Gene (Rodman) Wolfe Somtow Sucharitkul - Essay

Somtow Sucharitkul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Sword of the Lictor is the third volume of the Book of the New Sun tetralogy] and it is a shattering tour de force. Those readers who have somehow avoided the previous two episodes in this elegant, comic, searing Bildungsroman of a deeply sympathetic young torturer, have done themselves an unconscionable disservice. (p. 16)

The tetralogy folds out like one of those endless Chinese wallets, always different, always seamless, always one…. To summarize [Sword of the Lictor] is absurd, but images of wonder and weirdness linger long in the memory: the monstrous alzabo, half vampire, half soul eater; the mad two-headed king; vast statues like the Memnons of myth whose arms follow the sunlight and out of whose eyeballs one can gaze upon vistas of curious terrain. And throughout the work there is the language: acerbic, sensuous, intricate. [Wolfe] has created a language of startling alienness for the tetralogy, in which neologisms mingle with resurrected antique words and chimerical hybridizations of Latin, Greek, Germanic roots, strange as the gene-tailored mutants, remnants of older times, that populate the landscape. And yet there is a rightness about his vocabulary, as though he were plucking his words out of some half-conscious dream-memory; they sound like forgotten friends, not aliens: alzabo, fuligin, balucither, cacogen.

In a very real sense, it is this very familiarity, not the baroque weirdness of its textures, that makes Sword of the Lictor so powerful. For Wolfe never loses sight of his sources, his mythical resonances. It is his classical adherence to that most ancient of literary structures, the finding of self within a journey through fantastical and ever-widening landscapes, that pushes the book beyond eccentricity into greatness.

Sword of the Lictor seems the finest of the three books published so far in Gene Wolfe's tetralogy. It will be difficult to wait for the final volume. (pp. 16-17)

Somtow Sucharitkul, "A Certain Slant of 'I'," in Fantasy Newsletter (copyright © 1981 by Florida Atlantic University), Vol. 4, No. 12, December, 1981, pp. 16-17, 32.∗