A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Sword of the Lictor’


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.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Claw of the Conciliator’


Bruce Pennington’s covers

The Claw of the Conciliator followed a year later.
In Wolfean fashion, the abrupt end of the first book does not lead directly into the second. An unmeasured period of time has elapsed, and Severian has travelled an unspecified distance – far enough at any rate that the Wall is no longer visible, though it must be remembered that we are now beyond Nessus, and into the forests and hills, approaching the mountains – to the town of Saltus.
His only companion is Jonas, the middle-aged man with a metal hand encountered in the tunnel beneath the wall where Shadow ended. Severian has become separated from the rest of Dr. Talos’ troupe, most especially from Dorcas, though before the end of this volume we will learn that at first he headed in the same direction as Baldanders, albeit not at the giant’s instance.
Severian has been engaged to carry out two executions, one woman, one man. The woman has been accused of murdering her husband and children (though after she dies her rival admits to having framed her), the man is an agent of Vodalus. The Alcalde (Mayor) of Saltus, with an eye to the commercial aspect of things, has made the two executions the focus of a week-long fair.
The fair draws all manner of people to the area, including a column of soldiers marching towards the mountains, and, more seriously for Severian, Agia. She disappears before he can find her, but in the fair he visits the tent of a supposed Green Man, who is indeed green. He claims to be from Urth’s future, but though Severian does not believe him, he leaves him the means to break his shackles and escape.
Later that day, Severian performs the execution of Morwenna. That evening, in the lodgings he shares with Jonas, they are discussing his reactions when Severian receives a letter. It is from Thecla, describing how her ‘death’ was contrived by agreement with Master Gurloes, enabling her escape. She wants Severian to come to a secret rendezvous some miles away.
Driven by the thought of Thecla alive, Severian immediately leaves, stealing a magnificent destrier (horse) outside his lodgings. He gallops up the valley, until he reaches the mine entrance Thecla describes, after dark. There is no sign of Thecla, outside or in: the mines are dark, and populated by ape-like creatures, who surround Severian, in a hostile manner. He loses Terminus Est, but when he accidentally removes the Claw of the Conciliator from his boot, it glows with a clear blue light that illuminates the entire cavern and fascinates the ape-men.
Unfortunately, it also appears to disturb something monstrous deep in the dark. Severian retrieves his sword and flees. In the dark outside, he is shot at with a crossbow: his assailants are assassins hired by Agia. Once he hears her voice, he comes close to weeping, knowing that Thecla is really dead. With the assistance of a man ape whose hand he has severed, Severian kills the assassins and confronts Agia. She expects him to execute her, and asks only the boon of facing away from him. Severian cannot do it: he leaves her alone in the dark, silently.
Barnoch’s execution is planned to take place the following day, but Severian, still thinking about the man-apes, is consumed by his memories: unable to distinguish between those and what he is currently experiencing, he and Jonas are kidnapped by armed men, taken into the forests and placed aboard an elephant under guard.
The men are agents of Vodalus, who wants the torturer to prevent the execution of his man. Severian and Jonas travel a great distance to a substantial court in the heart of the forest, where Vodalus arrives. By taking advantage of his captor’s distraction, Severian retrieves Terminus Est, using it to kill everyone aboard, and bring the elephant to an obedient halt at Vodalus’s feet. He reminds Vodalus of their previous connection, in the necropolis.
This changes Vodalus’s thought: instead of simply killing Severian and his companion, he intends to use him as his agent. He has been tracking the torturer, and wishes to send him to rejoin his fellow troupers at the House Absolute, where he is pass on a message to another agent. Firstly, Severian and Jonas must undergo a horrific ritual that, even more than the oaths they are made to swear, is meant to bind them absolutely to Vodalus.
This far future of Urth holds a wild, bear-like creature called an alzabo that, when eating his victim, is able to assume its mind, voice and personality for a time. A drug extracted from the alzabo can duplicate the effect on humans. Vodalus’ ritual involves consuming the cooked flesh of a dead person and, temporarily, taking them into you. For Severian, the feast will involve the body of Thecla.
But Severian is incapable of forgetting. If he ingests Thecla under this drug, she will remain within him for as long as he lives.
The following morning, Severian and Jonas set off to ride to the House Absolute. Severian now has all of Thecla’s memories in him. Their journey takes several days, but as they near the grounds, they are attacked by curious creatures that resemble flat, black slivers. Jonas recognises them and urges flight. Severian can slash these creatures in two with his blade, but Jonas warns him against doing so: dividing them merely multiplies them and increases their speed. They are called noctules, and they seek human warmth.
The pair save themselves by inadvertently leading the noctules to an uhlan. The noctules overwhelm and kill him. Having rejoined, and being sated, Jonas is able to hook the noctule out entire, and seals it in a bottle, imprisoning it. Jonas rides ahead, but Severian stays to use the Claw, which awakens the soldier bodily, but leaves him dazed.
At this moment, Severian is approached by his follower Hethor, a stammering, wretched creature who has adopted Severian as his master, and who complains in his circuitous manner of the pains Severian causes in following him. Seeing something white amidst the trees, Severian spurs on to rejoin Jonas. He is bitter at the thought that, had he had the presence of mind to produce the Claw at the feast, he could have restored Thecla, though Jonas strongly denies that possibility.
The appearance of a path underfoot shows they are now on the grounds of the House Absolute. Thecla’s memories within Severian confirm this: not for the last time they threaten to overcome Severian, so that he is Thecla.
However, the duo are surrounded by a platoon and are brutally imprisoned, their belongings taken from them. They are being marched towards the House when they glimpse the rest of the troupe being escorted across the grounds. Before Jonas can even draw breath to call to Jolenta, he is brutally stunned. Two guards carry his body, oddly easily.
Inside, they are imprisoned in an ante-chamber full of prisoners of all ages, some of whom have been there for decades.
In accordance with tradition, two of the senior inhabitants take Severian aside for questions and answers. The torturer discovers, to his surprise, that the old woman, Nicorette, is not a prisoner, but rather an armigette who has chosen voluntarily to spend her life with the prisoners as a safeguard against their being completely forgotten (though many have) or being treated extremely badly.
Jonas is cared for separately. When Severian is reunited with him, Jonas is is a strange state. He has to escape or he will lose his mind.
Jonas’s travels among the stars have also been travels in time. We do not understand quite how far back he goes until he recognises the original Greek source of a tale Severian reads from Thecla’s book, and begins to talk of people in the antechamber who descend from times so ancient that their names are appropriate to the Twentieth Century. Moreover, he is not a man who has been fitted with a metal prosthesis, but a man of metal fitted with a biological prosthesis.
At night, the prisoners are attacked by young, drunken armigers and armigettes, delighting in torment. Thecla recalls at least one such occasion when she was among them, but this proves vital as Severian can now remember the secret door by which they entered, and through which he and Jonas exit when another strange, and dangerous beast begins to prowl the antechamber.
They take refuge in a chamber in which a machine of mirrors awaits. The light between it enables the ruined Jonas to depart, into time or space. He vows to return, for Jolenta, when he has again been made whole.
Severian, left alone for the first time since the inn where he met Baldanders, searches for Terminus Est: Having found it he seeks to be reunited with Dorcas. First, he encounters old Rudesind, the Curator, cleaning another picture as in Ultan’s Library years ago. Severian recalls that picture effortlessly: we realise that it is of the original Moon landings.
Invited to step back to properly see this latest photo, Severian finds himself passing into a hidden chamber, where he is met by the androgynous man who ran the bordello to which he was taken by Roche. This man is Vodalus’s agent. He gives Severian instructions: to continue to Thrax, to return the Claw to the Pelerines, if he can, to be prepared for the Autarch’s presence in the northern mountains, in a few months, where he must find a way to kill the ruler.
The androgyne is also, from Thecla’s knowledge, the Autarch.
Severian is led into the gardens and directed to find the players. Dr. Talos is first to greet him, but he has little time to talk to Dorcas before she is sent for water. She relates a vivid dream that hints at her lost past, and expresses her fear and hatred of water.
The play is to be performed that evening, with Severian again playing the multiple roles assigned to him. As the stage is being prepared, with Dorcas deeply involved in painting the set, he accepts an unspoken invitation from Jolenta to explore the gardens. The unfeasibly voluptuous woman is open about her intention to use her commanding appeal to ensnare someone high in the court, perhaps even the Autarch, so that she would have great wealth and power.
Jolenta has no sexuality in her, only a manipulative consciousness of her attraction to all, man or woman. The afternoon is hot and she cannot walk far due to her over-ripe thighs chafing. Severian takes her onto a boat on the river. Jolenta falls asleep and in her sleep, Severian unloosens her clothes and takes her.
This time, Severian recounts the play, as if in a script, until the same moment when Baldanders attacks the audience. But this time the audience includes cacogens, or aliens, and their strange appearances and their weapons beat back the giant amidst great confusion. Severian is forced to flee, cursing himself at having lost Dorcas again so soon, but after a night in the forests, he encounters his friends again.
It is the end of Baldander and Dr Talos’s journeys: they have raised the money they required and are now returning to Lake Diuturna, in the mountains. Everyone is paid off their share and Severian and Dorcas are intent on Thrax. Only Jolenta is distraught, when Dr Talos refuses to take her with them. When she attempts to follow, she is beaten and her money taken, forcing her to follow Severian and Dorcas.
At night, Severian and Dorcas make love again for the first time since before the Wall. Severian wakens to the sound of his name being called in a rich, deep woman’s voice. A gigantic woman lies in the river, beautiful but so large that she can only support herself in the water. She is a daughter of Abaia, one of the alien monsters that war on Urth, a swimmer between the stars.
She professes love, and a crown, claims that it was she who saved him from drowning in Gyoll in an incident immediately before the beginning of Shadow. She wants Severian to come with her: he will be made immortal, able to breath water as air, but first he must, effectively, drown himself. When he refuses, she tries to leave the water with disastrous effects.
Severian escapes, aided by Dorcas, who has come in search of him. Jolenta’s wrist is oozing blood. Severian attributes it to an animal’s bite. Never a hardy traveller, Jolenta now needs to be supported at every step. Her flesh and her beauty begins to dissolve.
They encounter a herdsman and his dead son. Severian uses the Claw to restore the young man, who recovers to fear him as the new lictor of the still-distant Thrax. Severian easily prevents the father from killing him and, in the morning, takes a destrier to carry Jolenta.
Their path leads to an ancient, abandoned stone town. All are weak for lack of food and water, and Jolenta is dying. On a rooftop they find two women raising a campfire. These are the Cumaean, the witch of the Botanic Gardens, and her acolyte Merryn, but they are being protected by Hildegrin the Badger. All three are here to raise the dead: Apu-Punchau, a sorceror of long ago. Severian, Dorcas and Jolenta – who is revealed to have been under a glamour part cosmetic, part-magical, part-illusion – are brought into the summoning that restores the stone to life.
Severian, seeing through eyes not his own, recognises the face of Apu-Punchau as that of the funeral bronze in the Atrium of Time that was his secret hiding place as an Apprentice. Hildegrin dives into the dead crown and grapples with Apu-Punchau, who resists. He calls for Severian’s aid but Severian finds himself seeing two Hildegrin’s, one whom he is fighting, the other fighting someone invisible. He defeats the first and is trying to aid the second when lightning strikes.
He awakes to find all things changed. Hildegrin, we must assume, is dead, the witches and the mounts have gone and only Dorcas remains, with the dead body of Jolenta, whom Severian finally recognises as the waitress from the cafe who chose to go with Dr. Talos.
Again, Severian lays down his pen, having conducted his reader from town to town. If the reader does not wish to travel further with him, he has no blame: it is not an easy road.

 

Cozy Cumbrian Thrills: The Coniston Case by Rebecca Tope


This image has no bearing upon the story

Having time to kill yesterday, whilst waiting to see Valerian, I spent sometime in the Library. I glanced at the SF/Fantasy section, then turned to crime, where a very familiar word caught my eye: Coniston.

I’ve never heard of Rebecca Tope, who seems to be one of those very prolific crime fiction writers who turn out a book a year, in long-running series. Her main series is the Cotswold Mysteries, now running at something like twenty books, all centred upon Thea, a professional house-sitter, who encounters murder wherever she sits in a way that immediately makes me think of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.

The Coniston Case is the third of, to date, five books set in the Lake District, so Martin Edwards no longer has a monopoly on my beloved country. Rebecca Tope’s books are rather more concentrated in area, centred upon Windermere and basing themselves around events in nearby villages, all within a ten mile radius.

The heroine of this series is Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown, and you’re right, it’s an awful name and the Simmy bit, with its overtones of antisemitism, is a constant distraction. Simmy is a florist, with a shop in Windermere Village, where she’s assisted by twenty-year old Melanie Todd, hotel-management trainee with an artificial eye, and pestered by self-confident, highly-intelligent schoolboy, the seventeen-year old Ben Harkness.

The ‘gang’ is completed by DI Moxon (revealed in this book to bear the first name of Nolan) who investigates the crimes that Simmy somehow, and very reluctantly, gets involved in whilst selling flowers. Moxon appears to have personal feelings for Simmy, who is probably somewhere around forty, divorced after losing an unborn child, and is nowhere described in the book. Neither are Melanie nor Ben, cometo think of it. It’s that kind of book.

Tope is firmly in the ‘cozy crime’ category. There’s no swearing, no violence, nothing too exciting. It’s all very much what I imagine Midsomer Murders must be like, and it’s meant for an audience that doesn’t want to be upset when reading about death and murder. I’m not a crime fiction buff to begin with, and this is not the kind of crime fiction I would choose, preferring stuff with either a greater or a much lesser connection to reality. With this kind of book, you never really get the sense of the passions and emotions that drive people to take another’s life.

The plot’s not really all that important. It’s set around Valentine’s Day, which has Simmy heartily sick of Red roses. She’s getting a spate of anonymous orders, cash, no sender’s details, cards whose messages upset the recipients something chronic, and gets pulled into a case when one of the recipients commits suicide, and his landlord is found murdered.

All the flower incidents turn out to be red herrings, sheer coincidences, and whilst the suicide is as a twisted result of a joke, the psychological basis is a long way from being convincing. Simmy’s friend Cathy comes up from Worcester because her daughter Joanna is sleeping with her tutor Ben and they’re doing some climate-change project on Coniston Old Man (Ms Tope, in this book, comes over as very much a sceptic). Ben, who carries a knife that we’re meant to assume is the murder weapon, is a self-centred obsessive who has spotted a new seam of copper on the Old Man that he expects will make himself rich, and kidnaaps Kathy for forty-eight hours.

But he’s not the murderer, and he’s pretty incomprehensible when it comes to human motivations, and the murderer himself turns out to be someone occasionally mentioned as a background character, about whom Simmy makes an ‘out of thin air’ deduction right at the very end.

I found it disturbing that in the case of both villains, their girlfriends make an instant decision to stand by them, despite the fact of their crimes being perpetrated against each young woman’s own family. One, maybe, as evidence of the peculiarity of human behaviour, both both? Too much like a trope, and it’s an unpleasant, outdated and pernicious one, that when a woman falls in love, she stands by her man, no matter how much of a moral sludge it makes her.

But you all know why I read the book, right? The same reason I read all six of Martin Edwards’ Lake District Mysteries: because it’s the Lakes. And is Rebecca Tope better at setting her books in South Cumbria than Mr Edwards?

Well, yes, though the difference is merely one of degree. Tope uses the real geography, without making up non-existent places, and unlike Edwards, she’s aware that fells and mountains and lakes exist, and can be seen, overshadowing places. Coniston Village is perpetually under the shadow of the Old Man, and the Yewdale fells.

On the other hand, Tope avoids details, suggesting that she’s getting her background from a map rather than direct knowledge, and there are two straight-out flubs that had me howling. Simmy, who, for reasons not gone into, loathes the Windermere ferry, has to deliver a bouquet in Hawkshead, so drives round Windermere lake at its northern end, going through Ambleside and Rydal, before turning down the narrow road to Hawkshead. All well and good, except that Rydal is some four miles north of Ambleside and to go through it en route to Hawkshead, you haveto drive there and turn round, back to Ambleside.

(Tope also fudges the fact that, since I was a boy and for I don’t know how long before, Hawkshead has been banned to traffic and vehicles have to be left in an out-of-village and correspondingly expensive car park, which complicates the plot.)

The other flub is a reference to the Yewdale fells flaring in the east, which is flat out wrong. The Ywedale fells present impressive looking ramparts above Coniston village, behind which they become a tussocky plateau: they face east and there is nowhere, and especially no road, from which they could be seen to the east.

Similarly, the book is set in Cumbria, and Melanie and Ben are both stated to speak with the local accent, but Tope does not define that accent, and except for one phrase that confuses the Worcester-based Kathy, say nothing that suggests anything Cumbrian to their speech. And even that phrase is more Liverpudlian that Cumbrian.

So, my overall verdict is, better than Edwards, but still nowhere where I’d like to see a story set in the Lakes. I have three of those available through Lulu.com, if you’re interested, and whatever their merits as adventures, the locality is impeccable…

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’


I owe a debt of thanks to Ursula Le Guin for discovering this book at the time I did. I was still in my mid-twenties and had only really begun to open out to SF/Fantasy after first reading Lord of the Rings in 1973/4. I had adopted Roger Zelazny as a favourite author, by means of the first Chronicles of Amber, and was also by that time well into such different writers as Harlan Ellison, and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books (I know: forgive me).
I’d read a lot of Le Guin, enough to respect her work if not yet to appreciate it as I do now. I’d also, after a certain naivete about which I’d been very lucky, begun to have a scale in my head for author blurbs. Despite Zelazny being responsible for my first purchase of an R. A. Lafferty novel, I’d already grown to mistrust his recommendations. As for McCaffrey, I’d learned enough to avoid like the proverbial plague any book her imprimatur was on.
But Le Guin… Aah, Le Guin could be trusted. It was her voice that tempted me to purchase the Arrow paperback edition of The Shadow of the Torturer. I knew Wolfe by then, primarily as a writer of short fiction, a constant presence in the anthologies I borrowed and read from the library: distinctive, but not enough to tempt me.
Le Guin’s words made the difference, and it did not take more than a few pages to recognise that I was in the presence of greatness, that in front of my eyes an author was vaulting to the front rank of SF. It would be a long and painful wait for the second volume.
Reading The Book of the New Sun is such an immersive experience that it can often be easy to lose oneself in the fabric of the story and in Wolfe’s glorious portrait of this immensely distant future, couched in the archaic language of the past. For this re-read, I adopted a hitherto untried approach: two chapters at night, before going to bed and, no matter the temptation, only two chapters (except in the case of the last night of The Shadow of The Torturer where, the book having 35 chapters, I read three.)
Breaking the story down to such small portions, read with wide intervals, proved to be instructive. Words I had read dozens of times suddenly become more obvious, when they were part of a limited portion, and I could see more of the hints and inferences that other, more wise readers have exposed down the years, for the benefit of we who have been less perceptive.
Severian’s path towards the Autarchy unwinds more deliberately, its individual paces more clear.
Although he lets slip early on that this is the story of how he, unwittingly, backed into the throne, Severian is in no hurry to set himself in motion. He begins with a scene of great importance to all that follows: night, in the Necropolis, he and three fellow apprentices and friends returning to the Matachin Tower after Severian has almost drowned, swimming in the great, slow river, Gyoll. Severian encounters the rebel exultant, Vodalus, saves his life even, and romantically and in ignorance (is there a difference between the two states?) declares himself a follower.
Several chapters are devoted to the very little Severian knows of his past (he is an orphan), and to the mystery of his Guild – the Seekers after Truth and Penitence, vulgarly known as the Torturers. Spreading these pages over several nights makes clearer things that, in earlier, more driven readings, I overlooked in my haste to reach the next stage.
The Book of the New Sun is set in an unimaginably distant future. Mankind has been to the stars, has formed vast Galactic Empires, has encouraged and raised numerous alien races and, falling gently into decline after innumerable centuries (the entire history of Science Fiction lies behind these books!), returned at last to the single planet, Urth. And Urth itself is dying, slowly. The sun’s light dims, stars are visible in daylight, the Moon shines with a green light (having been terraformed millennia ago, and covered with forests).
Wolfe cloaks his story in the air and the trappings of fantasy, yet this is an SF novel, couched in a real Universe and a real timeline extending all the way back to the times in which this story is being translated. The untranslatable future is made both explicable and obscure by being couched in archaic, obscure, forgotten terms. The Torturers Guild is housed in the Matachin Tower (Matachin: a sword dancer in a fantastic costume). Between torturers and the vivid name, we expect dank apartments, stone and cobwebs. But the Matachin Tower is a converted spaceship, a rocket rooted to Urth, and the slow read enabled me to see more clearly all the references that demonstrate this.
All this is a settled situation. The first step towards breaking it up, to forcing Severian into action, is the arrival of the Chateleine Thecla at the Matachin Tower, to be held pending eventual excruciation. The tall, lovely, slender Thecla is to be allowed comforts, including certain books requested from the Library of the House Absolute. Severian, as Captain of Apprentices, is sent to collect these. It is his first excursion beyond the environs of the Guild, and a foreshadowing of the expulsion that becomes inevitable when, by a chance of fortune, it is he who delivers the books to Thecla in her cell, not his friend, the journeyman, Drotte.
So Thecla sees Severian, where otherwise she would not. She talks to him, and requests the Masters that he be her attendant, a request granted. Severian takes on the role of delivering the Chateleine’s food, and remaining in her cell to talk to her. He is warned against warming her bed (in case she should become pregnant and the Guild be unable to carry out such excruciations as are eventually ordered for her), and in order to reduce his temptations, Severian is sent, with his other friend, the journeyman Roche, to the Witches – in effect, the Guild of Prostitutes.
The Witches offer girls who pretend to be ladies of the House Absolute, sneaking out in the snow to slake their lusts: Severian chooses one who purports to be Thecla, a choice that does little for Master Gurloes’ intent to divert any lust (it is made plain in a later book that Severian and Thecla do become lovers, though at the moment we see only his fascination with her, and a more romantic feeling).
A long winter passes as Severian watches Thecla follow the classic path for those not immediately punished. The longer Thecla goes without punishment, the further she moves from carefully suppressed fear to blooming confidence that she will not be tortured, that friends, even the Autarch, will intercede on her behalf, and deep into plans for what she will do on release.
But Thecla has been taken because her half-sister is the Chateleine Thea, the consort of Vodalus. And the inevitable day comes when Thecla is subjected to excruciation. The machine used delivers the equivalent of an electric shock. Afterwards, Thecla struggles to keep her hands from attempting to throttle herself. Severian smuggles a knife from the kitchen, that he has especially sharpened, into her cell and leaves. When a trickle of blood emerges under the door, he calls Masters Gurloes and Palaemon and surrenders himself.
No sooner has he betrayed his Guild than Severian rediscovers a tremendous attachment to it. He expects, though does not wish for, death, but the Guild are in a legal quandary, having no authority to kill or torture without Warrant. Palaemon’s solution is elegant: Severian must leave the Guild, but he is commissioned to travel to the northern city of Thrax, which needs a carnifex (or executioner).
He also gives Severian the superb executioner’s sword, Terminus Est (this is the line of division).
Severian, still dressed in the garb of his Guild, leaves immediately, anxious both to begin his penitence and to enter the outside world, though it will take the remainder of Shadow before he reaches the Wall surrounding Nessus in the north.
I should mention that Wolfe, throughout the whole story, gives plenty of clues to identify that this story takes place in the Southern Hemisphere, and conscientious readers have identified, with Wolfe’s tacit agreement, that the vast and ancient, sprawling city of Nessus was once Buenos Aires.
Severian’s delight in entering what, for him, is a new world is in inverse proportion to the stir he causes in his torturer’s garb. He is more or less ordered off the street, finding refuge in an inn whose reluctant host puts him in a shared room with a stranger overnight.
The stranger is a Giant, Baldanders by name. Severian is introduced to him in the morning by Baldanders’ companion, and seeming master, Dr Talos, a small, fox-like, talkative man. He and Baldanders are performers: at breakfast, he enlists both Severian and the pallid, scrawny, unnamed waitress at their table, to become members of their troupe. Severian agrees, with no intention of ever returning, and goes off to seek clothing to disguise his Torturer’s garb.
This brings him into contact with Agia and Agilus, twins running a broken-down shop, a meeting that governs most of the rest of the volume. Agia, outside, sends Severian in to speak to her brother, who initially is found wearing a mask. Agilus’s only concern is with Terminus Est, which he seeks to buy, despite Severian’s absolute refusal to sell.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a masked, silent Hipparch (an army officer), challenging Severian to a duel in respect of some unidentified insult, to take place at sundown on the Sanguinary Field.
Severian is in complete ignorance of the purpose and mode of the duel, which is to be fought using the highly dangerous alien plant, the avern. Agia takes him under her wing for the day, escorting him to the Botanical Gardens, where he can pick the avern, and then to the Sanguinary Field for the duel.
On the way to the Gardens, Agia provokes a race between rival fiacres that ends with that carrying Severian and herself crashing into the Pavilion of the Pelerines, a female religious Order responsible for guarding an ancient relic, the Claw of the Conciliator. In the confusion, this goes missing. Agia, who is suspected, is stripped and searched, but Severian is accepted as innocent (he later learns that Agia had indeed stolen the Claw, and planted it upon him).
In the Botanical Gardens, designed by the Autarch’s chief advisor, Father Inire, Severian discovers it to contain many different zones, each of which manipulates time to one degree or another. In the Lake of Birds, where dead bodies filled with lead shot are sunk in its preserving waters, and where the averns grow, they meet an elderly boatman, searching for his ‘Cas’, his dead wife, whose body has moved from where it was sunk, and where it should lay. Severian stumbles and falls into the water.
He is helped out by a young, blonde woman, dressed in rags, without memory of anything save that her name is Dorcas, who has emerged from the lake. Despite Agia’s attempts to send the girl away, Severian allows the helpless Dorcas to follow, and join them.
They are helped to find the avern by a man with a small boat, Hildegrin the Badger, whom Severian recognises as the third of that party long ago in the Necropolis, with Vodalus and Thea. Unwisely, he identifies himself to Hildegrin as that young boy of long ago, though there are no consequences of that decision in this volume.
The avern turns out to be a strange plant that can only be held by its stem, its leaves being both razor sharp and lethally poisonous. Agia leads the disparate trio to an Inn by the Sanguinary Fields, set in a tree top, where Dorcas can clean herself, the trio can have a hot drink and arrange a meal for after the combat.
A strange note is left by someone, probably the waiter Ouen. Severian reads this, against Agia’s urgent attempts to prevent him. It appears to be addressed to one of the two women: Dorcas later identifies it as being for her. The note warns her against the woman with her, and ends with the words ‘You are my mother come again’, though Dorcas, being aged sixteen, cannot possibly have a child that could write.
With the women in his train, Severian attends his appointed duel. The silent hipparch is present and the combat begins, with Severian rapidly learning the rules of avern combat. Not quickly enough: he is struck in his bare chest with a leaf and the hipparch claims victory, and Severian’s goods.
But though he should be dead, indeed may, momentarily have been dead, Severian recovers, the spent leaf falling from his chest. The sight of his revival unmans the hipparch, who flees, killing several spectators who try to stop his flight. Severian collapses.
He wakes the following morning in a lazaret (military hospital). Dorcas, still sleeping, is guarding his things, especially Terminus Est. Whilst Severian gets himself breakfast, he hears stories of a dead duellist being brought in the previous evening, and realises they are referring to himself. Dorcas, now awake, is relieved to find he has not died. That night, she and Severian become lovers.
Prior to that, Severian is hired to act as carnifex for the hipparch. Visiting him in prison to prepare him, Severian is shocked to find the hipparch is Agilus, and that he is in a naked embrace with a woman: Agia. She it was who played the silent hipparch in their shop, the whole duel being an elaborate plot to get their hands on Terminus Est. Indeed, Agilus demands his freedom from Severian, blaming him for entrapping him into this plight. Agia attempts to both seduce and attack Severian, fruitlessly.
The execution goes ahead at noon, Severian’s first public performance. There are no hitches: as Agilus’s head is taken off, he hears Agia scream.
Severian and Dorcas leave the lazaret that evening, prudently forestalling any reprisal from Agia. As they move northwards, behind them they see the Cathedral of the Pelerines leap into the air and burn, borne aloft on the air of the fires. Here, Severian discovers that he is in possession of the Claw, thus requiring him to turn back to return it to the Pelerines.
It seems that possession of the Claw is what restored Severian’s life on the Sanguinary Field, as well as bringing Dorcas back from the dead in the Lake of Birds.
Before they can decide on a course, the pair stumble on Dr Talos and Baldanders, just starting a performance, aided by a voluptuous and ripely beautiful woman named Jolenta. Despite their lack of rehearsal, ‘Death’ and ‘Innocence’ are brought into the play, holding themselves well.
That night, as he tries to sleep, Severian is visited by two aquastors: his former Master Malrubius, now dead, and his three-legged dog Triskele.
In the morning, after the takings are divided, with Dr Talos taking nothing, Severian and Dorcas join the troupe on the final walk to the Gate, in the massive Wall above Nessus. There are crowds funnelling at the tunnel entrance. Jonas, a middle-aged man with a hand of metal, overhears Severian talking about the Pelerines and tells them that the sect have left Nessus already, by this Gate, travelling north. He takes an early shine to the lovely, but self-centred Jolenta, who dismisses him.
Suddenly, confusion overtakes everyone as a military party forces itself in from outside. A carter’s whip catches Dorcas’s cheek: Severian unhorses the man, who is crushed under wheels.
At this point, Severian lays down his pen for this first volume, having taken his reader from gate to gate. If his reader no longer wishes to follow him, he takes no offence: it is no easy road.

 

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: The Solar Cycle


Since the series was completed in 1983, I estimate that I have read Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun at least twenty times, with familiarity breeding not contempt but an ever deeper satisfaction at what I immerse myself in: should I ever be shipwrecked on that infamous Desert Island, there is no question as to the book I would take.
I love the series, originally published in four volumes, but for many years available in two, so much so that I actually have it in three different formats. First, and most beloved, are the original Arrow paperbacks, published between 1980 and 1983, and signed by Mr Wolfe himself, at the long gone Odyssey 7 comics and SF shop in the (now-demolished) Manchester University precinct. Secondly, the massive, one volume paperback edition, published in the mid-2000s under the title Severian of the Guild. And now in the collection of first edition hardbacks published by Sidgewick & Jackson, which I have acquired a year or two ago.
More than anything, The Book of the New Sun has previously deterred me from blogging on Gene Wolfe. Let me remind you that, though he’s never been a bestseller, Wolfe has been one of the finest writers in the world – not finest SF/Fantasy writer, writer – and his books are full of hidden wonders and connections.
I mean that literally. The surface story, the one that you read on the page, is never the whole of things with Wolfe. Sometimes, it’s not even the most important of things. The Book of the New Sun is a superb example of this for, in the final pages, Wolfe’s narrator, Severian the Lame, concludes that all that has come before is a corrected replay of his otherwise ordinary life, a clue from Wolfe to look between the lines – all the lines – and underneath the page for a story full of connections that only the thoughtful, alert reader can tease out.
This is one of the reasons why, after twenty-odd readings in thirty years, I am still not done with this book.
The Book of the New Sun consists of four volumes: ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’, ‘The Claw of the Conciliator’, ‘The Sword of the Lictor’ and ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’. A very rare companion book, consisting of essays upon a huge variety of matters concerning ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ and titled ‘The Castle of the Otter’ (after an early and incorrect announcement of the final volume’s title) is available as part of the omnibus collection Gene Wolfe’s Castle of Days, and in 1987, Wolfe wrote a somewhat reluctant but equally fascinating sequel, The Urth of the New Sun.
Subsequently, he went on to write the related series The Book of the Long Sun (four volumes) and The Book of the Short Sun (three volumes) both set in the same universe and connecting back to The New Sun. The whole twelve book sequence is informally known as the ‘Solar Cycle’. What’s more, The Fifth Head of Cerberus can be seen as an informal preface to the whole sequence, it’s three widely different novellas creating templates for the three series that comprise the ‘Solar Cycle’.
Am I suggesting that in writing Cerberus, Gene Wolfe was consciously creating for himself a template to govern his substantially later writing of the Solar Cycle? No, but I am suggesting that Wolfe is that damned good a writer that he could utilise the pre-existing book as just such a structural template.
The Book of the New Sun began as a long short story, set in the world of the Torturers. It sprung, in part, from the desire to offer a character for cosplayers, fans who attended SF Conventions dressed as characters from their favourite fiction.
But ‘Holy Katherine’s Day’, despite centring upon the death of a young woman held by the Torturers, with the complicity of a young guildsman who, years later, as a Master, receives a letter from the ‘dead’ woman, was merely the wellspring for a book of major proportions, a trilogy.
Having worked out most of the Book, Wolfe found himself with a third volume half as long again as its two predecessor. Unable to cut it without wreaking severe damage, Wolfe enquired as to the commercial viability of making the trilogy into a tetraology. Fortunately, a suitable volume break occurred halfway through the third volume, leaving Wolfe with two slimmer volumes to build up to the right length.
It’s been suggested, inaccurately, that Wolfe had written the entirety of the tetraology before the first volume had been published, and whilst that wasn’t so, the story had been comprehensively outlined in full, and built up in its various parts in sufficient detail for Wolfe to have the virtual totality of it available to him even in the writing of The Shadow of the Torturer.
Over the next few blogs I’ll be writing detailed accounts of each of the four books of The New Sun, before following that with some words about the tetraology as a whole. I’ll be adopting the same approach for The Long Sun and The Short Sun in due course.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Devil in a Forest’


The Devil in a Forest was first published in Britain as part of the wave of enthusiasm for all Gene Wolfe’s books that followed hard on the appearance of The Book of the New Sun quartet. I first read it as a successor to that defining tetraology, not realising that it was a predecessor, and a book of radically different scope and ambition.
This is neither SF nor Fantasy, the consummate mingling of which is one of the many marks of the New Sun series. It’s a historical adventure and, like the later Pandora by Holly Hollander, is best regarded as a ‘juvenile’, seemingly aimed at a younger audience than those usually devoted to our Master of Trickery.
Needless to say, I was vastly disappointed.
I remember reading it on a Sunday coach journey, an office weekend down south somewhere, pegged around a Staff vs Partners cricket match at the Senior Partner’s cricket club, and a marquee buffet/disco in the evening. A somewhat mangled Manchester office bleared onto the coach, and I curled up with headphones on, cassette tapes and this ‘new’ Gene Wolfe. It was not the best of circumstances in which to concentrate, and I did not keep the book all that long. I was much older, and much more practiced in reading Wolfe, before I bought it again, in the Orb series of reissues.
The Devil in a Forest is as simple and straightforward a work as Gene Wolfe has ever produced, with no apparent understory to be teased out by careful reading. It is set in medieval times, in what would, many centuries later, become Czechoslovakia, in an unnamed village not far from St Agnes Fountain, of ‘Good King Wencleslas’ fame.
Mark, an orphan aged somewhere between fourteen and fifteen, is apprenticed to Gloin, the weaver. The village is plagued by a footpad, a wild, dangerous raider named Wat, who begins the story by putting an arrow through the neck of a pedlar, whose body is discovered outside the village.
The Abbe of the village tries to raise a militia to challenge Wat, in the naive hope that, if confronted by a show of force, he will leave the area. The calibre of the villagers being lined up for this militia makes this a highly unlikely plan, even before the initial meeting, in the Inn, takes place with two interlopers, one a charcoal burner named Gil, who is an old friend and ally of Wat, and the other the local witch, Mother Cloot.
Though it is not established until later in the story, one of the villagers, Paul the Sexton, has already been killed. Mark will be blamed for the death, and there is little enthusiasm for process of law or anything, accusation (by Mother Cloot) being sufficient for everybody’s needs.
Wolfe establishes very early on the condition of life for everyone. The village has no prosperity. Pilgrims to the shrine have dropped away since its heyday, and the presence of Wat diminishes any chance of this changing. Mark is permanently scraping for food, for scraps of food, as there is not at the webstery where he lives since Gloin has taken him in.
It gets him into the trouble the book works through. He goes out at night to the inn, where the innkeeper’s daughter, plump, redheaded fourteen year old daughter, Josellen, Mark’s sweetheart (and the only other ‘child’ in the village or even unmarried woman) may have scraps for him. The two go walking into the woods, they meet Mother Clot, they help her back to her squalid hut, and they encounter her guest: Wat.
Wat is an arrogant man, and an evil man, the two aspects being born of one another. Not without reason, he considers himself better than the villagers, who are of peasant stock, low and mean. To him, they are sheep, and he the wolf and by this status entitled to do anything he can to them, whenever he feels like it.
Mother Cloot is also evil, but of a different order. She is mean and malicious, and a witch, though Wolfe never allows us any evidence as to whether she has any ‘powers’ beyond those lent her by superstition and fear. She is simply a foul person, who delights in cruelty for its own sake, and knows of no other way to treat people: when she has power over them, she is highly dangerous, and when she has not, she is cutting and vile.
Now Mark is in Wat’s hands, he finds himself to be a puppet. Wat wants to corrupt him, partly because Mark is clearly quick-witted, and a different cut to the villagers, but as much if not more because Wat simply wants to corrupt him. And not just Mark: as a counter-offer to the unthreatening militia, Wat proposes the villagers ‘buy’ him off, by helping him raid a party of rich pilgrims.
But the pilgrims don’t exist: Wat intends to use his new and greedy ‘allies’ to raid the home of Philip, the cobbler, and steal his hoard. It is far too easy to persuade those villagers who have gone with him to turn against one of their own.
Mark is ever conscious of his own position. At heart, he doesn’t want to get involved with Wat, yet his weakness as a boy leaves him unable to flee or refuse, and if he goes too far with Wat, he will be tainted forever. His position is under risk already: he finds Paul’s dead body, which has been buried and exhumed, and attempts to sink it in the river, but when he returns to the village, after speaking to Old Susan, Paul’s wife and the Abbe’s housekeeper, he’s accused of being the murderer by Mother Cloot, who wants to torture the ‘truth’ out of him.
A point that Wolfe makes, subtly, is that there is no Law to deal with this situation. Authority is incredibly distant, both physically and mentally. The Abbe has requested soldiers to deal with Wat, though the villagers don’t welcome the idea since they will have to billet and feed the soldiery when they can barely sustain themselves, and when the soldiers arrive, under the dual command of a Sergeant whom Mark nicknames the Boar, from his overlapping tooth and the absent Forester, Sieur Ganelon, they are a disaster for the village, beating, destroying, burning and undoubtedly raping if Josellen isn’t put into hiding.
Because the soldiers don’t care about the Villagers. They are beneath notice, beneath contempt, just as much as is Wat. Everyone is guilty and will be treated as such. Slowly, the villagers are killed, even those who are arrested. Mark dodges from situation to situation, whilst the Abbe tries to unravel knots.
This is a foretaste of a very Wolfian trope: the analytical man, who gathers together disparate threads and discerns the pattern beneath, the model of what the reader must do.
Only, not in this book. Unless I am missing one hell of a lot, the closest we come to that in The Devil in a Forest is when Sieur Ganelon finally comes on stage. Mark recognises him instantly, with fear. Not until the final chapter is the connection admitted, but then it’s not like we have much by way of options: Ganelon is and can only be Wat, playing a double role.
His fate is left unsettled. Wat/Ganelon is captured, Mark survives, to plan to marry Josellen and take over the Inn, left to do so by the man who, at the end, sorts out the mess, a man who is neither named nor his station defined, but who is the ordering factor. If we are meant to deduce his identity in a public figure, then the question is beyond me.
Because Gene Wolfe is who he is and writes what he does, this novel is still lazily presented as fantasy, but Wolfe has described the impetus for it as coming from a verse of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and an attempt to imagine into clarity the life of a mediaeval peasant. I think of it as an historical level, and on that level it is utterly convincing, and if it’s slight, and far more straightforward than anything else Wolfe has written, it is still valuable in those terms.
And I have a certain suspicion about a concealed detail. There is a brief epilogue, in the present day, a dialogue between husband and wife, discussing a plaque commemorating the Fountain, and making deliberately ignorant comments about this past in a part of Europe from where their ancestors came. I can’t believe in the ignorance, but I can believe in Gene and Rosemary Wolfe…

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing – Gene Wolfe’s ‘Peace’


There is as great a contrast between Gene Wolfe’s third novel, Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus as there was between that book and its predecessor. This is nothing to do with the writing in this instance, which is as careful, organised and controlled as that of Cerberus, but instead the subject matter.
At a first glance, Peace appears to be, and on a superficial reading is, a mainstream novel, reflecting the distant memories of Alden Dennis Weer, a lifelong resident of the midwestern town of Cassionsville, successful businessman and apparent sufferer of a stroke. But superficial readings of Wolfe are not merely inherently limited, but also exceedingly dangerous.
Den, as he seems to be called, is reaching out through his memories to Doctors who have tended him in the past, who he wants to treat his infirmity, but dredging up a lot of memories from his childhood. Even those who want to treat this as a purely mainstream recollection will notice very quickly and Den’s reminiscences are constantly discursive, every memory arousing a digression, often lengthy, of no direct relevance, creating a dream-like feel to the logic of the story, and that both in Den’s own recollections but more especially in the stories adults tell from time to time, there are no answers, no endings. There is much more story in Peace than is there to be read, there are unexplained things, lacunae, unfinished tales aplenty. As always with Wolfe, the reader’s challenge is to read what is not there, to determine what they are not being told.
Of which there is much. One should take particular note of the several deaths that occur, none of which are explained and one of which is buried so deep in implication that it is not even acknowledged as having taken place.
Take heed of the opening line of the book, referring to the uprooting of a tree by lightning. It is a key to understanding that this book is really a horror story, about a family that is every bit as hellish as that of Maitre and Number Five in Cerberus: a widely read person aware of the origins of names, will find multifold clues linking the Weer family to the Devil, and Alden Dennis Weer is not merely a devil in himself, but he is dead, and this seemingly rambling story is being told by his ghost.
Wolfe divides the book into five long chapters, each of which deals with a different phase of Den’s life, and with a different figure in his history. Much of the story deals with his formative years when, as with Number Five’s account, what we see is filtered through the perceptions of a child focussed upon its own interests. But this is the adult Weer, a man in his sixties, speaking, and he makes no attempt to impose his adult understanding, or any future knowledge, upon the narrative he’s constructing.
The result is a partially seen picture. Weer alludes to the Bobby Black incident, which takes place somewhere in the year he is five, or maybe six. What it is is never spelt out, though I have a clear idea of what Wolfe conceals, what comes of it are spinal injuries, a childhood death, bad blood between families and the embarrassed fleeing of Den’s parents on a protracted European tour, one that we infer lasts years, leaving little Den – who might be seen to be the culprit – behind in the care of his Aunt Olivia.
And this undescribed incident is the fundamental event for Weer’s life, though only afterwards can the pattern be seen. Aunt Vi has three suitors, but marries a fourth, who is never presented as a suitor. Weer describes this man, Julius Smart, as the true central character of this book, though his presence on the page is limited until he almost becomes a peripheral figure. And Smart sets up the successful Cassionsville business that Weer ultimately inherits and runs.
The closer one looks into this story, the more obscure it becomes. Wolfe avoids any clear chronology, providing little with which to judge the year/years in which events take place, leaving the reader to intuit the time-frame from the atmosphere of Cassionsville. Time is used to indicate certain relationships between events, but even these create different effects. One carefully researched article on the timeline is forced to conclude that Aunt Vi’s death – about which no detail is given, nor context set, save that she was nocked down by a motor car driven by one of her ex-suitors – can only be placed within a five year span.
Aunt Vi’s death is another example of the indeterminacy of the novel. Not only is it presented with the absolute minimum of data – the account I’ve given above is the complete set of facts – but there is not a word about the outcome.
Except in one detail. Julius Smart, who has given young Den the job that sets him up to be the future President of the company, refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life. Wolfe cannily gives us this is isolation, leaving us to debate internally the extent to which Weer may have been responsible for his Aunt’s death.
Or is that a complete illusion, a fantasy derived solely from an over-active imagination, seeing shadows and horror where none exists? Is Peace what it appears to be, the stumbling recollections of a stroke victim, trying to order his past? Is the horror unjustified?
You must make your own judgements. Gene Wolfe does not tell you what to think or how to react. His books contain endless puzzles, and there are no solutions, upside down, at the back. Be careful where, and how you tread, and know this: when you walk this way a second time, everything will have changed even as the words remain the same. What peace is that?