Fiction Reviews

Severian of the Guild

(1980-'83/2007) Gene Wolfe, Gollancz, 14.99, trdpbk, 905pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08130-72

This is the 2008 trade paperback release of the previous year's hardback collection of the Gene Wolfe novels that largely make up 'The Book of the New Sun' sequence. Now before we go any further let me say straight away, for those that have never heard of Severian and 'The Book of the New Sun', that if you are into well-crafted and literary fantasy then you are in for a treat. Indeed if your taste straddles the SF-fantasy divide then you are in for a real treat. To genre buffs this is not news, but remember it is now over a quarter of a century since the first in this sequence was published and the sequence had had a considerable profile. All four novels were each nominated for the Nebula (the second winning it), the second and third novels were nominated for the Hugo Award for SF Achievement and, of course, the first won the World Fantasy Award.

Actually to refer to the 'Book of the New Sun' as a sequence is not technically correct: it really is a single book that was published in four parts. Gene Wolfe emphasises this at the start of the second book. Here the protagonist, Severian, leaves the city to bring just punishment to those beyond and goes through a giant gate in the city's colossal wall.

Such a mighty structure was the Wall that it divided the world as the mere line between their covers does two books.

As for the four books that make up 'The Book of the New Sun', these come in two sets of two as follows:-
            Shadow and Claw: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)
            Shadow and Claw: The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)
            Sword and Citadel: The Sword of the Lictor (1982)
            Sword and Citadel: The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)
These books are also those collected by Gollancz into Severian of the Guild. But 'The Book of the New Sun' also includes an addendum novel (The Urth of the New Sun) concerning events that takes place several years after those of Severian of the Guild. So while Severian of the Guild is a collection of the main body of 'The Book of the New Sun' it is not the complete work.

As for the plot, in a distant world called Urth (or is it our own world?), an autarch rules strictly but also 'fairly' (at least as far as the autarch is concerned). This 'fairness' is in part maintained by the Guild of Torturers who dispense punishments decreed by the autarch and the law with complete impartiality. Severian is one such torturer. However while still early in his career he succumbs to personal feelings for a captive and gives her a knife so that she may escape her punishment by ending her life. This is an act of gross professional misconduct and Severian expects to be killed. However to punish a torturer so would signal to the wider population that torturers do occasionally break the strict rule of impartiality. Instead Severian in effect is banished as he is tasked to go and provide just punishment (hence wave the autarch's flag) for the outer lands. And so in the second book Severian leaves with his sword of his trade Terminus Est...

Now, all this is well and good and could broadly be the basis for any number of fantasy novels, but this is not all. Though Severian of the Guild reads like a fantasy (and as such may be difficult for those who tastes are strictly, purely SF) it is in fact science fiction. The world of Urth is distant but distant in time for it is the far future. In this future humanity on one hand seems to have reverted to a simpler time with horses and carts and some referred to as witches. On the other it is clear that there are machines and technology though the way these are depicted (albeit clearly as machines and technology) is almost as if the technology is magical. Yes there is some high technology, but so far into the future are we that the Urth (Earth) seems to have exhausted its resources both material and technological and so swords and pikes abound even if occasionally the odd handheld laser (a pistol shooting a ray) crops up. Of course as the story is narrated by Severian himself and as Severian is no scientist, why should matter be recounted in any other way. If you like then Severian of the Guild is science fantasy and this explains why novels of 'The Book of the New Sun' were nominated both for the Hugo and Nebula SF Awards as well as the World Fantasy Award. However you be hard put if you absolutely had to decide whether 'The Book of the New Sun' was either fantasy or SF. Interestingly what is in effect the North American trade magazine for SF, Locus has made the choice for us. Locus readers each year complete a survey including that for the 'Best SF Novel' as well as the 'Best Fantasy Novel' of the preceding year and it is on the basis of this survey that the Locus Awards are presented. Naturally the novels of 'The Book of the New Sun' made the short list but in which category did the Locus staff put them: SF or fantasy? Well suffice to say that Shadow and Claw: The Claw of the Conciliator and Sword and Citadel: The Sword of the Lictor topped Locus's fantasy category.

I concur. It is not just the set-up and the emphasis of the descriptive narrative but also the sentence construction. After all the previous quote might have been written in a more modern form as The Wall was such a mighty structure that it divided the world as does the line between the covers of two books. But it was not and we get this archaic style of prose that conveys the feel of a mythological fantasy. Not only that, but it is so far into the future that Latin is occasionally used to signify an old obsolete language (possibly modern English?). Also length is measured in cubits and distance in leagues. In short 'The Book of the New Sun' has all the trappings of fantasy even if SF tropes (such as space travel) are occasionally mentioned ever so briefly in passing. However even here the presentation is more in the fantasy vein and such ships could almost be ships plying the oceans to some far lands but for 'stars' and 'worlds' being mentioned. Furthermore ''The Book of the New Sun' does not really work as SF. For example, apparently we are so far into the future that the Sun itself has dimmed and yet humans seem (largely) stuck as human without evolution. To take another example, meanwhile the Moon still orbits with 28 days (which of course it will not as angular momentum transference from the Earth to the Moon would have continued). You get the idea. In short from a strictly hard SF perspective it is difficult to accept 'The Book of the New Sun' as anything but fantasy.

Yet as a fantasy, or even as a science fantasy, ''The Book of the New Sun' really works and from this perspective is an absolute masterpiece. Severian's world is vividly portrayed and not only is there a deeper arcing story being played out over the chapter and novel length developments but there is a backstory to be discovered. A careful reading - and the book really does deserve careful reading, if not after a while a second (and a third) reading - reveals in just the first couple of chapters that Severian is in fact telling us his tale from memory and that he has such a good memory that it oppresses him. We are therefore somewhere in the future of this future world looking back on events. We also learn that the time we are being told this tale of Sevarian's past, Severian is now himself the autarch ruler. We also discover that Sevarian, when young, never knew his parents and so discerning his lineage is one of the key back-story quests.

Then there is Wolfe's writing. Of course Gene Wolfe is an accomplished writer and a brilliant story teller. More than that, he has with 'The Book of the New Sun' crafted a marvellous fantasy as fantasy as if it might be SF and this genre-bending itself is a feat worth marvelling. In addition is his use of English words. Here he must have plied The Complete Oxford English Dictionary for there are terms used that are not in The Concise Oxford Dictionary. A near example of this is 'autarch' as that is not in The Concise although 'autarchy' is. Yet meanings of these words can usually be discerned from the sense of the sentence.

In short 'The Book of the New Sun' is an epic work that is bold in both story, genre, narrative, language and vision. It has by some critics been cited as a sort of Lord of the Rings for grown-ups. This is not being disparaging to The Lord of the Rings (which after all was deliberately crafted by its author with youngsters in mind) but rightly signals that 'The Book of the New Sun' is a richly assembled work that cannot be hastily digested. If you like a complex, epic fantasy set against a backdrop with hints of SF then I cannot commend Severian of the Guild too highly to you. Having said that, on a personal note I am too much of a purist SF aficionado. I find that it does not speak to me and that its SFnal flaws (or at least unresolved science inconsistencies) undermine my enjoyment. As said, this though is a personal thing; much depends on what floats your boat as to whether you will find Severian's tale a masterwork as have very many. If you do then you have another delightful treat in store as 'The Book of the Long Sun' follows.

Jonathan Cowie

See also Matt's review of Exodus from the Long Sun.

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