In the fantasy genre, coming of age tales abound. “Commoner becomes emperor” stories abound. “A nobody becomes great wielder of magic” stories also abound. The Book of the New Sun is all of these. But it’s also a story told in the first person by a possibly insane former torturer who claims to have perfect recall, but who may have multiple personalities. Oh, and did I mention he is a Christ figure?
I won’t even begin to try to summarize the series, though. The back cover jackets do a decent job, but they fall short. This is, after all, Gene Wolfe. And Wolfe does not like traditional narratives, tidy storylines, clear endings, obvious character motivations, or reliable narrators. So if you delve into this world, be prepared: you’re in for a very wild ride.
The set-up is interesting and chillingly prescient. It is so far into our future (way farther even than the world of Dune), that the sun is actually dying. There is very little light on the earth, and that physical darkness is mirrored in the abysmal darkness of humanity in moral terms. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is taboo any more. There is very little virtue; people merely survive, and the bad ones survive obscenely.
In this world we find a strange, innocent soul. Severian is a young torturer, who commits the unthinkable–he falls in love with one of his victims and allows her the easy exit of suicide, rather than subject her to the intricate and horrendous tortures of a guild that has made torture into artisanal craft. Even stranger than this–he continues to practice his trade (though it is mostly execution, not excruciation) and it does not make him callous, cruel, or corrupt. He is childlike, even as everyone–human and superhuman–begins to vie for his attention, and it becomes clear that he is destined for something great and terrible.
But that’s all too tidy and not at all Wolfian. The actual account is nowhere near that linear. We are interrupted by Robin-Hood style bandits who turn out to be far worse than the corrupt king they battle; a troupe of actors whose leader may or may not be the Devil himself; ugly, lamprey-faced aliens that could actually be angels; carnivorous monsters who speak with the voices of the people they devour. And then there’s the healings, the transformation of water into wine, the satanic parody of the Eucharist. It’s very nearly too much to swallow.
But through it all, Severian’s simple, humble voice keeps us anchored. We begin to see that for a world so far gone in a moral sense, there is a kind of brilliant irony in making a former torturer–the worst of the worst–become the eventual Redeemer of a planet on the brink of death. But is he the Redeemer? Can we even trust him? Has everything he recounted simply been the hallucinations of a fractured personality gone mad?
Who knows? And it doesn’t matter, because ultimately, the story is a gorgeous one. Though the world he describes (eerily recognizable in subtle hints) is darker than black (fuligin, in the parlance of the novels), it provides the ideal canvas for brilliant explosions of beauty that are searing in their intensity.
No, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s ugly, dark, and frightening in parts. But underlying it all is vivid hope, joyful because it is so pierced through with grief.