Top positive review
An astonishing accomplishment that demands much from its readers and isn't for everyone
Reviewed in the United States on April 5, 2016
I’ve been thinking now for more than a week about what I want to say about Sword and Citadel, the second half of The Book of the New Sun, and still, I’m struggling to put my thoughts together. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; I struggled similarly with the first half of the story, which I both loved and was frustrated by, mainly because I couldn’t quite decide exactly what this strange series was. What I assumed, though, was that I would have more of a handle on the series once I finished it. And that hasn’t quite turned out to be the case. Sword and Citadel – and, indeed, the entire Book of the New Sun, is fairly unclassifiable, a blend of fantasy and science fiction told by an unreliable narrator, a story where almost all of the plotting is done through subtext and implication, where the world being built may be the story, rather than the plot we’re presumably watching unfold.
Sword and Citadel follows Severian as he continues on his travels, finally arriving at his designated position as town executioner before once again failing due to an act of undeserved mercy. From there, he wanders the countryside, drifting through a series of encounters ranging from a talking, intelligent beast to a being that might just be a ruler, or even a god, before becoming involved in the war that’s constantly been lurking outside of the boundaries of the series. That’s about all of the story I can really tell you, if we’re being honest; this is not a book whose plot is easy, or maybe even relevant. Rather, it’s about the world being explored, and about how Severian sees and interacts with that world – interactions that are often spiked with cruelty, violence, and judgment.
What’s more compelling – and more frustrating – at times is how unreliably Severian narrates his tale. It becomes clear early on that Severian isn’t telling us enough information, through no fault of his own – it’s just that his descriptions don’t account for the fact that we know more information than he does. The description of a knight with a golden visor holding a flag aloft, for instance, is presented as simple fact; nonetheless, as we learn more, it becomes evident that this is no knight, but perhaps an astronaut, holding aloft an American flag. The castles and metal buildings we so often see? Those may be rockets and ships…or perhaps not. But then, as if Severian’s limited perspective isn’t enough, there’s the gradual realization that our narrator quite simply isn’t being straight with us – he withholds, he obfuscates, he distorts, and quite possibly, he lies.
All of this comes together in a literary tour-de-force that’s undeniably an intelligent, incredibly-crafted novel. What Wolfe has done boggles the mind; he’s created a world, then filtered that world through an inhabitant trying to describe it, then given that world a spin and perspective that makes it even more unreliable, and then gives this to us in the form of a picaresque journey without clear form and fashion, despite the sense that every single sentence and scene matters. It’s remarkable, brilliant, thoughtful work. And it’s also incredibly difficult, dense, and often frustrating, as you sense that to truly understand this work is going to mean diving deep within its waters, questioning every sentence and every word, and constructing something new from the clues and hints along the way.
So do I recommend the series? Yes…and no. To no small degree, what you think of The Book of the New Sun will depend on what you expect out of it. If you expect a straightforward narrative, or a traditional anti-hero, or an epic in the style of Lord of the Rings or Dune, you’ll be frustrated at what you find. This is something wholly else. But if you want something truly – and I hate to use this term, but it’s the only thing that fits – literary, something that displays an astonishing gift of prose and craft, and that you’re willing to work with, you’ll be rewarded for your time and then some.
As for myself, I can’t deny that I’m dazzled by the construction and world of New Sun. I’m floored by the scope, and the imagination, and the characters, and the way Wolfe works between layers and layers and layers of artifice. And yet, even now, I’m not sure I truly understand or even come close to getting this book, and that’s frustrating. It’s a series I feel like I need to read a second time, or even a third, to truly get, and I’d be lying if I said that was something I was truly excited about. It’s a series that felt challenging, and it’s all the more so for how deceptively simple it all seems. Is it a remarkable accomplishment, something truly incredible to behold? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t necessarily make it fun in any sense of the word, or something you’re going to jump into without some thought. Take that as you will.