I have finally worked my way through the first volume of Gene Wolfe’s series The Book Of The New Sun, The Shadow Of The Torturer, and I have to say that I am thoroughly intimidated.  His prose is as tightly packed with information as a DNA strand, and it took me about twice as long to finish as I thought it

The Master at a Conference

would.  I had to reference backwards and forwards in the book continually,  and read several passages multiple times before I felt as though I had a handle on what Wolfe was trying to say.

The plot was unusually thin considering the considerable wordcraft that went into the book; others have commented at length about Wolfe’s portmanteaus, so I won’t go into them here.  It is sufficient to say that anyone who knows a smattering of Latin and Greek, and a little medieval French as well, will not be baffled by any  of Wolfe’s idiosyncratic vocabulary.  My favorite by far was Wolfe’s elegant euphemism for ‘executioner`, “carnifex”, that is, someone who turns a living body into just so much meat.

The novel is a bildungsroman, the story of a young man growing up and making his way in the world.   If I have any criticism of this work, it is that Severian appears to mature too quickly in the two days between when he is exiled from the Torturers’ Guild and when he arrives at the city wall with Dorcas in tow.

Of course, Wolfe packs a lot into those two days; the discovery of sex,  a duel to the death, a lecture on light and relativity, and a visit to the distant past (our own era?).  Still, this isn’t enough to explain the change in Severian from an uncertain and hesitant boy to the confident man he becomes by the end of the novel.

Agia and Severian at the Botanical GardensI have heard, on the other hand, that Severian, the novel’s protagonist, is not a trustworthy narrator, that he is propagandizing, relating a self-aggrandizing version of the story of his rise from obscurity to Autarch.

Somebody said somewhere, I don’t  remember who or where, that all writers should have ceased to write  after Finnegan’s Wake, or Light In August, or Gravity’s Rainbow. The same sort of thing is said about Gene Wolfe.  Now, I haven’t read anything yet by Joyce, Faulkner, or Pynchon (they are on my to-get-to list), but it is obvious that there has been plenty of writing since the publication of those masterworks.

But I understand the sentiment.  Anybody writing in the urban fantasy/science fiction is going to find that Gene Wolfe has set the bar very high indeed.

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