As with The Claw of the Conciliator, Wolfe begins the third volume after a gap of unspecified but certainly extended time. Severian and Dorcas are now established in Thrax, City of Windowless Rooms, straddling the river Acis in a narrow, steep-lined gorge.
They have continued to have adventures between leaving the stone town and arriving at Thrax, but Severian has presented his credentials to Abdiesus, the Archon, and taken over the Vincula, a prison consisting of diagonal shafts drilled into the rock, in which prisoners lie chained.
Severian has been engaged in his task of mastering and ordering the system for several weeks: given that his story takes approximately one year from his leaving the Torturers and his return as Autarch, this gap cannot be too great: two further months seems a reasonable assessment, given that the events of The Sword of the Lictor will cover perhaps two to three weeks in total.
Originally, The Book of the New Sun was planned to be in three volumes, but the last of these would have been approximately half as much again as either of the first and Wolfe resolved the issue of imbalance by dividing the last volume in two, around a conveniently-placed event, and building each half of the story up. That would seem to account for the ease with which the linear story in this volume can be summarised.
But first, we find ourselves reading of a growing unease in Severian’s relationship with Dorcas, one that has him fearful for its continuation. Dorcas, having no official position in Thrax, and thus no occupation, is finding that time hangs heavily on her hands when she sees so little of Severian. She is also the subject of comment among other women for being the companion of the Torturer, and is growing increasingly disturbed.
Though Severian tries to justify his role in life, and his suitedness for it, Dorcas reveals that her distress at what he is forced to do goes even deeper than he already knew. A visit to the Vincula has forced her – who fears water so much – to go to public baths to clean the effect of the prison off her.
And matters rapidly get worse. Severian uses an afternoon free of duty to tour Thrax. From the high point of Acies Castle, he sees Dorcas by the river, hunched over. She is all but catatonic, and Severian can only lodge her in an inn high on the cliff, to be cared for by the Inn-mistress.
Back in his office, he is invited by Abdiesus to a masque that evening where he will be required to carry out an execution, by strangulation. His torturer’s garb doubling as a costume, he encounters Cyriaca, a still-beautiful middle-aged woman, wife of a minor armiger. She is wearing a Pelerine robe, having once thought to join the Order, which initially takes in Severian.
When she faints at his approach, realising that he is not in costume, he tends to her. They spend the night in company, talking of many things, and end in making love. In the morning, Abdiesus finds them, and indicates to Severian that she is his victim, which he has already understood. Her infidelities have made a laughing stock of her husband, a supporter of the Archon.
But, for a second time, Severian betrays his Guild, and thus ceases to be a Torturer. He lets Cyriaca go, aids her towards an escape, and thus has to flee both Thrax and Abdiesus. Before leaving the city, he has things that must be done. He uses the Claw to heal a dying girl and a sick boy, evades narrowly death by a fire-like creature that has been pursuing him (it is a creature of Hethor, who he has now realised must be the old sailor that Agia said wished to marry her). And there is Dorcas.
She is awake and talking now. She and Severian hold their last conversation. Just as he must flee, and intends to go north into the mountains, she must head south, return to Nessus. At the waterside, she saw an old piece of furniture, looted downriver in the abandoned areas of Nessus, and recognised it, as hers. Hers in a long ago time. She vomited, and vomited leadshot, of the kind used to weight down the bodies of the dead in the Garden of Endless Sleep.
She cannot now avoid the understanding that she was dead, dead for many years, and that Severian, by the means of the Claw of the Conciliator, though he did not yet know he possessed it, had restored her to life, long after. Dorcas has to return, to find where the furniture was taken from, to find what she can of her former life, of the family she had, of who she was.
Severian gives her all his money and wishes her well. He will only see her once again. By the end of his story, he will have realised who she is, one of a very small number of instances where he sees what is about him. For the attentive reader, there are already enough clues to undo the puzzle.
Severian leaves Thrax and heads north, intending to find his way to and join the war. He keeps to the highest ground, avoiding roads and any places where the Archon’s troops may be able to find and capture him.
Eventually, both thirsty and extremely hungry, he descends to an isolated cabin, just below the tree-line. It is occupied by Casdoe, her son and father. Casdoe’s husband, Becan, is out hunting, and expected to return for supper. Severian may stay for a night. Casdoe’s son is also named Severian, and it appears that he has or had a sister named Severa. At any rate, Severian soon realises that there is another, presumably young woman hidden in the loft: she is revealed as Agia.
As night falls, danger approaches. The cabin is threatened by an alzabo, the animal from which the analyptic was taken that put Thecla into Severian when he ingested a part of her. The alzabo has eaten Severa, which enables him to access her memories and speak with her voice and thoughts: Becan has gone to hunt it, but has become its victim. When it speaks with his voice, Casdoe unbars the cottage.
Severian is forced to confront the alzabo, alone and in the dark. Agia deliberately betrays him, intent on his death, Casdoe out of fear for herself and her family. Severian negotiates an agreement by which the alzabo leaves for the night, on the promise of Severian leaving in the morning. Severian rather reneges on the spirit, if not the letter of the promise: when Casdoe and her family depart in the morning, he trails them, intent on intervening if the alzabo attacks,
Instead, the little party are attacked by zooanthrops. The father is clubbed down before both Severian and the alzabo can intervene. The zooanthrops are killed and the alzabo mortally wounded, but not before it has begun to eat Casdoe, reuniting her in some manner with her family. Severian is left to take responsibility for his little namesake.
They journey on together, Big Severian naming himself as his charge’s new father, Little Severian quickly growing to accept it.
In the forests, they are attacked by members of a tribe who practice magic. Little Severian is kidnapped, Big Severian disarmed and imprisoned underground. He pretends to be a great magician, greater in power than the village, which leads to a magical challenge. The villagers do have some form of magical power, though the challenge is rigged against Severian. But the contest is disturbed when the village is attacked by another of Hethor’s beasts.
The villagers believe the creature to have been summoned by Severian, and they bow before his power, letting him and the boy go on their way, undisturbed.
They head back towards the mountains, immense mountains that we slowly realise have been carved into the shape of men, former Autarchs of Urth. It is like Mount Rushmore, only that the carving is more extensive than mere faces and includes arms and hands.
An abandoned town lies near the hand. In a building, around which massive terracotta-esque soldiers stand, turning slowly to follow the sun, the Severians find the dessicated body of a man with two heads. They sleep the night, and in the morning discover that there is an apparent gold ring on one of the gigantic fingers. Eagerly, Little Severian runs ahead, but when he touches it, there is a blinding flash: he is electrocuted, his body turned to ash.
Alone and despairing, Severian is contemplating his future when he is found by the two headed man, who has been restored by the energy from Little Severian’s electrocution. The man, who is naked, is the ruler whose face adorns the mountain: Typhon, a tyrant who ruled a younger Urth when it was yet stronger than it is now, the Autarch whose scientists opened a black hole in the heart of the Sun, to extract energy, but who only began the darkening and cooling of Urth.
Too powerful for the weakened Severian, Typhon takes him to a chamber from which two empty windows overlook the Urth: they are the eyes of the mountain head. He explains that, in order to perpetuate his then reign, he chose to have his mind transplanted into a younger, healthier body. Since power resides in the face that can be recognised, his head was grafted onto the body of Piaton to take control of the motor functions. The other head, Piaton, cannot access the voice box: seemingly mad, it makes facial gestures, rambles silently.
Typhon intends to take control of the Urth again. Severian is to be his first lieutenant. He demands an all-encompassing, binding oath of loyalty, which Severian must either swear or be flung from the eye. Instead, lip-reading Piaton’s words, Severian strikes out, a blow intended to crush the nose and drive bone-splinters into the brain. Instinctively, Typhon raises his hands to protect his face, but Severian has struck at Piaton, whose death is sufficient to bring death to all the body.
Still weak for lack of food, near delirious himself, Severian descends from the mountain, coming eventually to the shore of Lake Diuturna. Attempting to browbeat the Shore People into food, drink and rest, he is instead drugged, to be taken to the lord of the Castle on the lake’s northerly shores. Severian is accompanied by the slave-girl Pia, of the Lake People, who live on floating reed-rafts, and who now suffer from the Shore People since the master returned to his Castle.
Severian exploits an explosive given by the Master to the Shore People to free himself and Pia for rescue. He finds himself expected to lead the Lake People in an attack on the Castle, futile though it clearly is. However, he must retrieve the Claw, which has been taken there. By taking charge, Severian secures enough trust to be allowed to make a solo scouting expedition, telling them to expect a lighted fire as the signal to attack.
The Castle has, hovering above it, an immense alien spacecraft. The Castle’s occupants are, of course, Dr Talos and Baldanders. The latter has been in contact with the three cacogens – Ossipago, Barbatus and Famulimus – for many years. They have given him scientific hints, drawing him onwards, enabling him to create Dr Talos and in turn to grow himself from a small size to the giant he has become.
The cacogens are delighted to speak to Severian. They talk as if they know him, and well, though this is his first meeting with them. Though Severian is mystified as to why, it is clear that they are abandoning Baldanders and transferring their sponsorship to the former Torturer.
Their craft leaves. A frustrated Baldanders refuses to return the Claw, instead hurling it from the battlements. It’s arcing path of fire triggers the attack. Severian finds himself fighting for his life against Baldanders as the Castle starts to burn. In the end, raising Terminus Est to block a mace-blow, the blade is shattered. But with the Castle facing ruin, Baldanders dives hundreds of feet into the Lake.
He does not surface, but Severian is by no means convinced the giant is dead.
Terminus Est is destroyed. Severian retains its hilt but buries what remains of the sword itself. As the Lake People celebrate, he goes hunting for the Claw. Eventually, he finds it, shattered into pieces. These he also buries, but he also finds a sharply hooked, claw-like jet thorn, which he senses is the Claw itself, the gem merely its casing.
Preserving it, he heads north, towards the War. Having carried his readers from fortress to fortress, should they not wish to plunge into the struggles ahead, he does not condemn them. It is no easy way.