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.


  1. I always liked The Book of the New Sun series. You're right though, it's weighty weighty reading.

  2. One of my favorite series. Wolfe is a great writer.

  3. Ah, Terminus Est. I need to go back an re-read those books, much of it has faded from memory.

  4. I love the Book of The New Sun. I reread it every 4-5 years; every time I pick up a ton of new stuff.

  5. New readers should pick up Castle of Days for help with the vocab; existing readers will want it for essays about the book, some jokes told by the characters, and all manner of other goodness.
    - Tavis

  6. I think, actually, that Wolfe has maintained that he never made up any of the words in BotNS. I say this as I ride in my fuligin fiacre.

  7. Dense stuff is right, but *well* worth wading through. IMO, the best science-fantasy blend in circulation. Two items:

    * I second jachili's comment--Wolfe maintains every word is real ( BTW, the GURPS "New Sun" sourcebook has a good glossary.

    * Be prepared to have questions unanswered. Particularly if you finish the series and reach for the 5th volume "The Urth of the New Sun" and expect revelations.

  8. I read this about 10 years ago at the urging of a friend. It was an amazing, if exhausting, read. Great stuff!

  9. Read the first four while living in the crumbling city of Vientiane, Laos, which gave them some added context!

    There's an excellent essay on them in Robert Holdstock and Malcolm Edwards coffee-table book "Realms of Fantasy" which you can get old copies of from eBay (and also includes essays on Howard, Le Guin, Tolkien, Moorcock, and others).



  10. Absolutely essential and sublime!

    I strongly recommend the Long Sun and Short Sun series' as well.

  11. We went to New Orleans for our honeymoon 13 years ago! You didn't stay in the Bon Maison Guesthouse did you? Too wild. I still buy Cafe duMonde coffee, and my wife makes beignets. :)

    Oh, and the New Sun! Yes, magnificent stuff. Sometime I'd love to have a book-club style discussion about which parts Severian is truthful about and which things are lies.

  12. I read the first four books when they were translated into German (1985), which was around the same time I encountered the Red Box of D&D.

    No wonder that my very first D&D campaign had an assassin NPC who used razor sharp leaves, the maguffin-magic item the PCs had to chase was the Claw, and there were lots of other bits I lifted from Wolfe's masterpiece.

    So, even without having read The Dying Earth (or even heard of it) my first D&D adventures were deeply steeped in Vancian flavour.
    I wonder why I left that weirdness behind. Soon after that short (less than half a year) campaign my gaming took a Tolkien turn, and I never looked back.

  13. I've read something by nearly every author on Appendix N, with the exception of a few that I've had a hard time find copies. When I've looked for authors not on that list, Gene Wolfe comes up repeatedly. I have copies of several works by the author, but for some reason haven't gotten to any of them.

    I like "dense" reading too, so I guess I need to rectify this.

  14. Dense indeed. I have spent as much time reading academic essays on this series (for fun) as the series itself. And essayists still have competing theories about everything from the symbology of the books to basic plot. Ha! No other book has the gravitas of this one. None. Shakespeare might come close but still...none.



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