We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.
-From The Shadow of the Torturer
Severian is a hero, cast with objects of great power (including a badass sword, natch) upon a path that will take him to great heights and strange places. He may even save his world. Cue swelling music.
But wait; Severian is a torturer. His world is Urth to its inhabitants. The moon is green, the sun old and dying. There are rumors that the great citadels of his ancient city once moved between the stars. What, then, are the angels and holy relics that fill the land?
Such is the setup of Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, a genre-bending four book epic equal parts philosophical treatise, rich allegory and Romantic odyssey.
Wolfe was one of the leading lights of sci-fi’s Deviant Age; that blazing era from 1965 to 1985 when no concept seemed out of bounds. As with Tanith Lee, he did so much brilliant work throughout that time (and after) that any number would be excellent topics for their own column.
The Book of the New Sun comes at the end of that period, and in it Wolfe melds the shocking innovation of his earlier career with a deep undrerstanding the power of old tales well-told.
With multi-volume works, I usually prefer to pick out the strongest entry. Here, I’ll make an exception. The entirety of Wolfe’s opus is so damn good that I found myself unable to choose a single part. It is, like the best epics, one tale. More on the Gothic adventure to end all Gothic adventures, below.
One, larger or at least bolder than the rest, advanced on me. He carried a short-hafted mace whose shaft had once been a thigh bone. Just out of sword-reach he threatened me with it, roaring and slapping the metal head of his weapon in a long hand.
Something disturbed the water behind me, and I turned in time to see one of the glowing man-apes fording the stream. He leaped backwards as I slashed at him, but the square blade-tip caught him below the armpit. So fine was that blade, so magnificently tempered and perfectly edged, that it cut its way out through the breastbone.
He fell and the water carried his corpse away, but before the stroke went home I had seen that he waded into the stream with distaste, and that it had slowed his movements at least as much as it had slowed mine. Turning to keep all my attackers in view, I backed into it and began slowly to move toward the point where it ran to the outside world. I felt that if I could once reach the constricted tunnel I would be safe; but I knew too that they would never permit me to do so.
They gathered more thickly around me until there must have been several hundred. The light they gave was so great that I could see that the squared masses I had glimpsed earlier were indeed buildings, apparently the most ancient construction, built of seamless gray stone and soiled everywhere by the dung of bats.
Epics are funny things. Go to your average bookstore, wind your way to the sci-fi/fantasy section and you will find the shelves heavy with their weight. Most of them are faded shadows — copies of copies of copies — of The Lord of the Rings, such a classic since that its tentacles still hold much of the fantasy world tight in elder thrall.
But there are exceptions, strange jewels hanging around here or there. A good epic — and this is among the best — will not let you go. You will fall in love with the characters and descend into their world. The most rational of people will stay up long, unhealthy hours, ravenous for the next part of the plot.
If the concision of well-crafted short story best preserves its power, the sheer doorstop length of an epic can also serve a purpose, and immersion in its Leviathan depths has a strength all its own.
But said epic must be good and sadly, few of them are. Wolfe could have simply inverted many of the usual tropes and, in his practiced hands, still produced an engaging story. Likewise he could have just told a basic quest tale with better writing and more realistic characters; it would probably have worked.
Instead he blew the whole damn thing open, pulling off both magic tricks at once, plus a few more just for good measure. The amazing thing, upon reading it multiple times, is that it works. Not just a little bit, not just in some passages, but through all of it.
Wolfe chose, in a rare move for any epic, to ditch multiple points of view and plot threads. The entire tale is told through Severian’s eyes as he makes his way (in cloak blacker than the blackest black, literally) through the wreckage of old eras and the stirrings of new. Save for names, there are no invented words in the entire story. The references to onagers, uhlans and barbicans — among a slew of other archaic terms — are the mark of a medieval mind trying to comprehend a far vaster world:
No intellect is needed to see those figures who wait beyond the void of death–every child is aware of them, blazing, with glories dark or bright, wrapped in authority older than the universe. They are the stuff of our earliest dreams, as of our dying visions. Rightly we feel our lives guided by them, and rightly too we feel how little we matter to them, the builders of the unimaginable, the fighters of wars beyond the totality of existence.
The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally as great. We say, “I will,” and “I will not,” and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.
The sword Severian carries on his quest is dubbed Terminus Est, “the line that divides.” But throughout Wolfe constantly blurs lines and roles. Severian claims his memory is perfect, for example, but repeatedly forgets or overlooks important details.
Epics, even nuanced ones, normally rely heavily on such divisions, on the stark difference between Savior and Dark Lord. Instead characters shift rapidly, in Severian’s view, from hero to victim to villain. Yet Wolfe still writes battles, intrigues and midnight graveyard duels with the adrenaline-fueled immediacy they deserve.
As it is told from Severian’s vantage point, the alien landscape all around him is slowly unveiled. I remember the jolt that ran up my spine the first time I realized that all the mountains — every one — in this decaying future have been carved into busts of ancient monarchs.
I will not give away too much more, because the unfolding multitude of surprises in these books are one of their prime pleasures. Suffice to say that Wolfe ended up crafting some of the most rewarding literature to come out of sci-fi or fantasy and a tale worth reading long past sane hours.
Question: I’ve gushed about my favorite epic. What’s yours? What series captured you in its (possibly unsavory) clutches? Why does it hold a special place in your heart?