Listen to more in the Book of the New Sun series.
©1982 Gene Wolfe; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
If ever there was a "marmite" series in fantasy, it would be Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. To its admirers, it's one of the most brilliant, literary works in the genre; to its detractors, it's frustrating and overly cryptic.
Either way, Wolfe's creation is like nothing else in fantasy. Set eons in the future, when the planet is covered in the remnants of long-forgotten civilizations and the sun is beginning to go out from some mysterious ailment, the cycle follows the journeys of Severian, the torturer's apprentice cast out of his guild for showing mercy to a captive. Gifted (or cursed) with an exceptional memory, the older Severian recounts his experiences to readers with the assumption that we're from his own time.
The style takes some getting used to. Severian's recollections often have a dreamlike quality, with seemingly insignificant events described in detail, and important occurrences sometimes mentioned only in passing. Between that and the odd, archaic terminology, the reader has to pay close attention to keep up with what's going on. The little background details have a way of becoming important later, and not everyone is what they seem at first -- even the protagonist.
Yet, Wolfe's world-creation rivals Tolkien's in its richness and color. Everything Severian glimpses seems infused with the half-forgotten history of a very old planet, where some technology remains but seems on a level akin to magic. I loved the strange, wondrous background and trying to guess at the significance of semi-familiar legends and encounters with odd beings or characters. In my opinion, too many contemporary fantasy writers hold their readers’ hands and *explain* everything -- Wolfe keeps a lot tantalizingly mysterious, and leaves us to make small connections ourselves. More of that, please.
This is the second book in the series, continuing the picaresque travels of Severian and his companions, including a new one, north from the city of Nessus. While the first volume explored his childhood and turned him loose in a world he didn’t fully understand, this one thrusts him into different dangers and intrigues, including several romantic liaisons. We learn more about the strange Doctor Talos and his ad hoc performance troupe, about the titular gemstone’s powers, about the rebel Vodalus, and about the autarch and his underground citadel. Thecla, from book one, returns in a way that’s quite original. There's even a story-within-a-story, a play that reveals a little about the mythology around the idea of a New Sun (though it’s somewhat confusing). As before, Wolfe's grasp of language is amazing, switching between horror, subtle humor, profound observation, and recognition of small, meaningful moments.
There are clearly multiple layers to this story, so don't expect to have fewer questions when you get to the end than you did after the last book. Which is to say, Wolfe answers some questions, but throws new puzzle pieces onto the table. At this point, I'm definitely hooked on Severian's tale, but I'm not sure if I can properly "review" any of these until I've grasped the entirety of this whole ambitious cycle.
Audiobook narrator Jonathan Davis, whose cool, ironic voice I'm already a big fan of, is very well-suited to Severian's detached written voice. He might even humanize him a little more.
I read this series when it first came out and seeing it here as an audiobook gave me the perfect opportunity to listen to it again and was glad to have my original opinion fully supported. Wolfe creates such fascinating characters and such a vibrant, fully realized world that you get totally sucked in. Jonathan Davis also does an excellent job in making Wolfe's prose--very ornate--pop and come alive.
"... there are times when silence is a poem." - John Fowles, the Magus ^(;,;)^
While the plot continues with the story Wolfe started in The Shadow of the Torturer, structurally Wolfe gets a little funkier with his second book. I liked it a lot, even though understanding it is sorta like seeking clarity in a broken mirror floating down in swift-flowing river.
This book (The Claw of the Conciliator) and the next (The Sword of the Lictor) have more of a standard fantasy plot than the first book (The Shadow of the Torturer): a singularly talented guy on a quest carrying some powerful artifacts. These two books also begin to feel claustrophobic, as the same handful of characters keep showing up.
But after reading the first book, one should realize that one doesn't read these books for their plot or characters, but for Wolfe's amazing style and Severian's reflections. An example is probably more illuminating than my description:
"...Now it struck me that the will itself was governed, and if not by reason, then by things below or above it. Yet it was very difficult to say on what side of reason these things lay. Instinct, surely, lay below it; but might it not be above it as well?...
But is instinct truly that "attachment to the person of the monarch" which Master Malrubius implied was at once the highest and the lowest form of governance? For clearly, instinct itself cannot have arisen out of nothing--the hawks that soared over our heads built their nests, doubtless, by instinct; yet there must have been a time in which nests were not built, and the first hawk to build one cannot inherited its instinct to build from its parents, since they did not possess it... Perhaps that which came before instinct was the highest as well as the lowest principle of the governance of the will. Perhaps not. The wheeling birds traced their hieroglyphics in the air, but they were not for me to read."
Increasing my ops tempo by allowing storytellers to whisper in my ear(buds).
This is a review of the four volume THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN (TBNS) by Gene Wolfe; which traces the coming of age of Severian, once a member of The Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence.
In printed form the earlier works of Gene Wolfe can be quite challenging and this is the quintessential Wolfe novel. The esoteric language employed forces your eyes to slow down and read with great care. So many of the words, while supposedly all authentic English words, are unfamiliar that looking up at least a handful of them is necessary to understand the text. As a result, the reader’s mind has time to explore Severian’s world as the protagonist himself is doing. The printed books are heavy in the hand and the weight of the pages fore and aft serve as constant reminders of what has come before, and what is yet to be.
The most telling observation I can give about the audio book is that it transforms a massive tome into a much more personal narrative. As an audio book TBNS takes on a less intimidating, much more intimate and even more friendly character. The inexorable pacing of the narrator, Jonathan Davis, does not permit pauses for reflection, or speculation, the story plows on, without pausing to try to pronounce a word, without going back to regain the flow of the plot after a difficult flashback. And it is just fine.
Jonathan Davis is a most excellent narrator for TBNS. His voice has a deep calming quality that is well suited to recounting Severian’s story. He gives each character their own individual voice. He gives a fine performance ranking this among my favorite audio books. I can recommend all four of the volumes of TBNS here on Audible without reservation.
Note: The short afterwards that are part of each of the four volumes are not included in the audio versions. They should be read to get the full effect intended by the author Gene Wolfe.
This book moves at a much better pace and answers some questions that left you hanging in the first book. My only complaint about this one is that the author took to long going over the play in detail. I'm not sure if he meant this as a foreshadowing or if he meant it to have more significance than I personally felt it did (my opinion, yours may vary) I'm halfway through the 3rd book now, it's even better than this one.
If you enjoyed the first book as much as I did, then you'll probably like this book. It's really hard to review, because the story is so odd, just sort of meandering along. I'm still not really sure where it's going. I mean, Severian tells us where he ends up, but I have no idea what's going to happen from one scene to the next let alone in the next two books.
One word of warning, the story picks up not really exactly where we left off at the end of book 1, but a short time in the future from there. I went back and restarted it probably twice and then checked to make sure that it hadn't downloaded out of order or something like that. Don't be astonished when you have no idea what's going on, you'll catch up. That being said, if it's been a long time since you read/listened to the first book, you'll probably want to go back and refresh your memory.
When I was reading other reviews of the book, I saw people complaining about the two stories inside the book (both in the second half). Really, I didn't pay them much attention, if you don't like random side tangents that don't seem to contribute much, then you probably don't like the books at all. The first story, which seems to take a lot of features out of Greek myth, I didn't mind at all. The second part people complain about is Dr Telos's play. To be 100% honest, I've tried to listen to it several times and I just get lost. I don't know if the printed book makes it more clear which character is speaking at any given time, but I found the narration hard to follow (and it breaks my heart to say anything bad about Davis, who is excellent, don't get me wrong). Now, unlike some reviewers, I'm not going to let it bother me. If it turns out next book that I really need to understand the play, I'll go back and try harder next time.
An avid, omnivorous but critical reader.
Certainly. I have read the whole series many times but listening to it fills in or lets me fill in more inferences and observations.
Still Severian. Its fascinating how well you know him by the end of this book but even more interesting that there is so much more to discover about him that you really and genuinely care to learn.
Severian. You could say that he is not performed by Jonathan but he is instead performed by all the other characters. I guess Jonathan does so well with the supporting characters that they throw Severian into strong relief and you see him in a wonderful context. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed the audible book so much even though I have read the books over and over.
Yes indeed. Gene Wolfe tells you right at the beginning of the first book what's going to happen. And the story is asynchronous and loosely coupled but yet the reader (er listener) is compelled to walk with Severian (as he expresses it). The mystery, the allegories, the superficially hidden references that delight the audience and the deeper connections that the reader can triumphantly discover draw you to accompany Severian.
This book develops Severian, the wonderful combination of past, present and future in Severian's world and continues the beautiful prose and penetrating perspective gently hidden in a fascinating story.
I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!
If you read The Shadow of the Torturer and felt like you were lost (or drunk), and weren???t sure whether things would get clearer in the second book, I have to tell you that no, they don???t. But if you, like me, enjoy that dreamy I???m-not-sure-where-I-am-or-how-I-got-here-or-where-I???m-going-but-everything-sure-feels-fine literary experience, then read on, because Severian???s head is a strange and fascinating place to be.
The Book of the New Sun is one of those works that some people think is ingenious and others suspect is just drivel. This is not the series for a reader who wants a quick-paced action-filled story with a concrete beginning, middle and end. This is for someone who???s in the mood to be open-minded and has the time and patience for some experimentation with character, setting, and theme. (And, perhaps, some mind-altering drugs might help.)
Gene Wolfe doesn???t much care for a traditional fantasy setting and he also doesn???t respect the traditional mechanics of storytelling. Tight plot? Why bother? This story wanders ??? seemingly aimlessly ??? all across the country (or maybe not, because we may have ended up where we started, but who knows?). Characters, conversations, and events that appear to be significant may mean nothing. There are hints of lost races, species, technologies, knowledge, and allegorical meaning that may never be explained and connected for us at the end. There is plenty of bizarreness (even an Ames Room!), which is what I enjoy most.
Wolfe???s world is rich, most of what happens is unexpected, and the reader feels completely helpless to predict anything or even to be assured that things that will work out as they???re ???supposed to??? in a fantasy novel... But we???re in Gene Wolfe???s creative hands, so it???s not the destination; it???s the journey.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
If Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) is Severian's bildingsroman, depicting his growth from a boy apprentice to a young journeyman of the guild of torturers and his exile into the world outside it, The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), the second novel in Wolfe's four-book science fiction classic The Urth of the New Sun, is his romance, relating his experiences--many involving women he loves--outside Nessus, the City Imperishable, as he attempts to travel north to become the lictor of Thrax. The novel also traces his growing awareness of the powers of the awesome jewel hidden in his sabertache, the Claw of the Conciliator.
The second novel is more difficult than the first, having less humor and more disturbing things, including a woman's graphic execution, excessive "cooing," narcotic cannibalism, algophiliac sex, an awful fate for an artificially beautiful woman, and a confusing climax (that isn't explained till the third book). The darker mood of the novel is reflected by a line Severian sees in the Book of Wonders of Urth and Sky: "Hell has no limits, nor is circumscribed, for where we are is Hell, and where Hell is, there we must be."
Moreover, the two longest chapters of the novel consist of a story that Severian reads aloud and of a transcription of play that Dr. Talos' company performs, and although the story and especially the play (a series of funny lines and outrageous scenes satirizing religion, politics, and humanity and reflecting a culture longing for a new sun) are interesting, they both seem to last too long. And despite Jonathan Davis' best efforts (marvelously reading the novel as a whole) it's often impossible to tell which character is speaking which lines in the play without referring to the text of the book.
All that said, there are many poignant and sublime points in the novel, which thrums with Wolfe's perfect prose, exotic vocabulary, philosophical asides, and vivid, dream-like descriptions. And there are many powerful moments, as when Severian hears an apocalyptic step in a deep mine, raises his "iron phallus" over Agia, enters Vodalus' forest headquarters atop an elephantine baluchither, looks in a man-sized mirror-paged book in the House Absolute, tosses a coin into the Vatic Fountain there, talks with Dorcas about the Conciliator, and sees and is seen by the mythic Apu-Punchau.
And another line in the novel beatifies the Hell vision: "In the final reckoning there is only love, only that divinity." Indeed, this novel is largely about love in many of its forms, among them Severian's sad and abiding first love for Thecla, his protective and companionable love for Dorcas, his self-destructive love for Agia, his resentful lust for Jolenta, his awed attraction for a gargantuan undine, his lost love for his mother, his warm friendship for Jonas, and his fly-captured-in-amber admiration for Vodalus. At one point Severian senses Thecla's mind inside his: "We were one, naked and happy and clean, and we knew that she was no more and that I still lived, and we struggled against neither of those things, but with woven hair read from a single book and talked and sang of other matters."
"A very twisty tale and gothic"
The second part in this series of 4 books picks up some point after the rather sudden ending of the first, leaving me with the feeling that I was missing something.
After the story continues...I think. It's kind of difficult to tell, since the story of the series is very well hidden behind, seemingly endless side plots, sub stories and digressions.
It is a story told in the class gothic tradition.
While the story is hard to follow I have to say that that the actual words are handled beautifully. The language is rich and textured and again the narrator plays the part of the our torturer 'hero' brilliantly.
However, after two books of the endless twisting of this tale and I still don't really feel I know where the story is going, I am not sure I will be getting the 3rd or 4th books.
In fact the author seems to understand the story will be difficult to follow and he warns us through the voice of our 'hero', that we might not want to continue following him! That's advice I may well follow.
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