The Book of the New Sun

by Gene Wolfe

Hardcover, 1998



Call number



Folio Society


Severian is a torturer, born to the guild and with an exceptionally promising career ahead of him . . . until he falls in love with one of his victims, a beautiful young noblewoman. Out of love, Severian helps her commit suicide and escape her fate - no more unforgivable act for a torturer. He is exiled from the guild and his home city to the distant metropolis of Thrax with little more than Terminus Est, a fabled sword, to his name. Along the way he has to learn to survive in a wider world without the guild - a world in which he has already made both allies and enemies. And a strange gem is about to fall into his possession, which will make his enemies pursue him with ever more determination . . . Welcome to a world in which nothing is quite as it seems; to an unreliable narrator; to extraordinary, vivid and evocative writing; to one of the greatest genre classics of all time.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member saltmanz I have now read this book twice in the past year, and am looking forward to regular rereads every December.

I had heard lots of fantastic things about Gene Wolfe, and this series in particular, so I figured this was the best place to start. The first time through, I thought it was good. A
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little slow in parts, and other times it was difficult to keep up with what was going on, but overall? Very enjoyable. I rated it a modest 3.5 stars, figuring I'd revise my rating up after subsequent rereads. A couple months later, I was still thinking about TBotNS, so I revised my rating to 4 stars.

Then some random impulse possessed me (I, who give little time to rereads, and had already done one this year) to do a reread in December, a year removed from my first reading. As anticipated, it was even better; but I was surprised by just how much better it was. As expected, much of the book made more sense, puzzle-pieces fit together more readily, and "good" parts from my first read felt like old friends. But many of the "slow" parts now raced by, and the handful of short stories retold by the narrator Severian—which before had mostly bored me—I now savored. I found myself moved (and rendered misty-eyed) by unexpected passages. It was, in a word, MAGICAL.

My new rating was to be 4.5 stars, but it wouldn't stop there. For throughout much of the book, I felt almost like I was studying a religious text—which indeed, it is—at least in-story. There's a depth to Wolfe's book that invites scrutiny and searches for meaning. Not being much of a critical reader myself, I'm fine with the realization that I'll never grasp 90% of the true substance of TBotNS; but just as someone like myself can be absolutely terrible at Go, yet appreciate the profound brilliance of the game, so too can I recognize the genius of Wolfe's masterpiece. 5 stars it is.

This review tells nothing about the actual story of the book, and I will not apologize for that. Rather, I think that that is the way TBotNS is best approached; know that it ostensibly takes place millions of years in the future, and go from there. Be warned that though the first time through may confuse, it will also reward, and subsequent visits bring yet greater rewards. As for me, I'm looking forward to many years of rewards.
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LibraryThing member SnakeVargas
This is generally considered to be Gene Wolfe's magnum opus, and i can't say that i disagree. The writing is beautiful and mysterious, the characters and the world they inhabit deep and multifaceted.

As a boy (13 or so) i picked up the first volume The Shadow of the Torturer because of the cool
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cover (it had a sword on it and was about a torturer). I was, at the time, disappointed. Despite the sword, this is not "high fantasy". At that time, i couldn't get past the fact that Wolfe never spells everything out either.

A few years later, i picked up Shadow of the Torturer again, read it, but couldn't find the last 3 books in the series. I completely forgot all about Wolfe, and Severian, and the ancient, dying earth until i chanced to glance on this omnibus volume at a used bookstore in 2001. I bought it instantly and devoured it.

The story in brief (ha, if you think that's possible, you don't know Wolfe!): the young torturer Sevarian is expelled from his guild for violating one of their most sacred laws. He must make his way through the world... our world a million or more years in the future. The sun is dying, the moon is green (due to forrestation?), and rats are at least semi-intelligent. Along his way, he meets several people of mysterious nature, mysterious past, mysterious future (because the past and the future sometimes get confused... maybe). The story is about Severian's journey and his destiny, woven about with a cast of characters who enter and leave his life, only to enter again.

The story is told in the first person, by Severian, and is a classic example of the use of an unreliable narrator (of which Wolfe is a master). Severian might be insane, or a liar (he says as much at various points in the book) or he might be witnessing events that he is unable to adequately explain based on his limited expirience. The story is highly subjective, open to interpretation and discussion.

Wolfe leaves as much hidden as he tells, making "imaginative fiction" more than just an author telling his readers about what he imagines. The reader imagines too.

I fear even with all my words i haven't managed to convey the majesty, the greatness of this story. If you like fantasy, science fiction, or a good story in general, do yourself a huge favour and read some edition of this book as soon as you possibly can
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LibraryThing member paradoxosalpha
I first read this book (in the four individual volumes) many decades ago in my early teens. In 2007, I picked up this omnibus edition with the intention to re-read it, and quickly acquired most of the other volumes in the larger Solar Cycle, which resulted in a large prospective reading project on
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which I procrastinated until the thick of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Given my intention to re-read it, I had had a favorable impression of it on my initial read, but I really felt I had not fully understood or appreciated it then. I was correct.

In fact, I am such a different reader now, and so much more capable of grasping what Wolfe has presented here, that most of this book seemed entirely new to me. I remembered the largest plot arc, by which the apprentice torturer ascends to the office of Autarch--and it's no spoiler to say so, since that framing is well established early on--but I had forgotten the smaller twists, if I ever really appreciated them, and many of the features of the setting seemed entirely new to me on this read.

There is a great contrast in the two literary backgrounds that informed each of my reads. On my initial approach, I came to the work with what I thought was the compatible experience of The Lord of the Rings and perhaps Michael Moorcock's Elric saga. I did appreciate that the described Urth was in our far future, and I had already encountered this sort of conceit in The Sword of Shannara, a highly conventional epic fantasy with various clues to indicate that it was set in a future after our civilization had been effaced by catastrophic warfare. To be fair to my younger self, I think this approach to Wolfe's books was perfectly in keeping with the publisher's packaging and expectations, and to some degree I had simply fallen for the author's intentional misdirection.

On this recent read, I was far more informed by the reading experiences I had gathered from other works in the "dying Earth" subgenre, especially the Viriconium stories of M. John Harrison and The City and the Stars of Arthur C. Clarke. And I was further prepared by reading Wolfe's own Fifth Head of Cerberus, which offers the sort of elliptical presentation that occurs throughout The Book of the New Sun, without the "epic" framing or red-herring fantasy tropes of the latter.

Wolfe personally adhered to the Roman Catholic confession, and critics have sometimes highlighted this fact as if it supplied a privileged interpretive viewpoint for the work. I remember being a little put off by the possible significance of "religious" elements in my first read--having been burned by the Sunday School allegory of Narnia and the rather dim messianism of Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books. But on this recent read, I thought the better comparandum would be the religions, cults, and mysticism of Herbert's Dune, using the grist of historical religion in the mill of speculative worldbuilding--with some genuine metaphysical rumination. For what it's worth, Wolfe's Severian is a lot more diffident about the miracles of his story than Paul Atreides was. The "Claw of the Conciliator" relic that supplies the title of the second book is present through all four, and its demystification in the fourth has the paradoxical effect of enhancing its numinosity. The "One Ring" it is not.

Some other comparisons that failed to occur to me on my initial read:
The relationship of the hierodule extraterrestrials to the humanity of Urth was like that of Childhood's End--with some additional wrinkles--and considering also the kinship of the plot to The City and the Stars I wonder if Wolfe was an active fan of Clarke. Abaia and his titanic kin seemed to be more than a little bit like Cthulhu.

The diction of this work is notable for its baroque qualities, archaicisms, and neologisms in an archaic manner. There is a rationale for these stylistic features, which are nevertheless alienating for the reader. Also alienating is the unsympathetic protagonist, who narrates the entire story on the basis of his professedly impeccable memory. A reader might (and I'm sure I once did) miss key details while simply trying to avoid getting stuck on these matters. Wolfe deliberately uses ambiguous language in his nautical and astronautical references. Spacefarers are simply "sailors."

There are wonderful uses of form and metafictional structure. I especially enjoyed the central play-within-the-play of "Eschatology and Genesis" in the second book, and the Canterbury Tales concatenation of stories told by the convalescing soldiers in the lazaret of the fourth. Despite appearances, these are not digressions from the main work, and they can be understood in part as instruction in how to read the larger text. There is a very rigorous pattern governing the whole, with a strong sense of cyclic completion. The "Citadel of the Autarch" in the title of the fourth book is the place where the first book begins, but its identification with the Autarch is the result of the events of the tale.

The titles of the four component volumes highlight the riddles posed throughout. What is the shadow of the torturer Severian? Is it perhaps the Chatelaine Thecla whose suicide he assists to his own dishonor, and whose consciousness is joined to his by the alzabo? What is the Claw of the Conciliator? The relic is despoiled by Agia, desecrated by the Baldanders, and then devalued by the Pelerines who had been its guardians. What is the value of Severian's sword? Agia and Agilus would have killed Severian to obtain it. Its Latin name Terminus Est is oddly translated in the text to mean, "This is the line of division" (101)--and while it really means "It is the end," the sword itself doesn't endure to the end of the story. And what is the Autarch? At first presented as the shadowy and remote political executive of the Commonwealth, he later comes to figure as an epopt or Ipsissimus, and ultimately as perhaps the custodian of Urth. And yet some of his attendants address him as "Legion" (857, cf. Mark 5:9), and the old Autarch tells Severian, "I stand ... as you will stand ... for so much that is wrong" (889).

Reading The Book of the New Sun is not like watching a Hollywood movie or even reading a mystery novel. If you let it carry you along, you will be left wondering why you bothered. But there are amazing rewards for the reader who is alert to the increasingly distant voice of the narrator and who works to recognize the features of the story that are left tacit. Not only do I hold this work in high regard for its own sake as a literary accomplishment, it has taught me about reading and storytelling.
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LibraryThing member selfnoise
Endlessly complex, endlessly debated (I think Wolfe has to be the most comprehensively discussed SF/F author on the web). Worth reading for Wolfe's unmatched mastery of prose and the intricate, mysterious secondary world. I like Wolfe's short stories most of all, but this comes as a close second.
LibraryThing member bnewcomer
I wish I had begun reading each book on its own; if I had, I wouldn't have bothered finishing either of the last two books. As it is, I'm giving the entire book an awkward "average" of the ratings. It's hard to extract each book's feel, but here are the ratings I believe I'd give each part:

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Shadow of the Torturer - *****
The Claw of the Conciliator - ****
The Sword of the Lictor - ***
The Citadel of the Autarch - **

While the later books continue to do a fantastical job of world-building, the plot felt like it lost momentum and became schizophrenic, pointless, and dead. Shadow and Claw at least felt cohesive (even if they weren't), and any distractions felt worthwhile. By the end of the book, the distractions felt worthwhile only because they served to obscure the plot and characters, which had become tired, obnoxious, and fickle. Conventions of syntax from the beginning of the book wore thin by the end, and Wolfe's obsession with obscure (and invented) nouns by the fourth book were just a hair south of infuriating. I would recommend the entire tetralogy only to the most dedicated of readers.
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LibraryThing member deepsettpress
Like an icepick in the forehead!


Original publication date

1998-06 (omnibus)
1980-05 (The Shadow of the Torturer)
1981-03 (The Claw of the Conciliator)
1982-01 (The Sword of the Lictor)
1983-01 (The Citadel of the Autarch)

Physical description

1160 p.; 10 inches


1568658079 / 9781568658070
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