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The Sword of the Spirits by John Christopher (1972) 162 p.
This is the third and final book in Christopher’s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and I have to say, I can’t think of any other trilogy in which the name is derived from the title of the last entry rather than the first.
Having killed his brother at the climax of Beyond The Burning Lands, Luke is now the ruler of Winchester, and is working to consolidate his power while the Seers – openly a religious order, but secretly working to restore technology to the world – assist him. Other factions, including some within Winchester, are working against him.
I wouldn’t say Luke is a well-developed character, pe se, but he is interesting in the sense that he breaks the mould of the traditional young adult protagonist. There are signs as early as the first book that he is headstrong, proud, self-important and lacks intellectual curiosity (indeed, he rarely seems more than indifferent towards the goal of the Seers). But it only becomes clear towards the end of The Sword of the Spirits that he is, in fact, the villain of the trilogy. The hero is one of his old friends, whose travels and adventures have taken place almost entirely out of the reader’s eye, but who returns at the climax to save the day in a rather unconventional way. Luke is presented with the error of his ways and is begged to reconsider, and – much like the climax of The Guardians – I was honestly uncertain which way it would go; whether he would achieve redemption or sink into tyranny. John Christopher was no George R.R. Martin, but he most definitely didn’t follow the unwritten rules of the genre. I won’t ruin the surprise, but suffice to say that even after Luke makes his choice, the novel ends on a very different note than I thought it would, with a particularly bleak final sentence.
In five years time I will have forgotten the names of all the characters and likely much of the plot as well. I will, nonetheless, remember certain events, and the overall trajectory of the novel. The Sword of the Spirits trilogy doesn’t come close to matching Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, but it’s nonetheless a step above most young adult fiction, and well worth reading if one is interested in the genre.
As She Climbed Across The Table by Jonathon Lethem (1997) 192 p.
This is the first of Lethem’s novels that can be accurately described as one, rather than a stretched out short story or a crudely pasted together amalgamation of short stories. As She Climbed Across The Table concerns a love-lorn anthropologist, Phillip, whose physicist girlfriend Alice has become obsessed with a wormhole dubbed “Lack” which has been created in her physics department at a California university. Lack is notable for making certain random objects disappear, while others pass right through it. Phillip becomes increasingly concerned at Alice’s obsession with Lack, which he suspects is bordering on romantic infatuation.
I wouldn’t call this a satirical novel, as others have, though it certainly pokes a lot of fun at various academic pursuits, and academia and university life in general. This is the first of Lethem’s novels which is ostensibly set in the real world, but although the speculative element – a manufactured wormhole, not so different to what’s going on at CERN – is easy to swallow, it later develops into events which, while fascinating, made the book quite surreal. It’s a love story, and while I wasn’t particularly wrapped up in it, I never had trouble believing it.
That’s one of Lethem’s great qualities – he’s always totally in control of his prose, even if his story comes off the rails a bit. It reminds me quite a lot of the early novels of Michael Chabon, about which I said that Chabon was already a master writer, just not a master storyteller. Both writers have prose good enough that I’m willing to forgive the overall pointlessness of some of their novels. The closest word, I guess, is “readable,” though that implies shallowness and ease of reading, which isn’t quite what I mean.
Both authors are also adept at perfectly capturing human thoughts and emotions and discussions. Their characters are perpetually thinking things they aren’t saying, and analysing their train wreck conversations in real time while pretending everything is fine. I like it. It’s realistic. It reminds me of how I (and, I presume, everyone else) think about how I stumble through life without ever actually articulating it, even in my head.
Anyway. I’m enjoying reading through Lethem’s early novels, even if I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them. Next up is Girl in Landscape, followed by the first of his books that’s actually well-known, Motherless Brooklyn.
Beyond the Burning Lands by John Christopher (1971) 170 p.
This is the second book in John Christopher’s “Sword of the Spirits” trilogy, and I enjoyed it quite a bit more than the first. Luke Perry (yeah, yeah, it was written in the ‘70s) has been permitted to return to Winchester, the city of his birth, by the new Prince and his half-brother, Peter. While the Seers are continuing their man-behind-the-curtain machinations to restore science and knowledge to the world, Luke is content to be back at home, but soon goes off on another adventure. A peddler from foreign lands has arrived in Winchester, claiming to have crossed the volcanic wasteland to the north, and offers to return with an embassy to the “land of the Wilsh.” Luke, as Peter’s brother, is sent along with the group as an emissary.
While The Prince in Waiting was fairly pedestrian fantasy/post-apocalyptic story offering castles, battles and political struggles, Beyond the Burning Lands features the mystery of new lands, cultural intrigue and even some monsters, and was a much more entertaining ride. I also found Christopher’s tell-don’t-show writing style more tolerable in this one, as it actually makes a lot more sense for Luke to be evaluating his feelings behind a poker face as he acts as an emissary in a strange and foreign country. On the whole, this was a quick, easy young adult novel that I enjoyed quite a bit more than its predecessor. I’m glad I stuck with this trilogy and I look forward to its eponymous conclusion, The Sword of the Spirits.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (1960) 338 p.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a well-known science fiction novel that anybody who’s familiar with the genre has probably heard of; for some reason I’ve always associated it with Flowers For Algernon (possibly because of the title?) which I’ve never read. I also assumed, because it was relatively old and remained a well-known title, that it was one of those books that blurred the line between science fiction and literature.
The novel takes place in three parts, all revolving around a Catholic abbey somewhere in the deserts of the American south-west many centuries after a nuclear war. The first is about 600 years later and roughly corresponds to the Dark Ages; the second is about 1,200 years later and roughly corresponds to the Renaissance; the third is about 1,800 years later and has the nations of mankind once again threatening each other with nuclear war.
I was surprised, given that I’d assumed this was a novel with literary pretensions, by Miller’s style of writing. I mean, it does have literary pretensions, but that’s exactly what they are – pretensions. He reminded me of his fellow mid-century science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, in that his writing was littered with a weirdly comic sense of humour among ostensibly serious subjects, and that he occasionally got a little preachy. Much of the third act, for example, revolves around a battle of wills between the abbot and a government doctor tasked with euthanising people suffering from terminal radiation sickness. I don’t know if Miller was himself Catholic – not that it should matter, since the character is – but the section is told from the abbot’s point of view and, while certainly not verging on Heinlein levels of preachiness, doesn’t quite do a fair and balanced job of presenting the opposite opinion.
I actually enjoyed that segment nonetheless, though, because it was the first part of the book that seemed to touch on anything weighty. The novel is saturated in Catholicism, but it’s mostly skin-deep references. I was expecting such a well-regarded book to tackle big subjects like faith, nuclear war and the struggle between religion and science a little more skillfully. Instead, I was mostly left wondering what Miller was trying to accomplish.
Overall, though, the problem I mostly had with A Canticle for Leibowitz was that it was dull. Miller is a wordy writer and doesn’t create particularly memorable characters – not helped by the fact the novel is really just three novellas, introducing a new set of characters each time. Nor is his imagined world of the future very interesting, existing mostly to serve the morals and allegories of the plot, mirroring fairly obvious stages in real history – and it shouldn’t take 338 pages to spell out the tired old axiom that history repeats itself. A Canticle for Leibowitz may be considered a science fiction classic, but my advice is to skip it.
The Prince in Waiting by John Christopher (1970) 160 p.
This is the first volume in John Christopher’s “The Sword of the Spirits” trilogy, which is aimed at young adults. I count Christopher’s Tripods trilogy among the best young adult science fiction I’ve ever read, so I was interested to see him do fantasy. The story begins with Luke, a young man, visiting a colony of dwarves who work with arms and armour at a great forge. We learn some more about the city where he lives, a medieval-sounding place with a Prince and his captains, wagons on the roads, horses in the fields, etc. Before the chapter is out, Luke idly traces the faint outlines of old words written on a piece of wood: RADIO & TV DEAL.
Surprise! This is another post-apocalyptic story, which is kind of a shame, because it ends up echoing a lot of the ideas in the Tripods trilogy. The city itself is Winchester, which is also where the protagonist in the Tripods trilogy comes from – I suppose it’s Christopher’s hometown. The book follows Luke as Winchester’s ruling Prince is deposed by the gods known as the Spirits, and Luke’s own father is raised in his place. A number of campaigns and events and battles come and go, and without spoiling the ending (which is clearly just the end of the first part in a series, anyway) Luke eventually leaves the city.
I didn’t enjoy this as much as The White Mountains, the first book in the Tripods trilogy, but I was probably about 15 when I last read that. When I re-read that trilogy, which is on the to-do list, maybe I’ll now see the same flaws present in The Prince in Waiting – wooden characters, and Christopher’s oddly stiff narration. This is just his style, I think – it was definitely present in The Guardians and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it when I revisit the Tripods trilogy. It’s a strange style of prose, not so much in how it cleanly lays out the circumstances on the table and analyses the characters’ emotions, but the way it does so in a polite, refined British manner. There are echoes of it in The Death of Grass, Christopher’s brutal apocalyptic novel for adults, though not as much – maybe he felt the need to spell things out a bit more for kids.
One thing that sets this book apart from Christopher’s others is how unlikeable the protagonist is. Luke is arrogant, proud, lacks curiosity about the world around him, and is often cold:
I was too bitter and wretched to realise what he was offering: having weathered his own grief and disappointment he would still go into exile with me as a companion to me in mine. Later I understood. Friendship meant much to him, more than it could ever do to me.
Beyond that, however, I felt that The Prince in Waiting rehashed too many elements from The White Mountains – the ruins of a great civilisation, a young protagonist going in to exile, and (most blatantly) a secret organisation that remembers the old ways. And in comparison with its predecessor, this book suffers from having a static setting and an larger cast of ancillary characters. The White Mountains had only three major characters, undertaking a road voyage. Characterisation is not Christopher’s strong suit, and I lost track of who was who to some extent towards the end of The Prince in Waiting.
I was fairly ambivalent about The Prince in Waiting and have no doubt this will be an objectively weaker series than the Tripods trilogy. But I’ll read the next two books nonetheless, because they’re not big or time-consuming, and I’m interested to see where Christopher goes with it.
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams (2008) 331 p.
I’ve always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, even if I’ve gone off it a bit in recent years. I can’t remember where I had this book recommended to me, but it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite a while and eventually I got around to it. Adams has collated some impressive big names for this anthology, including Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Jonathon Lethem and George R.R. Martin. Unfortunately, aside from a few stand-out stories, this is a mostly forgettable collection.
Adams kicks the anthology off with, in his own words, a “stand-out story” from Stephen King which “packs an emotional punch.” On the contrary, I found King’s “The End of the Whole Mess” to be an enormously tiresome story, dripping in the tedious kitsch that’s come to define most of his work since the 1990s. I was very surprised, then, to discover that it was actually written in 1986 – a fact which is now putting me off reading King’s short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which is sitting on my TBR pile. Not a great start.
The next story, Orson Scott Card’s “Salvage,” is unremarkable, but is followed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” probably the strongest piece in the book. Set in an environmentally devastated future where humans have genetically modified themselves to the point where they can regrow severed limbs and survive by eating sand, the story follows a group of security workers at a mine in the desolate wasteland of North America who discover, amid the slagheaps and toxic run-off creeks, a scrappy, wretched dog. The narrator’s mild feelings of affection for the dog versus the hassle of keeping it alive was something I found quite relatable. It’s arguable as to whether this is a post-apocalyptic story at all, since society is still functioning and thriving, but whatever.
Jonathon Lethem’s “How We Got Into Town And Out Again” is another solid entry, very readable and weirdly touching. George R.R. Martin’s “Dark, Dark Were The Tunnels” is an interesting story relayed through incredibly awkward exposition. A few more mediocre stories later, we come to Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth,” relating the apocalypse (a bit of a grab-bag apocalypse that doesn’t make much sense, it must be said) from the viewpoint of tech geeks in a data centre trying to keep the internet infrastructure up and running. Doctorow is an adorably irredeemable nerd, and while this is ultimately not a great story, it was an interesting and original take on things.
That’s followed by “The Last of the O-Forms,” by James van Pelt, in which every new lifeform on Earth is born mutated; a sad and often creepy story. Gene Wolfe’s “Mute,” a few entries later, is a strange allegorical story. After recently finishing The Book of the New Sun, I’m wasn’t in the mood to deconstruct more symbolism out of Wolfe’s writing, and this post I found “decoding” the story makes me suspect he has one of the more pretentious fan groups going.
Elizabeth Bear’s “And the Deep Blue Sea” is a solid story following a motorcycle courier as she makes her way across the nuclear wasteland of the American South-West, harassed by a devil figure she’s apparently made a pact with. It’s immediately followed by Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” easily one of the best stories in the book, involving a truly original apocalypse in which a virus robs people of their ability to speak, communicate or understand each other.
That, unfortunately, is about it for the stories in this anthology that I had anything more than a mild opinion on. I only thought four stories were really, definitely worth reading – “The People of Sand and Slag,” “How We Got Into Town and Out Again,” “And The Deep Blue Sea” and “Speech Sounds.” There other stories were either unremarkable, mediocre or somewhat interesting but heavily flawed. It’s also unbalanced, with most of the more decent stories in the first half; I found the downhill stretch to be quite a slog. Even for a fan of the genre, I can’t strongly recommend this book – the few really good stories within are probably collected elsewhere.
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve (2007) 339 p.
Philip Reeve mentioned in a Reddit chat a while ago that he considers Here Lies Arthur to be his “favourite” of the books he’s written, and since I personally consider his Mortal Engines series to be some of the best books I’ve ever read, I thought that was a claim worth investigating. Here Lies Arthur is a children’s historical fiction novel based around Arthurian legend, but rather than a rehashing of the same old stories, it portrays Arthur as a typical power-hungry Celtic chieftan whose myth, legend and reputation is deliberately manufactured and disseminated by Merlin, who in Reeve’s version is not a wizard but merely a crafty bard. The novel is narrated by Gwyna, a slave girl adopted by Merlin after Arthur pillages her town.
The concept is a good one, allowing Reeve to explore the many conflicting stories of the Arthurian cycle, and examining further ideas about the role of stories in general and the longevity of myths. Reeve wisely uses Celtic names for the characters, adding a degree of separation from the more well-known names, so that we have “Gwenhwyfar” instead of “Guinevere” and “Myrddin” rather than “Merlin.” Despite Celtic being fairly unwieldy as a language (and yes, I know “Celtic” isn’t a language per se), it doesn’t break up the flow of the eye across the page at all, and there were a number of characters whom I didn’t realise were Arthurian analogues until their actions later in the novel. (It’s interesting that, when you read in your mind, you simply recognise the shape of the letters in a name rather than actually sounding it out. Or I do, anyway.)
How much you appreciate Here Lies Arthur and its original take on Arthurian mythology probably depends on how familiar you are with Arthurian mythology in the first place. As an uncouth colonial lad, whose knowledge of the topic stems mainly from John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ and Monty Python’s ‘Search for the Holy Grail’, I probably didn’t take as much away from it as a British reader, who would have spent plenty of their primary school childhood learning about Arthur while I was learning about Simpson and his bloody donkey.
Speaking of childhoods, though, I also spent much of mine reading post-apocalyptic fiction, and it was only relatively recently that I realised Western society already had an apocalyptic event followed by a post-apocalyptic period: the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Dark Ages. Reeve mentioned this himself, saying that it made a historical novel much easier to conceive, because it was “almost undocumented , so lots of freedom for a writer.” There’s quite a bit of this in Here Lies Arthur, with Myrddin reminiscing about the old days when the Roman legions ruled Britain with peace and prosperity, and ruined Roman towns like Aquae Sulis where the burghers still go about clad in togas, clinging to the past. It’s a neat idea – probably not wholly accurate, but fun.
There are a few technical issues with the presentation of the book as a whole. For some reason Reeve chose to write it in first person, which presents a number of troubling scenes where Gwyna describes events (in great detail) she couldn’t really know about, and the first person narration doesn’t really accomplish anything third person couldn’t have. While I personally love Reeve’s elaborate descriptive prose and creative metaphors, they don’t work as well when they’re slotted in amongst a solid, no-nonsense slave girl narration. There were also quite a few moments where he slips back and forth between present tense and past tense.
While we’re on the nuts and bolts of the book, because there’s no better place to bring it up, it’s probably aimed at older readers than I thought it was; I was thinking 9-12, at the beginning, but then there are a couple of relatively graphic scenes and the words “piss” and “shit.” I mean, I was dropping “fuck” amongst my friends on a regular basis when I was 11, but I always figured that what kids were ready for was several years ahead of what their parents and teachers thought they were ready for. But what would I know? Categorising books by age group is a dubious idea anyway.
Is Here Lies Arthur the best book Philip Reeve has written? He thinks so, and according to Wikipedia, so do British libraries, since they stock more copies of this than any of his other books. I haven’t read all his books, but I don’t think this is the best of them. He’s entitled to his view (well, duh) but I personally enjoyed the Mortal Engines series better than Here Lies Arthur. Despite all the violence and calamity and pollution in the Mortal Engines series, flying a swashbuckling airship through the Himalaya is still amazingly enticing for a young reader, whereas Gwyna’s cold and muddy Dark Ages aren’t as much fun to visit. (I have a theory that the appeal of young adult fiction hinges on escapism; relatable characters and all that, but still characters having a better time than you.)
Mind you, it’s become fairly clear that my regard for the Mortal Engines series is at least partly fuelled by overwhelming nostalgia and fierce established loyalty, so don’t take my word for it. Besides, I liked Here Lies Arthur quite a bit; it’s just comparing silver with platinum. Read them both and decide yourself.
AA Gill is Further Away by AA Gill (2012) 270 p.
Another excellent collection of AA Gill’s travel columns and opinion pieces, one of the only contemporary journalists whose prose is actually worth gathering up in a volume. AA Gill is Further Away is divided into two halves, “Near” and “Far,” with “Near” collecting stories from England and “Far” containing more general foreign travel narratives.
On the whole I enjoyed the English pieces better, as they range across topics as diverse as sustainable fishing, plastic surgery for burned WWII airmen, chicken breeding and dyslexia. There’s a marvellous love letter to Hyde Park, its “open plains and secret dells, wild places, ruins and follies, fountains and palaces.” One of the best articles is an exploration of the Battle of Towton, Britain’s bloodiest in history, yet largely forgotten.
The reason Towton hasn’t come down the ages to us may be in part that it was in the middle of the War of Roses, that complex internecine bout of patrician bombast, a hissy fit that stuttered and smouldered through the exhausted fag end of the Middle Ages like a gang feud. The War of Roses have no heroes; there are no good guys and precious little romance. They’re as complicated and brain-aching as Russian novels and pigeon breeding.
The second half consists largely of more typical travel articles, but still have a few gems, such as his trip to Svalbard, his coverage of the 2008 US elections, or his analysis of Dubai:
Dubai has been built very fast. The plan was money. The architect was money. The designer and the builder was money. And if you ever wondered what money would look like if it were left to its own devices, the answer is Dubai.
Enjoyable and illuminating as always.
Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (2007) 178 p.
J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa and migrated to Australia in 2002. One of the blurb reviews on this copy is from The Age, and refers to Coetzee as a master “we scarcely deserve.” I have no doubt that “we” refers to “we Australians.” I’m also seeing him speak at the Wheeler Centre next Monday, and their description of the event takes care to mention in the opening paragraph that “we’re lucky to have him living right here in Australia” (exclamation mark implied). I suppose the cultural cringe is alive and well, and I suppose I also suffer from it, because I agree – we are lucky, and we do scarcely deserve him. It feels odd to read one of the greatest living writers crisply discussing subjects close to home, such as Australia’s bafflingly cruel treatment of refugees or the Liberal Party’s general philosophy, but it’s very satisfying.
Diary of a Bad Year is part non-fiction, part fiction, and like many of Coetzee’s works, part memoir. (There is, incidentally, no way he’s never slept with one of his students.) The narrator, referred to as “Senor C,” is a South African emigrant to Australia, an acclaimed novelist and academic, who once wrote a book called Waiting for the Barbarians, but who is also much older than the real Coetzee, and who doesn’t appear to have won the Nobel Prize. Senor C has been commissioned by a German publisher to contribute a series of “strong opinions” on various social and political topics, and these short essays make up the first part of the book. If these essays were all that Diary of a Bad Year contained it would be a failure, because they are stiff and authoritarian and lecturing. (They were mostly in line with my own views, but that doesn’t matter.)
But the essays are cut off halfway down the page, replaced with a string of text detailing this fictional Coetzee’s life, and how he employs Anya, his sexy young Filipina neighbour, to type for him. Essays on the outrage of Guantanamo Bay and the poor state of universities and anti-democratic secrecy laws are thus complemented by the lecherous narrative of an old man who, while being intelligent and measured and thoughtful, is nonetheless driven by his dick. And soon a third ribbon of text joins the story – the thoughts and opinions of Anya, who is smarter than she first appears.
Coetzee uses the viewpoints of his fictionalised self, and of Anya, and even of Anya’s boyfriend Alan (who is not given a thread, but has many lines of loudmouth dialogue in her section) to criticise and cast doubt on the strong opinions of the book’s essays. This is a relief, because without them they would possess an insufferable surety, and proper novelist should never really be sure of anything.
The essays often correspond subtly to the theme du jour of the lower stories; at least half the time they correspond so subtly that I couldn’t finger the connections, though I have no doubt they were there; Coetzee is smarter than me, after all. The story at the bottom adds up to a reasonable novelette, and while it lacks the power and potency of a longer work, it was certainly worthwhile.
This isn’t one of Coetzee’s stronger works – it certainly doesn’t compare to Disgrace – but you wouldn’t really expect it to. It’s a neat little post-modern experiment (containing, ironically, a strong criticism of post-modernism) which is quick and concise. It’s not the first book of Coetzee’s you’d want to read, but it is worth reading.
The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe (1983) 317 p.
Gene Wolfe’s deceptively long Book of the New Sun comes to a close with this, the final volume, The Citadel of the Autarch. (Actually, that’s not quite true – he apparently wrote an extra book in 1987 called The Urth of the New Sun, which I may or may not read in the future.)
This was a difficult series to review because it’s really just one long book split into four, and – like many promising stories whose ultimate value hinges on how well they turn out – I couldn’t really judge it until now. So this is going to be a review of both The Citadel of the Autarch and the Book of the New Sun as a whole, and spoilers will abound.
I originally heard about this series in 2011 when I was working in a bookstore and trying to get back into the fantasy genre. The Book of the New Sun and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were the two series which, above all others, were mentioned as the high point of fantasy fiction in the last fifty years. The only reason I chose to go with Martin first was that 2012 was clearly his year, with the TV series coming out and out store shifting more than 50 copies of A Game of Thrones every day. Given how thick that series is, I didn’t get around to the Book of the New Sun until last month.
It’s ostensibly fantasy, but is really science fiction; a good example of why these sections are often lumped together in bookstores. The protagonist, Severian, is a journeyman apprentice from the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, more commonly known as the guild of torturers. After breaking his vow, Severian is expelled from the guild and sent out to face the wonders and dangers of Wolfe’s rich fantasy world, which is actually our own planet far into the future, when the sun is slowly dying.
Wolfe excels at fantasy world-building – not just in the imaginative creation of the world itself, but the techniques he uses to create it. Unusually for a fantasy series, The Book of the New Sun is narrated in first person, and Severian’s point of view is used to great effect. He regularly interprets certain scientific processes as magical and casually skims over tantalising details because he considers them mundane. Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from parsing Severian’s story for details about his world, and trying to piece together what’s going on and what kind of a place he’s in.
The Citadel of the Autarch does and doesn’t lead to answers. This isn’t Lost, and it’s not like I really expected precise answers, given that so much of the book was written in mystic, arcane prose designed to hint at the truth rather than reveal it. The central conceit of the book – the awaited New Sun – is dealt with in a way that perfectly summarises Wolfe’s marriage of fantasy and science fiction, describing processes of such high, theoretical quantum physics that to a layman they are almost fantasy, and planting them in a world where the inhabitants do indeed consider them to be the stuff of religion, myth and prophecy:
“You know of the chasms of space, which some call the Black Pits, from which no speck of matter or gleam of light ever returns. But what you have not known until now is that these chasms have their counterparts in the White Fountains, from which matter and energy rejected from a higher universe flow in endless cataract into this one. If you pass – if our race is judged ready to reenter the wide seas of space – such a White Fountain will be created in the heart of our sun.”
The Book of the New Sun embraces, more than any other work I have seen, Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Remaining on the subject of things I enjoyed in The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian’s ascent to the throne – which is casually mentioned to be his fate early in the first book – always seemed unlikely given his station in life, but is handled perfectly believably, utilising fantasy/sci-fi elements that were a major part of the series from the very first chapter. (It also gives a clever twist to the royal pronoun “we.”)
The problem with the Book of the New Sun is that while Severian’s retrospective memoir narrative works wonders in establishing a great fantasy world, it fails at actually telling a good story. It can be overly dry and constantly digresses, and the plot-driven parts of the book suffer for it. The Citadel of the Autarch, in particular, has a clump of unforgivably tedious battle sequences at its centre which almost sent me to sleep. And The Book of the New Sun is, overall, a plot-driven story, which means that more often than not I was pushing myself through because I was fascinated by the world, rather than genuinely enjoying the book because I liked the story. (See also – China Mieville.) The Book of the New Sun is undoubtedly a series that would reward re-reading, but I doubt I’ll ever have the inclination to do so.
The series also feels far too constrained and dictated. Severian is a free agent with free will, and throughout the book he regularly informs to the reader of his goals and motives. Yet he feels like a puppet on a string, because he keeps randomly encountering important people and major events and recurring characters. It feels as though everything he does is pre-ordained. Which, as far as I can tell from the book’s conclusion, it may be – but then there’s the problem of deus ex machina, which the series is marinated in. Wolfe even has the cheek to have a minor character say:
“It refers to some supernatural force, personified and brought onto the stage in the last act in order that the play may end well. None but poor playwrights do it, they say, but those who say so forget that it is better to have a power lowered on a rope, and a play that ends well, than nothing, and a play that ends badly.”
The Book of the New Sun often feels more like conceptual literary fantasy/sci-fi than an actual story that one reads for enjoyment. I find it quite interesting that it’s considered to rank alongside A Song of Ice and Fire, because the two are apples and oranges. I definitely prefer Martin’s series, because it’s easier to read, more entertaining, and bucks enough cliches to elevate itself above schlock genre fiction. Wolfe’s series, on the other hand, pulls up just shy of the point where I’d call it pretentious, and I can easily see how it’s stuck in an uneasy niche – too literary for fantasy readers, and too fantasy for literary readers.
They’re not bad books. They aren’t the books I was expecting them to be, and I can’t say I truly enjoyed them, but they are bold and unique and worth at least checking out for fans of both fantasy and science fiction. I also suspect that, like certain other critically acclaimed books that I didn’t give great reviews to (Wolf Hall, True History of the Kelly Gang) I’ll find that they stick in my mind and I come to think much better of them than I do right now.
A final note, which didn’t fit elsewhere – Wolfe’s note-bearing epilogues at the end of each book are just plain strange. The epilogues – which run at the end of each of the four books, for only three or four pages – are in-universe frame story notes written from the point of view of a “scholar,” apparently of our own time, studying the Book of the New Sun as a “manuscript” and attempting to learn about Severian’s world. They go some way to explaining a few bits and piece, but I’m confused as to why Wolfe would insert them in the first place when he obviously trusted most readers to be smart enough and engaged enough to pick out the details themselves. Furthermore, if he was going to use this technique, it should have been employed more regularly, in footnotes and endnotes and chapter breaks all over the novels, ala Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Instead we have four epilogues, totalling about 10 pages, versus 1,212 pages of narrative. Why bother? Either put them in often or cut them entirely.