The Book of the New Sun is the most ambitious work of science fantasy to be published in the last quarter of the twentieth century, recognized with a World Fantasy Award for The Shadow of the Torturer and a Nebula Award for The Claw of the Conciliator. Science fantasy is an odd hybrid. Gene Wolfe’s books combine the linguistic inventiveness and spiritual depth of the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien with the scientific believability and historical sweep of the work of Isaac Asimov. Wolfe’s writing, though, has a voice and a pulse utterly its own.
On one level, the Book of the New Sun is filled with conventional adventure of the “sword and sorcery” variety. Severian fights his way through challenges in Nessus and Thrax to emerge victorious as lord over all. This surface physical action, however, serves primarily to mask the true inner complexity of the series, swathed in Wolfe’s complicated plotting and exotic vocabulary (all of which is derived from existing, though obscure, words in English, Latin, and Hebrew). Most readers will be deep into the series before coming close to guessing the ultimate significance of Urth’s clearly decrepit state or what the New Sun will be.
Severian is typical of post-1960 science fiction in that he is an antihero as much as a hero. Although his narrative perspective governs readers’ view of the story throughout, it is difficult to identify with him: He is too involved in torture, deception, and various other despi-cable acts. Wolfe presents Severian as able to come to terms with the evil he has done and integrate it with the far more dominant principles of altruism that largely govern his conduct. Severian goes into exile from Nessus only to provide cover for what...
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