The Sword of the Lictor: Captures the essence of excellent speculative fiction

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSFF book reviews Gene Wolfe The Book of the New Sun 3. The Sword of the Lictor audiobookThe Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe

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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFor 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.

~Kat Hooper


two-volume omnibus edition

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsTHE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is considered by many SFF readers as the greatest, most challenging, and most rewarding SF-fantasy epic ever written in the genre. At the same time, its baroque language, ambiguous plot, unreliable narrator, and depth of symbolism are likely to discourage most casual readers. Therefore, new readers need to dedicate themselves to unraveling the many layers of plot, religious symbolism, literary references, and narrative sleight-of-hand. They also need to understand that it is essentially a single integrated work, so reading individual volumes is not enough to render judgement. You need to read all four volumes to appreciate what Gene Wolfe has painstakingly crafted. If you do so, you will be rewarded richly indeed.

I’ve actually read the entire series twice in the past two decades, and decided that I would listen to the audiobook editions narrated by the excellent Jonathan Davis to give me a new perspective on the whole creation. He is the ideal narrator for a work this ambitious, as he tackles the baroque story with gravitas, confidence, and enthusiasm. I can’t imagine a narrator better suited to the task.

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is that type of work, one that rewards multiple readings and reflection and still retains many of its mysteries tantalizingly out of reach. If you are someone comfortable with complexity, mysteries, and a lack of explanations, you should be able to enjoy Wolfe’s elusive style.

This time I also prepared myself by reading Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, an 826-page analysis covering Wolfe’s output through 1986, including all of his short stories and his novels The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, Free Live Free, and THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. Aramini’s analysis sheds much light on the key underlying themes of the story, namely the death and resurrection of the Urth via the coming of the New Sun, the ambiguous messianic nature of the protagonist Severian, the healing power of the Claw of the Conciliator, and Severian’s duty to undergo testing by alien powers to determine if humanity is indeed worthy of this rebirth.

There are so many themes and ideas in Wolfe’s epic that it has spawned an informal school of analysis, including books such as Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus, Robert Borki’s Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” and Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader. Therefore, it would be presumptuous of me to try to analyze his magnum opus in a brief review such as this. Rather, I will just touch on the most important themes of the book and dispense with a discussion of plot details, which you can discover on your own.

To drastically simplify things, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is the story of the young apprentice Severian raised in the guild of torturers called the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. He recalls to the reader his complex path from lowly apprentice to the Autarch of the Commonwealth, the most powerful ruler on far-future Urth. This world lies millions of years in the future, to the point that our own world is no longer even a memory. It is a baroque fantasy world filled with mysterious terms such as archon, carnifex, cataphract, chalcedony, fuligin, hipparch, lazaret, monomachy, optimate, pelerine, psychopomp, quaesitor, thaumaturge, and uhlan. None of these terms are coined by Wolfe, but rather reflect his erudite love of obscure and archaic terms. They lend an air of incredible antiquity to the world of Urth, and the story takes direct inspiration from THE DYING EARTH of Jack Vance.

Severian encounters all manner of friends & foes, allies and enemies, lovers, thieves, soldiers, actors, priests, witches, commoners, malevolent creatures, inscrutable aliens, and other powerful beings whose intentions are unclear. What they all share is an interest in the fate of Severian, for though he does understand this himself for much of his journey, he is destined to not only become Autarch but to serve as the representative to the stars to determine if the dying red sun of Urth is worthy of being renewed in both a symbolic and literal sense, ushering in a New Sun and renewed era of humanity. It is an outcome that is constantly alluded to but never fully explained, though Wolfe later explored this is more detail (while still retaining much mystery) in a companion coda called The Urth of the New Sun (1987).

The religious symbolism of the story is both explicit and complicated. Severian is positioned as the obvious messiah, the living embodiment of the New Sun, and as he wields the cross-shaped executioners’ sword Terminus Est, the Christ-like imagery is plain for any reader to see. And yet throughout the story, Severian himself is a naive and conflicted character, one who struggles first to set aside his training as a torturer and executioner, and later as a man fighting to understand his role as a possible bringer of redemption and resurrection to a corrupt and dying world. This goes far beyond a Christian allegory such as C.S. LewisCHRONICLES OF NARNIA, for instance. Of equal importance is the religious talisman that comes into Severian’s hands by accent, the Claw of the Conciliator. This object seems capable of bringing the dead back to life and healing fatal wounds when Severian wields it, and is associated with the Conciliator, a figure of the ancient past who is both Christ-like and may also have extra-terrestrial origins.

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN also incorporates a number of stories-within-stories, told by various characters and also in the form of stage plays performed by the characters (echoing the story itself from the author’s perspective) during key moments in the narrative. One could write a dissertation on interpreting the meanings of these stories as they relate to the overall themes of the book, and this effort is far beyond me, but Marc Aramini does discuss the implications of a number these stories in his book Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, including Dr. Talos’ play “Eschatology and Genesis”, “The Tale of the Student and His Son”, “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog”, “The Cock, the Angel, and the Eagle”, “The Armiger’s Daughter”, as well as some extremely vivid dreams of Severian. This literary device is equally vital to understanding the layers of meaning in his book Peace.

The story is further complicated by the roles of Abaia, Erebus, and their servants the undines, underwater beings of great power that seem intent on conquering humanity, but at the same time provide aid to Severian at times and may even benefit from the inundation of Urth if Severian is to succeed in bringing the New Sun. They are constantly observing Severians’ progress, but it is unclear whether they seek to aid or prevent his quest.

We also have the even more inscrutable role of the Hierodules, alien beings from other worlds that reside on Urth and also take a keen interest in Severian and his path to becoming the Autarch. Despite their implied powers, they sometimes seem to indicate that they serve him, but this in never made entirely clear. They appear to have a connection with the current Autarch, but it is not apparent whether they favor Severian over his rule.

Finally, there is the ambiguous role of the reigning Autarch himself, and his mysterious advisor Father Inire. They obviously wield great power, and if they were to decide Severian were a threat to them they could easily have him killed. Yet they instead appear in various guises in his adventures, never clearly his ally or enemy, always with opaque intentions and tantalizing comments. Father Inire in particular seems to control the power to travel between the stars via the sinister power of mirrors and labyrinths (an obvious nod to Jorge Luis Borges), but does not demonstrate to what end he might use them.

In the end, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN does not easily yield up its secrets to interpretation or analysis, but this is most certainly the source of its lasting appeal to discerning literary SFF readers over the last 35 years. There are layers of meaning that remain obscure even after multiple readings, but it is clear that Wolfe has crafted a masterpiece that is worth the attempts to conquer it, a literary Mt. Everest that every serious reader in the genre will be drawn to again and again, and there is much to be gained in each attempt, whether the peak is attained or not.

~Stuart Starosta


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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2 comments

  1. You really make me want to reread these books again, Kat!

  2. Sorry, Stefan — you’ve got no time! :whip:

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