Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Book of the New Sun (Vol 1)

by Gene Wolfe

The Book of the New Sun is one of the most respected fantasy series of recent times. The cover of the book is covered with fulsome praise from todays most popular fantasy authors, so when I started it I was expecting a staggering work of tremendous importance. This first volume collects the first two books of the series, Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator, out of a total of four.

My first impression was that while Wolfe is a great prose writer, certainly far above the abilities of ninety percent of his peers, the underlying story was not terribly interesting or interesting. Our protagonist is a young boy named Severian with minimal knowledge of the world outside the medievaloid society he is a part of. After a whole lot of pre-coming-of-age setup events conspire to thrust him out alone into the world, with of course a couple of Important Quests. In other words it sounds like every other fantasy novel ever published (I have no idea why the coming of age story is so ubiquitous within fantasy, but it's annoying because I have minimal interest in the premise. Maybe I just haven't come of age myself yet). Fortunately once he gets out into the world (about half way through the first book) things get a whole lot more interesting.

The characters, despite their stilted mannerisms, are all very well drawn, but Wolfe's real strength, apart from his prose, is the detail of the world he's created and the clever twists he's put on the 'so sci-fi it's fantasy' subgenre, by which I mean the subset of sci-fi when it's so far in the future that people have forgotten about technology and view it as 'magic'.

Over this volume Wolfe introduces a large number of interesting and original places, people and creatures, and shrouds them all in a kind of romantic mystery which keeps you reading, despite being always unsure of exactly what is going on (in some ways this series belongs to another sci-fi subgenre as well, one that I like to call the 'what the fuck is going on' genre, see also The Malazan Book of the Fallen).

While I had my misgivings at the beginning of the story, by the end of this volume I understood completely why this series is held in such high regard. Wolfe creates a mythic, melancholy mood with his skillful writing, and gives what appeared to me at first glance to be a quite cliched story a lot of originality and mystery.


Bob said...

Hmm I read these a few months ago... If I remember right they are written as a fake history with "author's notes" at the end. "The true game" by Sheri S. Tepper had a similar sort of idea but did it better.

The books raise some cool ideas but I didn't think they really went anywhere. It seemed to get kind of rushed at the end.

A nice description of a sort of ethical torturers guild though.

Jon said...

Sort of a fake history... supposedly the author is translating these books in the present day after somehow receiving them from the future.

As for Sheri S. Tepper I don't know... I read 'Grass' ages and ages ago and it put me off her pretty much forever.