I read The Shadow of the Torturer – or, at least, I read some of it – way back in high school. At the time, I don’t think I was quite prepared for this strange, fascinating book. I assumed – quite wrongly, as it turned out – that this might be of a piece with the Thomas Covenant series, giving me a true anti-hero to follow through this world as he reluctantly became something more. That’s not a bad assumption, given that the series is about a professional torturer who is exiled from his tribe and forced into a world that mostly despises him and those who practice his trade.
And yet, that basic premise is more of the starting point for The Book of the New Sun, rather than its hook. Yes, Severian is a fascinating anti-hero, a man who is capable of brutal torture and yet whose principal crime is one of kindness; a man who is both selfish and oddly kind; a man who is both interested in the honor of his guild and in overthrowing the society around him. But none of that really seems to touch on the heart of Shadow & Claw (which is comprised of the first two books of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator), which is as interested in its strange, undefinable world as it is in its characters.
And what a unique world it is. It’s easy to make the assumption that Shadow & Claw is fantasy; there’s an undeniably medieval feel to the setup, to the massive castles and shadowy guilds and deadly swords. But before long, you realize that this is not an ancient world, but an impossibly distant one, and that what we are seeing is not primitive settlements but devastated ruins. What we see is not a mankind learning to connect and build a society, but one that may be dying out, as the universe itself dies out around it. That uneasy blend of past and future, of science-fiction and Arthurian myth, is one of the features of The Book of the New Sun that’s so fascinating, so compelling.
For all of that, though, it has to be said that The Book of the New Sun doesn’t read like anything else, either. Even now that I’m halfway through the series, I’m not sure I could tell you what it’s truly about; yes, Severian is on a journey, but to what end? To what are we building? What, if anything, does it all mean? I don’t have any answers to that, and to be honest, I’m not even sure that there will be answers to it. Part of that comes from Wolfe’s conceit (the series is written as Severian’s memoirs, written much later in his life, and for an audience presumably of the world around him), which results in a book that’s meandering at times, philosophical in others, and more subjective than we often realize. But much of it comes from the plotting, or lack thereof; the book often feels like a mosaic, a collection of incidents that are coming together to create something larger that we can’t see until we step back a bit and take it all in.
It’s why I haven’t really rated this entry in the series yet. On one level, it’s a masterful piece of writing – wholly unique, thought-provoking, endlessly fascinating. On another, it’s frustrating, wandering, unfocused, and sometimes bewildering. Its scope and imagination are impossible not to admire, even while you sometimes wonder what it all means – or if it means anything at all. And perhaps that will change as I finish the series and I get a sense of Wolfe’s larger goals, his bigger pictures. Whatever the case, it’s a series that I’m fascinated by and compelled to keep reading, and one that I’m glad I came back to after all these years. I don’t know how far I made it when I read it all those years ago, but reading it now, it’s a book that I feel I’m far more likely to appreciate now that I’m (slightly) more mature.