Fiction Reviews

The Book of the New Sun
Vol. 1: Shadow and Claw

(1980 & 1981 / 2015) Gene Wolfe, Gollancz, £10.99, pbk, 603pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21197-1

(1980 & 1981 / 2016) Gene Wolfe, Gollancz, £10.99, pbk, 603pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21649-5


This is a welcome, 2015, new edition (and subsequent 2016 new printing) of the first two novels (originally published in 1980 and 1981) in 'The Book of the New Sun' quartet, and re-released as part of Gollancz's 'Fantasy Masterworks' series (with the 2016 edition released as part of Gollancz's SF Masterworks series). However, and do note the 'however, while this story reads like a fantasy there are distinct hints (or very brief outright giveaways) that this is actually firmly science fiction (hence the 2016 edition as part of the SF Masterwork series). So if your preference is very much for the latter over the former, do please bear with me because this work is something of a modern SF classic

Severian, a torturer's apprentice, is exiled from his guild after falling in love with one of his prisoners. Ordered by the Autarch to the distant city of Thrax to go as a torturer to dispense justice for the Autarch's law, he only has his ancient executioner's sword to protect him on his perilous journey across the worn world of Urth.  Along the way he finds a mystical gem, but was this discovery an accident or fate…

Now, this summary hardly barely does justice to this book. Indeed, those who don't like out-and-out fantasy (and some don't as there is no accounting for taste) may well be put off this book. Others, may not like the writing style that kind of hints at old English and which does contain some very obscure terms (so much so that some fans have drafted dictionaries of the New Sun). Consequently those who have a touch of (let alone pronounced) dyslexia – which may well be a tenth of the population – might struggle with Wolfe's prose in 'The New Sun'. And then there are the book's plot complexities and fine detail: this is not a straightforward read. Conversely, those who enjoy fantasy as well as SF and especially those who take pleasure in fantasy sprinkled with made-up terms (though many here are real-but-rare words), and plot challenges, will simply lap this up. This is classic literary SF and readers unwrapping the packaging – the writing style, the terms, the fantasy superficiality, the complexities – will be rewarded to discover, deep down, a hard SF core.

Flashing hints in this book (the first volume) reveal that Urth is actually set in the far future Earth. Humanity has gone to the stars leaving behind a resource-depleted world. The civilization for the large part has become positively medieval, however some old high-tech, and some technology from the stars does make its way to a few citizens with power and/or wealth or even as family heirlooms.

We also get to understand that this book is in fact a memoire of a future Severian. There are times when things seem to contradict themselves, but these are not plot errors: Severian likes to show himself in a favourable light and so from that perspective, his own recollection of events are through rose-tinted glasses: Severian is an unreliable narrator. And then there are thing that (initially at least) are inexplicable. This is because the memoire is being written for the fellow people of Severian's far future; they know everything and so some things do not need explaining (such as robots are common). Finally, there is an even bigger story surfacing... This is a book of many layers. Approach it carefully. You will be rewarded.

Book 2, following on from book 1, of this current reprint contains the third and fourth titles of the original quartet. For collectors into pedigree and provenance the original quartet is 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)

And, without giving the game away, books three and four (or the second volume in this current reprint) reveal more hard SF in that the overarching arc or whole plot of the quartet, is very firmly rooted in SF. Yet you will not begin to see this until much later in the quartet.

This edition comes with a useful, short introduction by the hard SF author of wide-screen space opera, Alastair Reynolds.

In short, this is a marmite book, and if you do not like the clothes in which this masquerades then you may well find it a struggle if not boringly impenetrable. However, for those that revel in linguistic and stylistic challenges, for those who equally enjoy fantasy as much as rock solid SF will find that this is a classic work that can be re-read years later with added enjoyment.

Jonathan Cowie

Jonathan has previously reviewed the 2007 reprint, omnibus edition, of the whole quartet: Severian of the Guild.

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