy syntax and his plot construction is much more intricate, to the point of being almost obscure. There are links with the standards of this literature, including the author being a former military (similar to Robert Jordan and many others), the young apprentice being left to his own device who starts a discovery journey and the chance encounters during this journey that bring him luck or woe, as well as side information about the dangers that threaten him. But I find at least as many links with a much older fantasy literature, namely the Arthurian novels of Chrestien de Troyes and others, i.e.~the medieval version of the genre, with the same kind of perpetual wonder at the marvels and dangers of the world, with characters always unexpectedly bumping into quests and challenges, in a rather linear and unavoidable fashion that relates to the 2D paintings of the time, as well as an archaic and somehow naïve way of behaving towards others and especially towards women. (This antiquated style, although the book was written in the early 80’s, may confuse modern readers who will find the roles played by female characters rather limited, since they are either nuns or prostitutes!, but besides the hero, whose actions and point of view are the only ones provided to the reader, all other essential characters are women.)

The convolved and slowly unraveling plot of Shadow & Claw also reflects this unusual approach to the fantasy literature: the dangers that usually beset the young hero (or more rarely the young heroin) are not so obvious there. Nor is the quest that almost inevitably sets the backbone of a modern fantasy novel. In the case of The Shadow of the Torturer, besides chance encounters of the hero (Severian) with dangerous situations, there is only a vague global threat represented by a rebel leader Severian meets and idealises from the first pages of the novel, but the motivations for the rebellion are never clearly defined, even when Severian meets again with this leader. Even the structure of the society is explained indirectly and progressively through Severian’s eyes and opinions. Similarly, almost from the beginning, the hero fails in his duties (as a Torturer) for the love of a highborn prisoner and he is driven by his guild upon a penance trip to a faraway place, but he does not seem particularly eager or in a hurry to reach it over the first part of the novel. At last, while there are magical powers and magical beings, like witches, giants, or undines, present in the world of Shadow & Claw, Wolfe’s descriptions remain, once again, so vague as to leave a good part to imagination. In connection with this feature, dreams and riddles also play a good part in the development of the plot. There is for instance a complete theatre play, called Eschatology and Genesis (!), that serves as a political satire of the current autocratic (or autharcic?!) regime.

The closest (and only) book I can relate to this one is the equally unique and daunting Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, with which it shares a strong and sombre Gothic atmosphere, an elusive description of the outer world(s), with completely alien behaviours from the characters (a lacking feature of most of the current fantasy literature is that characters behave much too closely to our 21st Century ways, even when handling a sword or launching a spell!) and incomprehensible codes in the current society) , and an almost deterministic destiny weighting upon the characters. Like this (other) masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun stands on its own as part of the world literature, rather than as a good representant of the fantasy genre. I am definitely looking forward reading the second half Shadow & Citadel while here in the U.S. and finishing the cycle!

One Response to “The Book of the New Sun”

  1. I finished the second volume a few days ago and stand by my overall evaluation above. The depth of the plot, the multiple connections with classics, and the complexity of the style are the reasons why it took me so long to complete the series, despite a whole week of “doing nothing” in Maine! And I still feel I would need to re-read the whole series once to better understand some of the sub-plots…

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