Thursday, March 3, 2011
BtBG Reader: Book of the New Sun
15 years ago, on our honeymoon, Mrs and I stumbled across a back-alley used bookstore in New Orleans' French Quarter. As is typical of these places, I walk right past all the enormously important 200 year old first editions bound in leather and signed by both the authors and their mistresses, and head for that back room overflowing with beat old paperbacks!
One of the paperbacks I grabbed there that day was Gene Wolf's Shadow of the Torturer. No, no subconscious aftershocks from being married for the first time (I think;); I thought it had a cool cover, and knew Wolfe had a reputation as an "author's author": someone so good at his craft that other authors worship his every word! I read it, a bit at a time, each morning for the rest of the week while sipping chicory coffee at Cafe Du Monde. I thought it was "ok". I never finished it, or grabbed any of the consecutive books from the series though.
This was the mid-90's, and the Age of the Fantasy Epic Series (aka "Shelfbusters"). Jordan, Eddings, Modessitt, Feist, and other such authors covered the shelves at bookstores with their overstuffed doorstops, volume after volume, book 4, book 12, book 15, etc, and I snatched up every single one of them to read during the short breaks between class and my shifts at the record store. To say I "didn't really appreciate Wolfe at the time" is a vast understatement. The yellow-spined, DAW Science-Fantasies of my youth were a dim memory - bring on the Dark Lords and Blue-Robed Wizards!
Every now and then, though, an image from Shadow would percolate up into my mind. A coin secreted in a tomb. Silver fliers zipping overhead while men duel with razor-sharp flowers. Masks, and weird devices, and despairing ingenues. For all that I didn't appreciate it at the time, man, did it stay with me.
So I picked up the whole series recently. If you like "Dying Earth"-genre literature, this is for you! Protagonist Severian is no farmboy - he's an apprentice Torturer, and his magic sword was weighted for the chopping block, not for dueling with Dark Lords. The whole world is crumbling beneath its own weight, blue skies are nothing but a dim memory. Even the star-faring age is part of the distant past. One telling passage describes how even the dirt - the dirt! - of this future age is of no natural origin, but instead the crumbled remains of long-disintegrated works of man.
Fair warning - its dense stuff (Wolfe has the vocabulary of an Oxford Doctor of Linguistics; I'm not always sure which words he's making up, and which I'm simply ignorant of), so don't pick it up it if you're in the mood for "popcorn reading", there's plenty of Jim Butcher for that. No, save it for when you're in the mood for something deep, something dark, something difficult, and something that will worm its way into your psyche like some lost Vancian artifact.