I think it’s best to start of this review, recap, or exasperated attempt at understanding with a short message to author Gene Wolfe:
Dear Mr. Wolfe,
LOL! You tricked me!
Now that that’s out of the way I can continue with not explaining this novel.
The Book of The New Sun is just a smidge bit more than your average fantasy or science-fiction novel. It seems to be something like a riddle instead, whose answer hangs out in front of your nose suggesting to you that it’s solution will provide answers bigger than the resolution of the plot.
As I read the closing chapters of The New Sun’s fourth volume, The Citadel of The Autarch, I was impressed. I could easily see why people would want to reread this thing, and how it could be read as allegory – but I wasn’t going to reread it. Yet, before long I was putting down the closing chapters to pick up the first ones and rereading The New Sun’s opening. A not so simple plot twist, one that should have been expected really, had me reevaluating the whole work and in doing so trying to understand the work in a new light.
Understanding in a new light. Probably the whole point of Wolfe’s Book of The New Sun. The final movements of our hero, Severian, find him treading down a once dark path, now carrying a light bright enough to dispel all former mysteries only nothing is really revealed. The most startling thing about retreading his steps, he finds is not seeing where he’s been, but seeing how much he’s changed since his first time there. Kind of a corny metaphor? Maybe. Trust me, it doesn’t come off that way.
What’s Wolfe playing at with his philosophical treatise disguised as a Sci-Fi novel pretending to be a fantasy? Peter Wright, author of Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice, and The Reader, thinks he knows.
Coming to understand The Book of the New Sun is like learning the rules of a game. If the reader succeeds in perceiving the rules of Wolfe’s literary game, achieves the reconciliation of plot with story, then the experience of reading becomes an educational one. By stimulating the reader to reject primary assumptions and existing preconceptions, Wolfe not only lifts the reader onto a level of alertness that allows for his most subtle effects, but also reveals to the more cautious reader how they ascribe meaning to a text. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental factor in any claim that The Book of the New Sun is a ‘masterwork’: it encourages the growth of the reader towards what Jonathan Culler terms ‘literary competence’. In short, Wolfe organises the text to be understood only by those readers willing to question their own literary assumptions, pause, reflect, and reread.
…The real strength of his work arises from [Wolfe’s] ability to make the reader experience [his] conception of existence during the reading process. Accordingly, throughout The Book of the New Sun, habitual modes of reading become metaphors for systems of manipulation and deception; unreliable narrators emphasise the reader’s own subjectivity; and unfamiliar diction calls into question the accuracy with which we can perceive the actuality of ‘the real’.
The Actuality of The Real. It’s not often I read what should be just a fun adventure novel that delivers new confused conceptions on the actuality of the real. Thanks, Gene Wolfe. I’m impressed.
The Urth of The New Sun.
And then there’s the sequel. Good Grief. A sequel that fulfills the usual expectations without being just more of the same. Actually it is just more of the same – in the same way The Book of Revelation finishes off The New Testament by being more of the same.
That’s kind of a lofty analogy, isn’t it? Maybe it’s not quite like that.
Humorously, The Urth of The New Sun inverts the scheme of it’s predecessor. Where The Book of The New Sun was sci-fi cloaked in fantasy, Urth is a fantasy novel pretending to be a science-fiction novel. Fantasy, that is, with a capital A for Apocalyptic, that old, much missed style of writing that casts aside character and sense to kick you right between the eyes until you can see things the way they really are.
Huh. Not much of a review at all. Sorry, I’m not even trying really. I’m just sort of reveling in the effect of the novel on me, not caring if I’m making too much sense or delivering a recap of events. The biggest job here for me actually is editing what I wrote in my notebook so I don’t come across as crazy here. Let that admission serve as something of a recommendation.
Read The Book of The New Sun. I think you’ll find something in it you’ll like. Then read it again.
If you would like to read it there’s some Amazon links for you below. There might even be reviews that make sense there, too.