Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (spoilers)

I'm labeling this a review, but I'm not really into anything too structured here - just post-reading thoughts, feelings, that type of thing.

Like I mentioned in my Reading Now! I was sold this was science fiction, based on the many quotes exclaiming its awesomeness on the cover of the first volume (part 1 and 2).  The first time I started reading it, probably around 2008 - I got 50-60 pages in and put it down.  This was sure feeling like fantasy, and I want some science in my scifi.  I wanted to read something "different" after all of the Peter F Hamilton so I picked this back up.

First off, there's some confusion (or at least, I was a little confused) on how this is presented (outside of the genre).  It's sold now as 2 volumes, but was originally 4 separate novels published at different times.  The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch.  Come to think of it, there's many things that are confusing about this series.

Spoilers ahead.

Spoilers here, you were warned.

Edited to add: another thing that always nagged at me was when exactly does the sun dim in our system without us being fried by the expansion phase?  Maybe this is addressed in the sequel but it's just been bugging me.

I still am not sure how I feel about these novels, I know they are critically acclaimed and many say that the world opens up upon reading a second time through.  There's this notion of puzzles embedded throughout the story that you may or may not get the first time through, but will become obvious on a second reading.  I haven't found many documented in the reviews and comments I've read so far - but things like Dorcas being Severian's grandmother, his tower being a starship, others that I can't recall or didn't seem puzzle-ish to me.  I'm not a literary reader, I'm reading for fun and entertainment in my downtime.  I enjoy little puzzles in a story that I can figure out (such as those mentioned above can be determined in one reading) but if there are items I need to read the stories multiple times through to get - I bristle.

I did not realize at the time, but only after I started reading a brief bibliography (when I was nearing the end of the series) did I notice there's a sequel of sorts in The Urth of the New Sun.  I was intending to buy that in a store physically, turns out they did not have it in stock (Barnes & Nobles stock checker lied to me!) so I waffled and started another book (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Now after mentioning enjoyment, I should say these books aren't the easiest to read.  Many terms are used that likely you won't know and need to be determined from context.  They are not made up, but may be some very archaic term that only a very small population would be familiar with.  You get accustomed to all the new terms, but I found it a little tiresome especially in the first volume trying to figure out what all these things really were.

As a side-note, I found the odd little Appendix items at the end of each volume where Wolfe was presenting this as a translation (hence the guess at words and meanings) of some found novel.. well, it made me giggle truth be told.  It just struck me as kind of silly.  I wonder if I'm the only one!  I know this is all serious business, but come on.

As I was reporting back to a friend about my feelings on the books, I would update my status of "is it scifi or not" periodically.  I think by the second book (part 3/4), I was seeing bit by bit why it could be considered science fiction.  Technically it is on Earth, in a far distant future when the Sun is cooling and there are some remnants of far-future technology such as teleportation/spaceships but aren't understood by the narrator (mini spoiler, I was thinking mining antigravity materials but wait that was A Deepness in the Sky by Vinge, whoops; streams are crossed!).

But it's not just whining, at the end of the day I liked Severian.  Even if he's too perfect and important (apparently), he was written in a way that I definitely latched on to.  It was a well built universe, I enjoyed following one voice (instead of space opera-ish situations with 100 POVs), I wanted to know what the rich powerful people knew that the commoners didn't.  It's an interesting idea, writing science fiction like fantasy - from the eyes of someone raised in a barbaric time but when lurking technology isn't understood but lives just around the corner.  I will read the sequel and maybe that can help round out my feelings.  My understanding is that it answers many questions.

I usually have a few images that stick with me after finishing a series (unless it was really mediocre and I can barely remember I read it in a month).  Unfortunately these were mainly not pleasant.

  • Cracking Morwenna's femurs during execution
  • Flayed leg while he's still in the guild
  • Poor Jolenta with her what seemed bizarrely extreme manufactured proportions
  • Terminus Est being destroyed, I was pretty disappointed over this; I felt more attached than Severian did!
Hopefully I will report back with a better defined opinion after reading the sequel.  

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