Books I Read: The Book of the New Sun

The last two months of 2009 saw my to-be-read pile increase about tenfold, and I'm tearing through them as best I can. I love to read, and I figure most of you do too, so why not talk about the books we like? That's what readers do, aye?

Title: The Book of the New Sun (actually four books)
Author: Gene Wolfe
Genre: Science Fantasy
Published: 1980-83
Content Rating: R

This is a tetralogy consisting of The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch. When MattyDub gave them to me, he said, "I don't know how to talk about Gene Wolfe with someone who hasn't read it. I'm afraid everything I say will be a spoiler." I totally get what he's saying now, but I'll do my best anyway.

BotNS is about a young man named Severian, an orphan raised and trained by the Torturers' Guild. He is exiled for the sin of giving mercy to one of the torturers' clients and travels, well... everywhere. The world is Earth, but it's dying. The sun is so dim that stars can be seen during the day, and only the area near the equator can be said to be truly warm. The Autarch, ruler of Severian's people in the south, is threatened by war in the north and rebellion led by the mysterious Vodalus. Throughout the four books, Severian gets wrapped up in basically everything.

That's about all I can say without ruining anything. This book will blow your mind. Every time you think you've got things figured out, Severian (the narrator) drops a bomb as casually as when he tells you what he had for dinner or that he sharpened and oiled his sword again. It's like watching Fight Club on a loop and being surprised every time. That was easily my favorite thing about it.

On the down side, it was a little slow at points: the beginning is hard to get into, and the story takes a few detours (esp. towards the end) that, while I'm sure had some deeper meaning I totally missed, were hard for me not to skip so I could continue the plot.

Overall, Book of the New Sun is a classic, and it's easy to see why. Gene Wolfe does things that I never knew you could do in prose. Things I'm not supposed to do as I try to get published. But he does them really, really well. It's like nothing I've ever read.


fairyhedgehog said...

How suitable are the books for a very squeamish person? I hate pain so the title The Shadow of the Torturer is enough to put me off.

Ricardo said...

Adam--Gene wolfe is one of all time favorite authors. The Book of the New Sun is brilliant. If you liked this series, you might also like the "Latro in the Mist" series by Wolfe.

It's about a soldier who keeps a daily journal because a head wound has given him short term memory loss (kinda like Memento). The other side effect of his wound is that he can see and converse with the gods :)

Joshua McCune said...

Hmmm - never heard of this one -- will have to check it out.

Adam Heine said...

fairy: He doesn't go into detail about tortures or anything. In fact, Severian is more executioner than anything. But he does kill a fair number of people with his (awesome) sword. I guess it depends what you mean by squeamish.

Ricardo: Thanks! That sounds cool.

Bane: I'd never heard of it either, though I'd heard Wolfe's name before. Apparently it won awards and stuff though :-)

fairyhedgehog said...

I can cope with people being killed, it's descriptions of torture I can't handle. So these books may be worth a look for me!

MattyDub said...

Fairyhedgehog et al: BotNS is rated at least R - Adam is off his rocker if he thinks otherwise. There is at least one graphic torture scene, the practice of torture is described (in a teaching context), there is rape, cannibalism - and this is just from the first book. (Wait, that might be from the first two books, I can't remember where one scene takes place.) I know that I am more sensitive to some of these issues than is Adam, so I think he might not have remembered a few things. This book is NOT for the squeamish.
But if that sort of thing doesn't bother you, then this is one of the best books you are likely to ever read. It is unlike anything else I've ever read, except other Gene Wolfe books. I'm so angry I never heard of him until a few years ago - I can't see why this guy isn't a household name.
Adam, yeah, I think I know what you mean about a "deeper meaning I totally missed." There is something there, but I need to read it again before I could talk about it. The Urth of the New Sun explains a fair amount.
PS This book is AWESOME. Wolfe is probably my new favorite author. Despite the "adult" content (man, that is an annoying euphemism), I recommend it.

Adam Heine said...

Hm. Yeah, content ratings are weird for books. Because yes, there is technically cannibalism (for example), but sort of in the same way that The Incredibles has murder, manslaughter, and sexual innuendo. It's there, but it's portrayed in such a way that I was not bothered by it.

Or maybe I'm just a terrible person. Content ratings are so danged subjective.

As to the "graphic" torture scene, if you are referring to where Thecla is tortured by electricity (or whatever that was), I would consider that no more graphic than the torture scene in Princess Bride. Know what I mean?

I guess it all comes down to how thoroughly you as a reader choose to imagine what's happening.

Adam Heine said...

Though I think I will change the rating above. I want people to read books, but in terms of content ratings, I guess it's better to be safe than sorry.

MattyDub said...

I will respond out-of-band to avoid spoilers for those who have not yet read it. (But they probably should! It's really good, even if some parts are a little icky! I promise!)

fairyhedgehog said...

Thanks, MattyDub. I think I'd prefer to give this a miss! I am very squeamish. I can cope with strong language and explicit sex scenes but explicit violence really bugs me.

writtenwyrdd said...

Fairy, these are not squicky at all, IMO. This is one of my favorites I'd have on the Must Have If Stuck On Desert Isle list. The rest of the varying series in the same world aren't nearly as good (book of the long sun, and I forget the name of the other.)

Adam, your comparison to Princess Bride and The Incredibles is spot on!

fairyhedgehog said...

Now I'm confused. I need to have a look at these books and see what I think!

Adam Heine said...

fairy: Yeah, it's really hard to judge content for other people. Even more in books, I think.

MattyDub said...

I think you should give it a try. I'm willing to bet that the mastercraft of the books will outweigh the ickiness that's there.
Adam and I emailed about this, and it really is a personal thing - I'm more easily disturbed than he is in general, and I'm more easily disturbed by passing references to things (as opposed to actual depictions of those things).
I'm almost done with Long Sun now, and while it's very different from (and more conventional than) New Sun, I still think it's great. I'm going to read Short Sun at some point this year, probably, but I've got a lot of other books in the heap right now.

Myrna Foster said...

Thanks for the recommendation and for the content clarifications.

fairyhedgehog said...

MattyDub, I think I'm going to have to see for myself!

fairyhedgehog said...

I tried this book and it was very well written. Far too well written for a book about a torturer's assistant. I didn't get very far at all before I wanted the mind bleach and gave up on it.

At least I tried.

Adam Heine said...

Fair enough, fairy. The book's written the way it is for a reason, but it's definitely not for everybody. I had to force myself through the first couple of pages before I got my head around the writing too.

fairyhedgehog said...

I thought it was really well written. It's just my vivid imagination couldn't even cope with the descriptions of victims after torture.

It's a shame. If I was less squeamish I could have enjoyed it.

Steve MC said...

I read the first book a few years ago 'cause GRRM mentioned him in an interview, and every review I read, people raved about him.

It's definitely a unique voice, sort of like Masterpiece Theater meets Rod Serling. And I love how long it takes to figure out when and where things are, like when he casually mentions flying cars.

I'm quite squeamish and can't read horror, but I wasn't bothered by the book because the torture (as I remember it) was off-screen, and he cared about the woman. The weird girl-from-the-pond-in-the-museum thing bothered me more.

It was a bit higher than my reading level, in fact, especially with some of that surreal stuff, which is why I haven't gotten into the second book yet, but I do hope to one day.