Litany of the Long Sun: A mature fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSFF book reviews Gene Wolfe Litany of the Long Sun: Nightside of the Long Sun, Lake of the Long SunLitany of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

Though not essential, it wouldn’t hurt to do some homework before reading Litany of the Long Sun, Gene Wolfe’s omnibus edition of two novels: Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun. Litany and its companion omnibus Epiphany of the Long Sun make up the Book of the Long Sun series, which is itself an independent part of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle.

There’s more.

Wolfe’s “Solar” novels are all set in a universe where the earth’s sun is dying. For humanity to survive this astronomical apocalypse, a generation ship is sent to colonize distant planets. The ship is large and the voyage long, so much so that recent generations are unaware that they are traveling. Only a few know that they are on a ship that is slowly breaking down as it reaches its destination. As far as most characters are concerned, they live in the “whorl” and the whorl is everything.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAll of this sounds like a purely science fiction premise. However, as in his Book of the New Sun novels about Severian the torturer, Wolfe does a fine job of blending his science fiction ingredients with elements of the fantastic. For the most part, the inhabitants of the whorl live in a dusty and decrepit fantasy setting, particularly in Viron, the city Patera Silk calls home.

Patera Silk is one of the most impressive leaders in fantasy. An “augur” in the Sun Street “Manteion,” Silk’s role is something akin to a priest running a place of worship in a poor neighborhood. Silk has spent his life trying to lead his largely criminal flock to sacrifice animals as they worship the gods of the whorl. However, when we meet him, Silk has suddenly received enlightenment from the Outsider, an all but forgotten god that is barely mentioned in the holy books of the whorl.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBefore long, it is revealed that Silk’s manteion has been sold to a local crime lord, Blood. Silk sets out to save his manteion and before long finds himself leading his city in a rebellion against its corrupt leaders, challenging his faith in the whorl’s gods, and even studying swordsmanship with a one-legged fencer. Though humble in conversation and lifestyle, Silk always finds a way to prove equal to the task before him. Surprisingly, his ability to resolve conflict relies on his quick mind and smooth tongue and never on swordsmanship.

What sets Litany of the Long Sun apart from the work of Wolfe’s peers is the way conflict and feelings are revealed. To start, careful readers will come to realize that every character has a unique way of speaking. Moreover, attention to dialogue is absolutely necessary because the narrator never provides an explanation of what characters are feeling or thinking. Wolfe trusts his readers to infer conflict entirely from speech and action. And when following the subtle evasions and dealings of Silk, we must be especially attentive because few characters in the novel realize that he has outsmarted them until it is too late.

Some readers may come to find the pacing of Silk’s journey relentlessly exhausting. Wolfe focuses on the minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour dealings of Silk, and it takes only a few days before we suddenly realize that the power structure of Viron has subtly shifted. However, during these moments we learn a great deal about Silk’s world and the intriguing people that populate it. Among the cast of characters are a talking bird that Silk originally intends to sacrifice but ultimately befriends, a woman that can send her spirit into other people, and the slowly decaying robots that help Silk to run the manteion and later to lead the revolution.

Though his novels are not found on the bestseller list, Gene Wolfe is among the most acclaimed writers in his field. Readers looking for a complex blend of fantasy and science fiction peopled with mature and intricate character interaction could hardly do better than to start with Litany of the Long Sun. Though Silk’s story is just one part of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, readers should not shy away from starting with this fantastically written novel.

THE SOLAR CYCLE — (1980-2001) Contains the original series, The Book of the New Sun, and two sequel series: The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun.

The Book of the New Sun — (1980-1987) Omnibus editions available. Publisher: 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.

Gene Wolfe The Book of the New Sun 1. The Shadow of the Torturer 2. The Claw of the Conciliator 3. The Sword of the Lictor 4. The Citadel of the Autarch 5. The Urth of the New SunGene Wolfe The Book of the New Sun 1. The Shadow of the Torturer 2. The Claw of the Conciliator 3. The Sword of the Lictor 4. The Citadel of the Autarch 5. The Urth of the New SunGene Wolfe The Book of the New Sun 1. The Shadow of the Torturer 2. The Claw of the Conciliator 3. The Sword of the Lictor 4. The Citadel of the Autarch 5. The Urth of the New SunGene Wolfe The Book of the New Sun 1. The Shadow of the Torturer 2. The Claw of the Conciliator 3. The Sword of the Lictor 4. The Citadel of the Autarch 5. The Urth of the New SunGene Wolfe The Book of the New Sun 1. The Shadow of the Torturer 2. The Claw of the Conciliator 3. The Sword of the Lictor 4. The Citadel of the Autarch 5. The Urth of the New Sun

The Book of the Long Sun — (1993-1996) Publisher: In a decrepit school, children are taught to be soothsayers by Patera Silk, an innocent hero. Silk’s school is sold by his superiors to the crude businessman, Blood. Silk finds that he is a powerful sorcerer, and magic is in the air.

Gene Wolfe The Book of the Long Sun 1. Nightside the Long Sun 2. Lake of the Long Sun 3. Calde of the Long Sun 4. Exodus from the Long Sun Gene Wolfe The Book of the Long Sun 1. Nightside the Long Sun 2. Lake of the Long Sun 3. Calde of the Long Sun 4. Exodus from the Long Sun Gene Wolfe The Book of the Long Sun 1. Nightside the Long Sun 2. Lake of the Long Sun 3. Calde of the Long Sun 4. Exodus from the Long Sun Gene Wolfe The Book of the Long Sun 1. Nightside the Long Sun 2. Lake of the Long Sun 3. Calde of the Long Sun 4. Exodus from the Long Sun

The Book of the Short Sun — (1999-2001) Publisher: ON BLUE’S WATERS is the start of a major new work by Gene Wolfe, the first of three volumes that comprise The Book of the Short Sun, which takes place in the years after Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun. Horn, the narrator of the earlier work, now tells his own story. Though life is hard on the newly settled planet of Blue, Horn and his family have made a decent life for themselves. But Horn is the only one who can locate the great leader Silk, and convince him to return to Blue and lead them all to prosperity. Horn sets sail, in a small boat, on a long and difficult quest across the planet Blue in search of the now legendary Patera Silk.

Gene Wolfe The Book of the Short Sun 1. On Blue's Waters Gene Wolfe The Book of the Short Sun 1. On Blue's Waters Gene Wolfe The Book of the Short Sun 1. On Blue's Waters


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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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4 comments

  1. I really need to reread these books. And somehow I never got around to reading the Short Sun books!

  2. The Short Sun books have some pretty impressive moments. I’d recommend it.

  3. I’ve got to read these, especially after yours and Kat’s great reviews.

  4. The Soldier series is also excellent.

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