Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor essentially contains no plot, but it’s the best plotless book I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. I loved every moment of it! (I read this on audio; Audible Frontiers‘ audio version, read by Jonathan Davis, is exceptional.)
This third installment of The Book of the New Sun continues Severian’s journey from apprentice in the torturers’ guild to Autarch. He doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to his exalted position (if anything, I’d say farther) and we’re no closer to understanding how he’s going to get there. But that’s totally fine. Unburdened by a need to be anywhere or to achieve any goals or deadlines, Severian wanders the earth almost aimlessly, and it’s this wandering that’s so fascinating.
For a reader who’s only anxious for action and story progression, The Sword of the Lictor is not likely to work and, indeed, I usually get annoyed with authors who take too long to tell their stories. However, when I’m reading Gene Wolfe, it not only works — it is pure delight. For Wolfe’s old earth, set in a far future when the sun is dying (similar to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth), is full of wonder and amazement and he tells us all about it in his simple but elegant style:
… authors are so anxious to move their stories forward (however wooden they may be, advancing like market carts with squeaking wheels that are never still, though they go only to dusty villages where the charm of the country is lost and the pleasures of the city will never be found)… The assassin who holds a dagger to his victim’s neck is eager to discuss the whole matter, and at any length the victim or the author may wish. The passionate pair in love’s embrace are at least equally willing to postpone the stabbing, if not more so… In life it is not the same…
I wish I could be there with Severian as he climbs down the steep cliff overhung with a waterfall and embedded with the fossils of earth’s lost architecture, and explores the round metal building that we recognize (but he doesn’t) as a spaceship… I’d love to tell you more and to discuss what it all means (there’s so much symbolism here), but then you’d miss the jaw-dropping, eye-widening, brain-expanding experience for yourself. I’ll just say that what Severian experiences on his journey perfectly captures the essence of excellent speculative fiction — it’s the reason I love SFF.
Nobody creates such a sense of wonder and amazement, such truly unique and bizarre ideas, and relates them in such a beautiful way as Gene Wolfe does. I want to spend a lot more time exploring his world.