The Book of the New Sun

by Gene Wolfe

Rating: ★★★★

The Book of the New Sun is a sort of sci-fi/fantasy epic, written with religious overtones and a 'literary' style. Spanning four volumes, the series follows the life of a torturer's apprentice as he wanders into a political conflict which touches on the past and future of humanity.

The series is difficult thing to rate. Several times through the series I was left unimpressed, even disappointed by Wolfe's meandering attitude towards the plot, which for at least half the series does not appear to be going anywhere at all, and arguably never did. Similarly, the main character, Severian, is oddly flat and difficult to connect with -- no doubt a result of the diary style of the writing, his own detached character and the reminders that this is a tale of something that has already happened.

Wolfe is unforgiving with the break-points in the story, the abrupt ends to volumes often feeling like one book has been literally cut into parts, with just a little rationalisation of the location tacked on. Even the end of the series itself suffers from this, carrying Severian only so far, leaving some key questions unanswered, as if the writer really is pulled away to do something more important.

Yet there are good things about the series. The style is rich, full of allusions and sly references, and Wolfe manages to slowly suggest in outline a very interesting world, full of elements which seem fantastical only because their technological basis is obscured by future history. The language is well-controlled and suggestive. Despite being difficult to connect to, the main character is no cut+paste hero -- he embodies a number of contradictions, a certain unpredictableness, which make him very human and paint the world quite grey.

With a unique if often trying style, The Book of the New Sun is a welcome variant on typical science fiction which blends the fantastical and the technological with a rich layer of allusion. Not without some sometimes highly irritating characteristics, it should nevertheless be worth reading for readers whose tastes lie in that direction.