Top positive review
Phantasmagoria of Future Times
Reviewed in the United States on April 10, 2015
A most perplexing and difficult novel to review:
Idiosyncratic style and incidental structure that is extravagant with poetic imagery, elegant descriptions and profound observations - while frustratingly coy with its narrative revelations. And since this is the finale of The Book of the New Sun, anticipation remains throughout for many left-over riddles to be resolved. However, though some knots are untangled, the remarkably imaginative skein continues to snarl - too paradoxical and excessive for its own good.
(Warning: Do not expect satisfaction if you have not already read the Book of the New Sun, you will be lost!)
Unpretentiously mythic and philosophical in the best classic traditions of both science fiction and fantasy, this sequel/prequel to Severian's memoir is part Passion Play, part Through The Looking Glass, part Odyssey: a Brothers Grimm alchemy. Wolfe is an illusionist, even more cunning than usual with the Autarch Severian's continued pilgrimage, this time(s) progressing into the over-universe, then back to Urth, then to Ushas, then off again to... Well, it is all simultaneously quite magnificent, confounding, and, ultimately, irritating.
In outline: the first 26 of its 51 chapters involve the voyage to be tested for Urth's redemption. The most rewarding chapters 27 to 43 - a fascinating and often surprising recapitulation at old Urth. Apres those chapters, of course: le deluge...
As always, the chimeric use of an antiquated vocabulary is unparalleled in its mysterious and evocative richness. But Wolfe also remains the thaumaturge more than the hoped for dramatist: as each series of incidents and episodes morphs into another, characters appear then reappear, then change into someone or even something else. Wolfe glories in precise imprecision; his story telling technique, at the most crucial times, depends upon just enough ambiguity to allow meaning to flow free. This is its great accomplishment, though also its most annoying fault. Often Urth of the New Sun reads like some sort of Masque of the White Fountain, complete with guests like a fairy godmother, Friar Tuck, John the Baptist, the Three Wise Men, Tinkerbell - and, of course, good old Apu-Punchau as a sort of Prince Prospero. His style depends on avoiding narrative cliches or conventions, so often risks irritating even the most patient audience with its persistent vagaries and layer upon layer of possibility. So, what exactly was Severian's test? And how did he pass it? How and why was the sun diminished? A punishment for what original sin? And ultimately what is Severian's apotheosis?
The truest science fictional bona fide of this admirably allegorical achievement is Wolfe's masterful fusion of a qabalistic and modern cosmology. Considering the current state of physics' debate between cosmological models (particularly Cyclic, open or regenerative), all the symbolic ingenuity of metaphysically drawing a divine spark from Yesod to Briah - the soul of the story - alone makes the Urth of the New Sun a unique addition to the Stapledon tradition. Unfortunately, the story's emotional outcome becomes submerged by its mythopoeic complexity.
And even if Severian's oddly opaque conscience - the alien heart of all his chronicling - still remains strangely difficult to fathom... Well, again, I consider this is a book full of wonderful and irritating conundrums. Difficult to love, impossible not to admire, but above all frequently graced with wonderfully poignant, beautiful images and insights that linger in the memory.