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.