A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Return to The Whorl’


Horn again resumes his account, having acquired a fresh supply of paper and ink from bandits who have attacked the little party consisting of himself, Hide, Jahlee and Oreb, travelling towards New Viron. Jahlee has saved them. This time, his account is solely of his efforts to return home and to report his failure to find and bring back Calde Silk.
Interspersed with this in the finished book are third person accounts of what happened to Horn whilst he was back in the Whorl. At the end of the book, we learn that these have been composed by Horn’s twin sons, Hoof and Hide, and their wives, from the times Horn spoke of what happened to him there. These changes are so deeply mixed that the two accounts should be read separately.
The latter-day narration establishes that, though Horn denies it at every turn, it is clear that he is now in the body of Silk, and that the corpse is that of Hyacinth. Whether Silk is responsible for Hyacinth’s death, or if she was a suicide, or died naturally, remains unknown: Silk’s hands and arms have been badly cut. Horn is badly disoriented, thinking he is back on the lander to Green. He stumbles out into the darkest of nights, but he is not blind, nor has he died.
In the dark, he finds a tree, from which he takes a stick, and seeing a distant light, he heads for it, his own and Silk’s memories mingling. Horn dreams of a night on Lizard Island, the night he and Nettle discovered Sinew had been attacked by the inhuma.
Waking, he arrives at a farm, where a woman bathes and cleans his wounds. He learns that he is at Endroad, on the road to Viron. The blackness is a Darkday, part of attempts to force people to leave the Whorl. They ask if he had been attacked by a godling.
Horn admits that whilst he is from Viron, that was 20 years earlier. He explains his mission to find Silk, and new stocks of corn. While the wife prepares food, the husband takes Silk to the barn, where he gives him 12 ears of corn, and instructions on how to preserve the strain. Then he seeks to drive Horn away: Horn refuses to fight, because that would be ungrateful, but anticipates and easily defeats an attack, before leaving. Marching on in the dark, an Oreb appears, an Oreb, calling him Silk: is this Silk’s Oreb?
Horn meets a giant man, twice his height, and blind: his eye sockets are empty. The big man takes the name Pig. They travel on together. Horn explains that he too is seeking an eye, an artificial one (though the original has been left behind on Green, with Seawrack’s silver ring).
Oreb warns them of a godling ahead, guarding a bridge that their way crosses. Pig guides Horn into a wood, where they follow a stream into a pitch black tunnel. They emerge into bright light, the skylands visible above, beneath the massive domed head of the godling, with bestial pointed ears.
He and Pig find houses in their joint dark. Pig knocks on a random door, threatening to break in if it is not opened. It belongs to Hound and Tansy, who feed them soup. Hound and Tansy run a general store in Endroad after leaving Viron five years ago.
Pig explains he was a trooper, caught and blinded by having his eyes cut out. His references to ‘wee folk’, ‘light lands’ and ‘mountings’, and the wee folk telling him he could get new eyes in the west, at Mainframe, tell Horn that the ‘wee folk’ are Fliers, from the Mountains That Look At Mountains, at the East Pole. It is hundreds of leagues from there to the West Pole: Pig has been a year already on his journey.
Hound offers to take the two travellers to Viron the next day. Whilst Horn sleeps, the others discuss the fact he is clearly Silk: Pig confirms he called at the manse, and what he found. They all agree that Horn is unaware of who he is. Horn dreams of being in his boat, en route to Pajarocu. He dreams of several things, the last being Pig at the tiller, but Pig’s face is Silk’s.
Viron is two day’s journey and Hound will take Horn and Pig. At the store, they first learn that strangers are about, looking for Silk, three foreign looking men, with covered heads, guns and swords. Darkness falls again.
En route, they shelter in what turns out to be Blood’s old manteion. Pig goes ahead but is clearly disturbed by what he finds: he has seen a woman in the house. Hound relates a children’s story about a rich merchant with an ugly daughter, who he locked up until she was freed by an auger: after the merchant died, no-one came to free her and she starved. Her ghost can be seen. Horn realises this to be the story of Blood and Mucor.
Horn finds Mucor’s old room and she comes to him, looking as she did then. She confirms he will find Silk wherever he goes, which he takes as confirmation Silk is in Viron. He sends her to Pig, who is clearly deeply moved by the sight. Horn avoids Pig for the rest of the night, but gives in to the whim to seek Hyacinth’s room: he find Pig there, smashing things.
Horn discusses with Hound the gods of the Whorl. He reveals that Pas, father of the gods, was originally Typhon and that he sent out the Whorl with both sleepers and men. One or other would survive to colonise Blue and Green. The likes of Silk and Mucor (and Pig) were enhanced embryos, meant to assist in the greater dangers of Green. Hound wants to go to Green to colonise.
Oreb leads Horn to a ‘big man’ but it is not Pig, but a godling, who gives him a message from Silk: the rest are to stay, enough have gone from the Whorl. He tells Hound and Pig the message, but doesn’t intend to spread the message. Hound asks if the message comes from Silk the man, or the god: Silver Silk or Silent Silk: Horn did not know Silk was now supposedly a god.
That night he dreams of himself as both Horn and Silk. Hearing Pig, he confronts him with the fact that Pig is possessed by Silk, and has been given instructions.
The following day, they arrive in Viron. The streets of the city are deserted, decaying and unfamiliar: the area was burned, years ago. Hound confirms the current Caldé is Bison, husband to Mint, former Maytera, former General, and Caldé after Silk. Horn will present himself at the Juzgado in the morning, after he has found the Sun Street Quarter and his old manteion.
Pig is overcome by his memory of attacking a manteion in the Mountains, and of slaying the auger whilst looting. He was possessed in front of the Sacred Window, a feeling he wants to recapture. Horn believes it was the Outsider. They arrive at a clearing and Horn sends Hound away so that he cannot overhear Pig’s shriving.
Horn sends Hound on to Ermine’s inn, and asks Pig to leave him, taking Oreb when he realises he is in the old Sun Street quarter, by Silk’s manteion, and hadn’t remembered it.
Horn looks for his old home – Smoothbone’s Stationers – and meets his own father who offers to help him. They talk about families, until Horn reveals himself as Smoothbone’s son, though he has to overcome disbelief at his appearance with a memory only Horn could recollect. They go to a tavern to catch up. Horn’s mother has remarried on Blue, with Oxlip, Smoothbone also, with further children. When Horn returns to the shop, a pen case is waiting for him, on the step.
Horn walks on to the Caldé’s Palace, which is shut and locked. He is stopped by a woman calling herself Olivine, who, taking him for Silk, asks him to come with her. She takes him within a building, where she offers him a place for a bath, and a change of clothes, which he accepts gratefully.
The new clothes are those of an augur, all black. Horn makes Olivine show her face, which reveals her as a chem: she is the half-made daughter of Marble and Hammerstone. Olivine considers herself ugly and inadequate: she cannot give birth as a woman. She seeks a sacrifice and a blessing from Horn, which he gives. He tells her about her blind mother and about meeting his own father recently: Olivine removes one of her eyes and, before Horn can refuse it, presses it on him and flees.
Horn is reunited with Hound and Pig at Ermine’s, where a visitor, Patera Gulo, the coadjutor from the Prolocutor’s Palace, has left a message to warn him. He wakes in the night and leaves to return to the Caldé’s Palace, where he has left his staff. First, he visit’s Ermine’s ‘Glasshouse’, where he talks to the ‘ghost’ of Silk, asking him to appear: he sees an older Silk in the pond.
Whilst at the Palace, Horn hears shots from Ermine’s, an attack made by the strangers who are seeking Silk. The following day, he and his friends attend on Caldé Bison. Horn explains his mission and asks Bison’s help. Bison explains he has no access to landers, which were eventually used as an alternative to execution, and thus all taken. He invites the trio to lunch with Mint. She is all but confined to a wheelchair, as a result of an assassination attempt.
Horn reluctantly speaks the invocation. Pig explains that he is seeking new eyes. Horn promises that if these have not been found by the time he finds Silk, he will take Pig with him. He is very serious about his mission to find Silk, but no-one seems to know where he is. Mint explains that Silk was Caldé for ten years, but resigned in her favour. Horn asks if she was attacked for being the first woman Caldé. Mint thinks not: almost immediately she was appointed, the Long Sun was darkened for the first time. The Whorl became very hot, the sun was overheating, the tunnels became blocked. They decided that no-one should leave, that the tunnels should be cleared as too many had left already. Trivigaunti declared victory, and Viron agreed it was so.
Horn interjects to relate the godling’s message, and repeat his request to know Silk’s whereabouts. Bison says they do not know, deliberately: some people believe the gods are angry because Silk is not still Caldé, and this is why Mint was attacked. All emigration has been stopped, the landers have been seized. After the shooting, they could have arrested all their opponents, but this would have fomented revolt. Some were allowed to leave.
Horn hopes they will allow Silk to go, but he doesn’t know where to find him. He knows others are hunting him, the men who attacked Ermine’s last night claimed Silk was staying there. They too want to take him to Blue, though he does not believe they are from New Viron. These men clearly have a lander, under guard.
Bison confirms Silk is in hiding. His friends are protective of him. If he and Mint were known to know of his whereabouts, they might be attacked. He believes Silk is being hidden by the Prolocutor. He leaves to speak to him. Mint speaks of the ‘ghost’ and the recent appearance of ‘Silk’. Horn refuses to disclose his knowledge of Olivine but admits he is the one mistaken for Silk. Even the Prolocutor believes he is Silk, and wishes him to sacrifice at the Grand Manteion: at Mint’s request, Horn agrees to do so. He admits that he looks like Silk, but he knows who he is: they cannot make him believe he is someone else.
At the Grand Manteion, Horn prepares to assist Prolocutor Incus. Mint visits him, warningthat those pursuing him may be near. For his protection, she gives him hyacinth’s azoth. Alone, Horn shaves, reducing his resemblance to Silk. He wonders aloud, to Olivine, why no-one will take him to Silk, when it would assist both Bison and the Prolocutor to have a substantial rival taken away.
Horn conducts most of the ceremony himself, giving the reading, during which he passes on the godling’s message. He does not appeal for word of Silk as he senses most people believe him to be Silk. Pig joins him in the sacristy whilst he cleans up. They are surprised by the men from Gaon, led by Hari Mau: they are sworn to take Silk to Gaon, where he will be Rajan, and will judge and lead their people. Horn agrees to go willingly, on condition that first they fly Pig to the West Pole.
There, Horn surrenders one of his own eyes, to be transplanted into Pig. The surgery is done under remote control. The West Pole obeys the orders of Mainframe, at the East Pole. Direct communication has been cut and it is no easy task to restore it. They are not supposed to repair Cargo, but have been instructed to make an exception for Horn’s requirements as to Pig: the word has come by Flyer, their communications system with Mainframe. The surgeon confirms that, once it is repaired, the Whorl will leave this system, but that this will not be for years, a lifetime perhaps.
Horn pays Pig a final visit in sickbay. Pig wants Horn to stay with him, but Horn has promised to accompany Hari Mau to Gaon, and Pig, though willing to join him, will need a long period of care in sick bay if his eye is not to be rejected. Besides, the Rajan will be troublesome if he has a friend who can be made a target. Silk’s voice speaks through Pig: ‘Pig’ would be a danger to Horn as well.
Horn descends to Blue on the lander. It is not his first journey, but it is the first time he has vomited in flight. He watches Blue approach, alongside Hari Mau. He admits that he regards Blue as his home, not the Whorl, however good it was to return. Hound will be happy remaining here, helping to rebuild it.
Hari Mau will be second only to ‘Silk’ in Gaon, a very important position. The town is only 15 years old. They were only 11 days in Viron, and were lucky to find Silk so quickly. Horn knows it was not luck, that their way was pointed by Bison and the Prolocutor: they had got Hound out of the way and left Pig in no danger. They had rid themselves of a challenge to their authority without the risk of murder.
Horn will have the biggest house in Gaon and four wives, an idea he rejects, because he is married, and because he has never seen these women. But to do so will disgrace them: he must have wives to cook and clean, Hari Mau argues. When he is brought to his house in Gaon, two lovely faces look at him briefly.

In the present, Horn’s party fall in with four merchants, who call upon Horn to resolve their quarrels: he agrees on condition he is obeyed absolutely, to which the merchants pledge. Horn then tells the merchants to separate and continue their journey to the coastal town of Dorp one at a time. The richest, Nat, refuses and Horn has the others arrest, bind and gag him. He is not released until the following morning.
Nat is an important man in Dorp because he has troopers sent out to arrest Horn and his party. Under the charge of Sergeant Azijin and his legermen, they stay overnight at an inn, at Horn’s expense. Jahlee complains of the cold, and comes into Horn’s bed at night, seeking warmth. Horn holds her, noting that it feels the same as holding a human woman, although he knows her to be a reptile in human shape.
They sleep, and dream themselves (along with Sergeant Azijin and Legerman Vlug) to Green. They have been drawn there by Jahlee’s longings – for the warmth of Green, to be a human woman for Horn, or Hide, or anyone who has wanted her. They have come to a room in a tower of immeasurable height, stretching above Green’s clouds.
Horn awakens in the inn, with Jahlee asleep beside him: she cannot be woken, because her ‘spirit’ is still on Green. Azijin approaches Horn about his ‘dream’. He explains that their spirits left their bodies and went to another place. He does not say it was Green.
On arrival at Dorp, with Jahlee still asleep, the trio are split up and billeted on different people. Horn fears that Jahlee will be discovered to be an inhuma, and that he and Hide will be beaten, robbed of their goods and probably enslaved.
He is billeted upon Aanvegan and her husband Beroep, honest folk. He makes friends with a young serving girl, Vadsig, who points out Jahlee’s house, diagonally opposite. The next day, she reports where Hide is being kept. The Judge is a cousin of Nat, who is a bad man and a thief. He has been billeted on Beroep because Nat hopes he will escape, providing an excuse to confiscate his goods. Hide’s host Strijk and Jahlee’s, Wijzer, are honest men.
Horn is summoned to ‘court’ at Judge Hamer’s house. He presents a defence for Hide and Jahlee. He is accused of kidnapping – a capital offence. Horn denies the Judge’s right to try him and is beaten. Hide arrives and claims to be his twin, Hoof. He claims to have changed with Hide, to fool their father.
Horn is beaten again, this time into unconsciousness: he dreams of Green, which he believed impossible, since he was alone. He is back in the tower, but Jahlee is not to be seen. Horn climbs out, but is attacked by masses of inhumi, some vaguely human, many like reptilian bats. He climbs to the top of the cliffs and meets Jahlee.
At the formal trial, Hamer is forced to accept there has been a switch. He releases the absent Jahlee, declares Hide guilty as proved by his escape, and enters please of not responding for him and Horn. Strijk is charged with Hide’s escape. Cijfer announces Jahlee has escaped.
Horn is released. Vadsig was possessed during the hearing Mora and Fava.They discuss overthrowing the judges who rule Dorp: it is the only way to secure everyone. Oreb, having been sent with a message to Nettle, returns with news of everyone, including Krait, whom Horn identifies as the son of Jahlee. Apparently, Nettle cried on receiving the message, but has sent no response, which mystifies Horn.
Attempting to raise money by pawning jewellery, Horn finds Hoof is also in Dorp. He aannounces himself to his son and they are joined by Hide.
Horn is kept from writing for some time and cannot set down everything that followed. A succession of the Neighbours attend his trial and gave evidence on behalf of Horn. Nat tries to withdraw his charges, but Hamer refuses and threatens to charge Nat with perjury, demonstrating how the system in Dorp has corrupted everyone. For an undefined but seemingly extensive period, Horn took Judge Hamer and some (if not all) of those attending the trial to the Red Sun Whorl.
Horn does not directly relate this, although later he recalls being visited in his cell by an apprentice of the torturers, a lad with piercing eyes, who does not smile, who cannot forget, who has friends called Drotte, Roche and Eata: Severian. It is necessary for Horn to order Hamer to convict him on their return. This sparks an uprising against the judges.
After the trial, Horn lives for a time in Hamer’s house, which has been given to him by the town. Hide and Vadsig are to marry, and he expects Hoof will follow shortly. Some days after, during which he has done little writing and is clearly falling behind, his party, now including Vadsig, takes sail for New Viron, with Wijzer.
Only now does Horn recognise Wijzer as the merchant who gave him directions in New Viron, almost two years ago. He learns that Marrow is dead, the year before last. Vadsig wants to return to the Whorl, to see Viron and Grotestad, where her parents came from. They discuss why the Vanished People went to the Whorl and introduced the inhumi. Horn believes they wanted to see what humans were: they knew the inhumi and by studying the difference to humans, could learn much. They would give Blue and Green to the humans. Their own race had been ruined by the inhumi, their civilisation failed from shock.
Horn insists upon completing his mission by reporting back to New Viron, despite seeing and passing Lizard Island. Gyrfalcon is now Calde: he is a tyrant, but many regard a tyrant as better than anarchy. Hoof leaves for Lizard. Horn spends all day waiting to see Gyrfalcon, a waste of his time. Next, Horn visits Marrow’s house, meets Capsicum, his ‘executor’. She confirms that Marrow left a letter, asking for various things to be distributed, with the rest going to Capsicum, who had comforted him after his wife died. There is something for Horn, which proves to be a boat, a yawl that he renames Seanettle. Capsicum warns Horn he is in danger from Gyrfalcon, though Horn disagrees.
Having failed to see Gyrfalcon, Horn sets sail in the yawl, with Hide, Vadsig and Jahlee, first to Mucor’s rock. Horn remains on the boat, sending the others up and asking for Marble to descend to him. Marble descends. Immediately she can tell he is not Horn. Horn installs her new eye: he will never forget the great glory and joy at the sight.
At supper, Horn tells Marble that the eye came from her daughter Olivine. The next day he gives her a robe he has had made for her – not a sybil’s gown but similar in appearance. When they leave, Marble comes with them. She intends to find a way back to the Whorl, to find Hammerstone and Olivine, and together complete the building of their daughter, and have another.
At long last he returns home to Nettle. She comes to sit with him on a blanket on the beach, as they used to do. Horn is happy to be home, and not even wretched not to have found Silk. She falls asleep on the sands. Horn goes for a blanket to cover her and returns to find Jahlee feeding from her. He strikes Jahlee with his fists and kicks her to death. Jahlee admits she intended to kill Nettle and Horn was right to strike her. She admits that she and Krait were inhumi: Nettle is horrified that Horn has brought an inhumi here after what was done to Sinew as a baby.
Jahlee gives away the inhumi’s secret to Nettle: without blood, their children have no minds. Jahlee drank blood from Sinew long ago: Krait was her only son to live with a mind taken from Sinew. Without humans, the inhumi are only animals that fly and drink blood at night.
That is the last that Horn writes of his book. The remainder of the story is written by Hoof, with Daisy, his wife, and Hide and Vadsig.
After Jahlee’s burial, Horn leaves Lizard, taking Hoof. They return to New Viron. Horn wants to speak to Gyrfalcon, but spends his days wandering, speaking to many people. He is looking for an inhumi. He attracts Gyrfalcons’ attention and is summoned by the Calde’s men. Gyrfalcon asks if Horn wants to take New Viron off him: Horn says not. He hands over the corn grains, and cries at the completion of his mission.
Horn asks Gyrfalcon to attend Hide and Vadsig’s wedding. He admits he failed to find Silk, a moment he has feared. He confirms he wants to carry on journeying.
Finding an inhumi named Juganu, who recognises Horn as the Rajan of Gaon they sail out to sea, and travel to the Red Sun Whorl, including Babbie. They arrive on a boat out on the Red Sun’s seas. Oreb turns into both a bird and a girl. Horn says he has been possessed by Scylla, ever since the sacrifice in the Grand Manteion: it was why he left on returning to Blue and stayed away for a year: he was searching for a Sacred Window.
Horn is taking Viron’s Scylla to meet the Great Scylla of the Red Sun Whorl: Hoof witnesses but does not follow or understand the conversation: people coming out of the water, giant women, naked or dressed in robes and cowls. Horn tells the Red Sun captain that they will now leave, for good. Scylla will die tomorrow, when they go back to Blue, but Horn must take Scylla to the grave of Typhon’s daughter Cilinia, in the necropolis, a bargain he has made with the monster in the water. The grave was filled 300 years ago, but Horn has a friend who knows the place. It will be their last visit to the Red Sun.
They make the final journey from Marrow’s old house in New Viron. Horn’s cloak changes to fuligin. Severian finds Cilinia’s grave in an old building with lots of coffins. Scylla comments that she died young, not longer after she was scanned: she ‘dissolves’ into the grave. Horn has it re-closed and suggests it not be re-opened.
Hide and Vadsig come to New Viron for their wedding. The church is attacked by inhumi. Many die, human and inhumi: nearly two hundred of the latter. Without the weapons of Gyrfalcon’s guards, Horn and the wedding party would have perished.
Later, Horn speaks with Remora in the garden. Remora divines that Horn was trying to end his own life, by instigating the attack on the wedding: Horn admits this. He had provoked an attack, but had expected it to be against him only. He has not resumed with Nettle. Remora slowly draws Horn towards the realisation he has been avoiding. No-one could have blamed a man who gave his life in pursuit of his mission. Horn did not fail them. Silk nods.
AFTERWORD
The Book of the Short Sun was mostly written by the former Rajan of Gaon. He left no written account of his brief sojourn in Old Viron or the West Pole, but spoke of them often. Based on such conversations they have recreated this as best they could.
After his visit to Remora’s garden, the only one to see Horn again was Daisy, who writes the last account alone. She returned to her father’s boat and encountered the man Hide and Hoof called Father. He congratulated her on surviving the wedding, she having been rescued by Hoof. He introduced her to Seawrack. They are accompanied by an old iron sybil. He said they would sail that night, and asked Daisy to make his farewells. He had been dreading it: in a sense he had killed the twins’ father. Seawrack said they were sailing to Pajarocu. They would find a lander and return to the Whorl.
The Whorl is much farther away now, and invisible to the naked eye.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle – concluded


Gene Wolfe went straight from The Book of the Long Sun to The Book of the Short Sun and, as the titles suggest, the latter was a direct sequel to the former. It continues the story begun in Long Sun as well as folding itself into the story of The Book of the New Sun at an unexpected stage.
Unlike its predecessors, Short Sun consists of only three volumes, not four, for reasons that will be obvious once we look at each book. Also, in an unwelcome distinction from the other two series, Short Sun has never been published in the UK: indeed, with the exception of the retrospective Best of… collection in 2009, the only books of Wolfe’s to be published in the UK since the Long Sun series ended have been the re-issued one-volume collection of New Sun as Severian of the Guild and the one-volume collection of the first two Soldier books as Latro in the Mist.
Between them, the Long/Short Sun books took up all of Gene Wolfe’s time in the 1990s. At their end, I was fortunate in that I completing a thorough re-read of the Solar Cycle to date only a day before finding the last book available in Manchester’s Waterstones, though it did not prevent me from having to carry out an exercise I have not found necessary with any other book, which I shall describe in the blog about the Short Sun series as a whole.
Due to the complexity of Wolfe’s approach to this last series, my blogs on each volume will be very much more of an outline, rather than the detail I have employed to date and there will be a rather longer post on the series as a whole.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the final round of the Solar Cycle.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Book of the Long Sun’


The Book of the Long Sun was always my least favourite part of the Solar Cycle. This is not meant to denigrate the series, nor to suggest that I disliked it, previously, but rather to reflect the way in which it is so different from the other two sequences. Both New and Short Suns are first person narratives, whereas Long Sun is third person and thus does not present a single narrative timeline, however convoluted. Instead, the longer the story extends, the wider the group of people involved becomes. As a result, the series becomes increasingly fragmented, both in itself and in Wolfe’s deliberate elision of events and happenings.
When Nightside was first announced, it was as a series set in the universe of The Book of the New Sun. I bought it in hardback, through my Book Club, eventually replaced it with the NEL paperback, that forms a matching edition with the rest of the series.
The connection between the two series was not apparent on my first reading of Nightside. It’s there, but I did not pick up the link between ‘two-headed Pas, chief of the Gods’, and Typhon the former Autarch of Urth. Wolfe makes this explicit in Lake, naming Typhon, but the atmospheres of the two books remain completely different.
Long Sun is a much more conventional SF set-up. The Whorl is eventually recognisable as a gigantic generation starship, illuminated by the Long Sun, the equivalent of a fluorescent light the length of the ship, with night and day artificially created by a shade rotating about its length. The inhabitants live on the inside surface, unaware of the reality of their existence. Mainframe is the ship’s control room, and its ‘Gods’ are digital beings, created by personality scans on Urth of Typhon, his family and, amongst others, his mistress Kypris.
Though the story itself is about Silk, and about events in Viron, and they take up the vast majority of the account, they are actually nothing more than minor incidents of no more than local concern. What is of far greater importance are the events that Silk and those around him are very slow to understand: that the Whorl has been travelling 300 years from Urth to reach the Sun system of which the planets Blue and Green are inhabitable, that the heatwave is the product of the technology of the Whorl gradually breaking down, to the detriment of everyone, and of the power struggle within Pas’s family for control of the mission. Pas has arranged all of this to give humanity a new home far from Urth, and wants the Cargo to evacuate the Whorl for the planets. But his family seek to keep them as worshippers within the ship, leading to the struggle for dominance that underlies the tale.
Wolfe is notorious for his use of unreliable narrators. Despite the use of the third person in this series, that’s still the case. The narrator is not the omniscient figure of mainstream fiction, but in a surprise revelation at the end (as in Severian’s disclosure at the end of New Sun), he is revealed to be a minor character (who has on a couple of widely separated instances given himself away by the word ‘I’), someone barely present at any of the scenes described.
Despite Horn describing how he has built up the story he wanted to call ‘The Book of Silk’, massive doubts must remain as to how accurate this account is.
Blogging this series has taken a long time because of the increasingly fragmentary nature of the account. Nightside is related solely from Silk’s viewpoint: his actions, his thoughts, his experiences. But increasingly, from Lake though to Exodus, the persons involved increase. Auk and Chenille become viewpoint characters, and then others are added, and added, and added until by the end of Exodus we are looking at a kaleidoscope.
This diffuses the story, and indeed Wolfe, the further he goes along, leaves out certain events, until by the end, the first lander evacuates the Whorl taking two major characters with it having left entirely from offstage, and the unresolved situation in Viron is simply left in the air. Trying to draw so many disparate points and viewpoints into a coherent account was extremely difficult and to do so I have left out much of what happens.
Then there are the accents. Most commentators praise Wolfe’s technique, highly deservedly so. There are up to fifty different voices represented at different times here, each of them distinct, to the point that characters need not be introduced when they reappear but are obvious from how they speak. Oreb speaks in two-syllable bursts, Patera Remora’s um, speech, is ah, incredibly prolonged and prone to, I hesitate to mention this, constant digression, whilst Patera Incus emphasises random words, over and again. Auk talks in a complex thieves’ argot, Master Xiphias in breathless bursts, lad!
And so on and so on and so on, until for one reader at least the technical ability becomes nothing but an irritation, especially with voices like Remora and the whining, self-important, vindictive Incus, who are annoying to begin with. The longer the book goes on, the more voices there are, competing for attention and distinction, the more this begins to feel like showing off.
I know that’s unfair on Wolfe, but this re-reading, focussed upon the reactions I would be expressing, only exacerbated the effect.
This is made worse by what still appears like an unusual structural flaw in the series as a whole. Unlike New Sun, where there are unquantified interludes between each volume, the first three books of Long Sun are a continuous story, taking place over a space of no more than a couple of days. At the end of Caldé, there is an epilogue. Although the story is incomplete in many respects at that time, it gives the feeling of an overall ending. After all, that is the function of an Epilogue: to follow on from the conclusion of a story and comment on its events retrospectively.
And even though there were outstanding issues, it would still have functioned as a satisfying ending, like episode 13 of the first series of 24 would have been an ending if the show had not proved itself with the audience and the option for the full 24 episodes been taken up.
So Exodus came as a surprise, and it still feels like an unintended appendage. It starts two weeks after the previous book finished, it’s the most fragmented of the four books, it has far more gaps in the narrative than all the others added together, and I have always had the subconscious impression that it is both a rushed volume, and one in which Wolfe has ended up with more story than could be properly compressed.
This last volume begins with the resurrection of Councillor Potto, whose continual giggling is equally as annoying as Incus or Remora, and it ends with what feels like several essential scenes relating to the beginning of the evacuation of the Whorl being omitted entirely. And even after that, it leaves the situation back on the Whorl in a very confused and incomplete state: Viron and Trivigaunte at war, yet another retreat into the tunnels, Silk hunting for Hyacinth again, no real political settlement as to Viron’s government: Exodus leaves so many balls in the air that it ultimately is less of a complete ending than Caldé, which is supposedly only three-quarters of the way through the series!
Wolfe followed The Book of the Long Sun immediately with The Book of the Short Sun. As we’ll see next, twenty years separate the two series, though they share a common narrator, and though part of the story once again takes place on the Whorl, the situation there is of little direct concern to Short Sun. Patera Quetzal’s status as non-human is a link between the two series, and that alone indicates that Wolfe had some ideas for his sequel in mind at a relatively early stage when writing Long Sun: Quetzal is implanted at the halfway point, his non-human status revealed almost immediately, though it is of no relevance to this series and is deployed only in the sense that Quetzal has more than human abilities.
Quetzal’s status as link is most effective in a perfunctory manner, at the very end, after the story itself has ended. Horn reveals that, after acting throughout as a positive force, Quetzal turns against the humans, trying to take them to his home planet, Green, to be slaves and food, only to be killed (implicitly) and revealed to be an inhumi.
It’s an awkward transition, made the more so by the distant fashion in which Horns outlines it, and it adds to my impression of the final book as being rushed and incomplete, and not incomplete in the deliberate way by which Wolfe usually works.
These are harsh criticisms to make, and most improbable ones from what we have already seen in Wolfe, and will continue seeing. Ultimately, this re-reading has led me to lose a lot of my previous regard for the series. I found it difficult to read and comprehend, in a way that Short Sun, despite being even more complex in narrative structure, is not. Others have far higher opinions, and it will be useful, I think, to link to two such, for the other side of the coin.
https://ansible.uk/writing/longsun.html
http://ultan.org.uk/five-steps-towards-briah/
I think it is likely to be some time before I return to this set of books, unlike The Book of the New Sun. I already feel like re-reading that but I still have several more novels by the lupine master to go through before I can afford myself that pleasure again.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Urth of the New Sun’


There’s a point in one of his discussions about his career when Gene Wolfe reveals that he had something of an argument with his then-editor over the end of The Citadel of the Autarch. This editor argued passionately for the inclusion of a paragraph or two explaining that Severian did undergo the trial for which the whole of The Book of the New Sun was meant to prepare him and that he did succeed in bringing the New Sun and restoring Urth, and Wolfe was insistent that after the quarter of a million words he’d so carefully compiled, the audience were going to be pretty sure that they hadn’t been following the adventures of yet another failure.
But editors are editors, and in order to avoid having to undermine the vast subtlety of so major a work, Wolfe agreed to write a sequel in which the whole story would be told.
The Urth of the New Sun was published in 1987, three years after The Citadel of the Autarch. I welcomed it then and I enjoy it still, but there is no denying that it is a book of an entirely different order and purpose, and although it is an official adjunct to The Book of the New Sun, and that there is much in it that is wonderful and strange, I estimate that I have probably read it no more than once for every four to five times I have read the parent work.
Amusingly enough, if there had to be a sequel, Wolfe elects to start it from the very moment Severian the Lame, sometimes called Severian the Great, lays down his pen after copying, out of his infallible memory, the book about his rise to power, authority and influence, and to make Severian’s act of hurling this manuscript into the vortex of time from which, someday, it will emerge into the hands of Gene Wolfe the catalyst for the start of his new adventures, which in themselves are, unknowingly, the beginning of his Trial in the higher universe of Yesod.
For Severian is travelling on the great ship that sails into and out of Time and Space, a things of impossibility, with its multitude of decks and masts, sprouting at all angles until I wonder if its best conceptual image is that of a curled-up hedgehog, all spread with canvasses beyond sizes we can imagine, turning to catch the solar wind. Almost hypnotised by the sight, and by the fact that his lamed leg is no barrier to jumping vast distances, Severian seeks to hurl his manuscript from the highest mast, but overshoots it and is about to be equally lost in Space, until the act of hurling the chest produces the equal and opposite reaction that sends him flying back into the forests of masses and vines of riggings, and he is back aboard, in a different part of the ship, where he is mistaken for crew and begins a hunt for a supposedly dangerous apport (any creature who emerges from time, drawn by the solar sails).
From here, the story progresses through three basic phases: Severian’s adventures and encounters on the ship, where there are those who wish to kill him, to prevent the coming of the New Sun, because they know and fear the cataclysm it will entail, the formal element of his Trial, in Yesod, and the rather unusual but ultimately satisfying (in a subtle way) the New Sun is generated, and lastly Severian’s return to the Universe of Briah, long ago, and his and the star’s progress towards the present day, and the washing clean of Urth so that it might be renewed as Ushas.
What form that cataclysm takes is foreshadowed in typical Wolfean fashion, though it is not until destruction comes, in the form of a new and even more comprehensive Flood (Wolfe is nothing if not Catholic), that the unwary reader on his first outing discovers just how thoroughly everything is destroyed, and that Severian’s quest to renew ultimately demanded Destruction, to leave an Urth uncorrupted, just as the star with which he is identified is a White Fountain that will remove the corruption created by Typhon’s Black Hole.
Mention of Typhon leads me to confirm that many of the characters of The Book of the New Sun do return within this sequel, though none play more than a cameo part, significant though some of these may be. And this is an indication of the sheer skill of Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun was a complete work, containing everything and resolving everything within it. Wolfe wrote it without the lightest thought of a sequel, leaving no lacunae out of which a return visit might spring.
But The Urth of the New Sun, despite spending almost every page of its length away from the settings with which we were so familiar, despite offering a completely different atmosphere and a completely different book, is so completely intertwined with its parent, slips so seamlessly into interstices that you never realised existed, that it is unbelievable to think that Wolfe did not have all of this planned for the day he completed that first detailed synopsis of what he was going to write.
I confess that I don’t enjoy this book anything like as much as I do the original tetraology. Though this is still Severian, and he still can’t forget and he still talks as he did, this is not the same man who wrote The Book of the New Sun. That was a journey-story, a boy-becomes-a-man story, a picaresque journey by a man not entirely formed but moving towards transformation. This Severian may only be ten years older, but they have been ten years of authority and responsibility, ten years of concentrating oneself to become a fixed thing, and someone without freedom, with a fixed role.
This Severian does not draw me in quite so much, especially once he becomes all but superhuman. I remember an old friend remarking on this aspect the year the book was published, and I have only become more conscious of it as I re-read onwards.
It’s more overt as Severian bodily travels across time on Urth, becoming successively figures out of his own past, incarnating himself over and again. He may be captured, he may be beaten, so badly that an ordinary man would die, but he and the slowly-approaching star are one, and Severian can draw energy, instantly, from his astronomical self, to restore his bodily self, over and again. And in the end, even after Urth is flooded, after the White Fountain has cancelled out the Black Hole and no longer exists to sustain Severian, he can still live and breathe underwater, indefinitely.
The Undine offered him that in The Claw of the Conciliator, but only if he would die first. You might think that this gift has ultimately come at a higher price, though not necessarily a personal one, but that’s not entirely true. Severian does die before receiving this gift. Except that he dies very early on, in the first phase of the book, in a sequence that is incredibly confusing as written – deliberately so – but which Wolfe does empirically explain a long way on in the story.
How can Severian die, yet be alive to complete his journey, and to once more spend time committing himself to recording his life with such thoroughness? I won’t give that explanation, even though Wolfe does: you must read for yourself and then ask the questions that I now ask myself: in what way thereafter is Severian really Severian? In what way does his passing of the test really represent Redemption for Urth?
Or is Severian’s realisation of the basis for his continued existence another false flag?
For in The Book of the New Sun our favourite mnemonist displayed both an eidetic memory and a near total inability to comprehend the reality that he sees around him. This latter ‘quality’ is almost completely absent here, but what if Severian’s conclusion is that misunderstanding reasserting itself? If that is so, then I confess that I have no other explanation for his survival, or rather his re-creation, and I’ve never heard anyone else debate this point.
But Severian is destined to become the Conciliator, and we are all easily aware which figure he is meant to represent, and thus a prior Death and Resurrection is only to be expected. Where is such a Resurrection to come from?
In complete contrast to my review of The Book(s) of the New Sun, I’ve gone into almost no detail of the story, which was not a conscious choice but rather an instinctive response to the differences between the books. It’s trite to say this, because it’s true of every single sequel there’s ever been since man started drawing stories on cave walls, but The Book of the New Sun could exist with The Urth of the New Sun without anyone ever suspecting a sequel existed, but The Urth of the New Sun would be meaningless without its distinguished predecessor, and beneath the surface, beneath the care, the exceeding cleverness, the wit and the wonder, there’s the faintest hint to me of a book that was written because someone else insisted upon it, and not because the book itself demanded it.
Which always makes a difference.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Book of the New Sun’ overview


I said, when writing about The Shadow of the Torturer, that I was witnessing a writer vaulting into the very first rank of SF writers, and so it was. I didn’t need more than the first volume to see that, in the formation of the sentences, the creation of so many voices, places, themes, concepts. The Book of the New Sun is an extraordinarily rich tale, an epic demanding of the name. It may never have been a best seller, outside of the specialist SF charts (The Claw of the Conciliator reached no.1, which for the second book of a tetraology, without beginning or ending…) but it has never been out of print and whenever polls are taken of the greatest such books of all time, it is outvoted only by the obvious choice of The Lord of the Rings.
It is not as well known as Tolkien, but it deserves to be. Tolkien wrote only one story: Wolfe wrote multiple stories, including those you can’t see, unless out of the corner of your eye, when you go, hey, wait a minute, what did he mean by that, didn’t he…? So when he did that, and she said… That couldn’t have been him. It just couldn’t. Bloody hell, was it?
Don’t worry: with every Wolfe story, short or very long, there will be an equivalent of moments like that. Repeatedly.
The very first thing that needs to be emphasised about The Book of the New Sun is that its narrator, Severian, is unreliable, as is, in varying ways, every narrator in Gene Wolfe’s works.
Severian has an eidetic memory: moreover, not only does he not forget, but he is incapable of forgetting. His memories are eternally with him, almost to the same level as his perception of current events, even to the point where they can be sufficiently real that he can mentally lose his place in his own history.
This might seem to make him the ultimate of reliable narrators, able to recall dialogue word-perfectly. But two things marr that assumption.
Firstly, Severian is a liar. He admits to this in various places, and recounts many instances when he deliberately lies for his own advantage. That he is open now, in his memoirs, to the facts and specifics of his lying does not absolve him. It’s unlike the Flashman Chronicles, where the old rogue explicitly states he is breaking the habit of a lifetime and telling the unwhitewashed truth. We simply do not know whether Severian can be trusted to tell us the truth even now: after all, this is an account that, by the end, is to be committed to both the future and the past.
Secondly, and more disturbing, Severian lacks perception. He is blind on so many occasions to things that the reader – if he or she is thoughtful and thorough – can discern. He frequently analyses situations without getting anywhere near to the truth.


The most obvious evidence of this second trait is Jolenta. It is blindingly obvious to any reader of the narrative that she is the waitress from the cafe, persuaded by Dr Talos to go into his and Baldanders’ act, but not until all her glamour has been removed, and she is dead, does Severian finally understand who she is, and even then he does not understand the cause of her death. Because her physical appearance has been changed, he is unable to link the ‘two’ women, even when the vestiges of Jolenta’s glamour start to be stripped away.
Do not trust what you read.
Wolfe distances himself from Severian by claiming to be merely his translator. The accounts that are about to be sent out into the void at the end of Citadel are drawn back our era as the ship weaves its way in and out of time, and Wolfe has been requested to use his skills to translate from a language that is millennia from coming into being. (Ursula le Guin would claim a similar role in her utterly magnificent Always Coming Home, several years later).
In ‘translating’ the account, Wolfe explains that he has made a deliberate choice to take words whose usage has slipped beyond obscure to represent creatures, roles and standings of this unimaginable future. The old words convince us by being an authentic language, where most made-up tongues, Tolkien the philologist aside, fail to convince, and Wolfe is endlessly inventive in matching these ancient terms with what he imagines the future will bring in terms of genetics and evolution.
Words such as optimates, and my personal favourite, fuligin, the colour that is darker than black, enrich the impression the story gives of being an elaborate, ornate fantasy, whilst all the time it is rooted in the hardest of SF.
More than any other of Wolfe’s works, The Book of the New Sun repays careful, and repeated re-reading. But even as the reader reads the first time, there are moments of clarity in which it’s possible, even easy in places, to see connections to which Severian is oblivious, to understand that his analysis of situations is completely wrong-headed. Even the surface warns us of tricks and traps and hidden pockets. Before we reach the conclusion, we are on the look-out for what Severian does not tell us, what he does not see himself.


This isn’t a Reader’s Guide. I’m not going to deprive you of the enjoyment of reading and deciding about the understory for yourselves. But I am going to give you a clue: whenever Wolfe introduces an unnamed character, it’s a signal that he wants you to work out for yourself who this person is, and what their relevance is, and where we have seen, or heard of them before.
Take, for example, the matter of Severian’s sister. Now, if you read carefully, you will become aware that during the course of the narrative, Severian – who is, by the fact of his being taken up by the Torturers, an orphan – meets every member of his family, up to two generations before him. Of this surprisingly extended family, there are only two who he recognises as such.
But Severian does not speak of, let alone confirm, that he has a sister, who is almost certainly a twin. The clues are widely scattered, but they point to the same implication. Who, then, is Severian’s sister? Conventional wisdom, i.e., the majority opinion, points to this being Merriam, the trainee Witch, who is the assistant to the Cumaean, and Wolfe has half-confirmed this as a possibility.
Robert Borksi, one of Wolfe’s most enthusiastic analysts, has come up with another possibility, perhaps more outlandish in its initial plausibility, but which includes a key factor consistent with Severian’s relationships with the female members of his family, which certainly isn’t present with Merriam.
Think about it when you read.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to know what to say without giving away too much that will spoil a new reader’s enjoyment. My blogs on the individual volumes have given away much more about the story than I would normally do, though what I have said has barely scratched even the surface of the surface, and I have taken care to do no more than hint at a fraction of those hidden connections that transform the epic into a another tale entirely.
My personal advice, though perhaps it’s not entirely apt for a first reading, when you will want to swallow as much as you can, is to read lowly, and to visualise what Wolfe describes. The pictures are wonderful, and the book takes on more dimensions than you will otherwise understand.
Though I don’t watch it, I have long since thought that the producers of the Game of Thrones TV series could do far worse than look to The Book of the New Sun as a follow up. They could never do justice to it, not to its interior and its subtleties, and some of the Wolfe’s trick and traps would be exposed too openly if we were to see the people who recur, but the production levels available would make a grandiose spectacle, and I would love to see Nessus, and Thrax, the City of Windowless Rooms, and Dorcas, and the Sanguinary Fields, Lake Diuturna and the mountain carved in Typhon’s likeness…
It might not be the Book and the whole Book, but it would be a glory to see.
But the best pictures are inside. Read and enjoy. Read and imagine. Read…

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Citadel of the Autarch’


Autarch

The Citadel of the Autarch is the final book of the New Sun quartet, and it makes for an unusual and interesting ending to the story, not that it is, wholly, complete when Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, lays down his pen – twice – to go on with his life.
As with the other books, an indefinite period of time has passed since the previous volume, but the impression created here is that this has been considerable less than the two previous lacunae, and there is no similar dislocation as before: Severian closes The Sword of the Lictor by heading off north to join in the War against the Ascians, and he begins Citadel still set on that course.
The final book is a curiously slow and quiet story, with the majority of its action, such as there is of it, concentrated into the middle of the book. Severian begins on the road, still trying to make up his mind, and avoiding parties of soldiers so as not to have that decision taken out of his hands. Growing weak and faint from malnutrition since leaving the mountains, one such diversion leads him to the body of a dead soldier, with food in his pack and part of a letter to a sweetheart.
Not until after he has replenished himself does Severian think of trying the now uncased Claw: his reward, after a delay, is that the soldier returns to life, dazed, confused, silent. Together, the pair seek the Army, and a lazaret where the soldier – whom Severian names Miles – may receive treatment. By the time they arrive, it is Miles who presents Severian for treatment.
Severian stays in the lazaret, under the care of the Pelerines, for several weeks. He becomes the judge in a story-telling contest, between wounded but still ardent wooers of the injured woman soldier, Foila, including a marvelously interpreted story by the captured Ascian, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, told entirely in Approved Words. He tries to surrender the Claw to the Pelerines, but is roundly disbelieved: the Claw is not within its jewel, Severian is clearly disturbed, his whole demeanour and story dismissed by a psychological analysis that is wholly incorrect, but which provides a beautifully ironic counterpart to his own imperception of other matters, not to mention his willingness to lie to serve himself.
Introducing stories into stories is one of Wolfe’s favourite memes, but the inaction covers a long part of the book and it is hard not to think of this section as being a part of the original third volume that required ‘building up’.
That is not to say that the section is uninteresting. Severian is joined by the now-talkative Miles, just before the latter is redeployed. Miles also rejects Severian’s story about restoring him to life, but in doing so he uses phrases that would be typical of Jonas. Severian believes that Miles has been re-animated by the spirit of Jonas, which Miles denies. But when Severian tells him, flatly, that Jolenta is dead, something goes out of Miles’ eyes, and he turns and leaves, silently. He is not encountered again.
Despite the rejection of the Pelerines, Severian is determined to return the Claw. As soon as he is sufficiently strong to crawl to their altar, he secretes the Claw, safely, in a recess, fulfilling his oath.
When he is sufficiently recovered, the Pelerines send Severian on a mission to visit a local archimandrite, or hermit, Master Ash of the Last House, and persuade him to come to the Pelerines for safety from the advancing Ascians. The journey is strange: the Last House is visible but, when Severian deviates from his clearly-marked path, to take a short-cut, it cannot be found.
After a night in Master Ash’s guest quarters, Severian wakes to an unending, unfeatured ice-field. Ash is from Urth’s even-more distant future and his house extends vertically through time, the lower its storey, the nearer to Severian’s present: the ice-field is Urth’s atmosphere, frozen solid. It is a future vastly different to that of the Green Man. Master Ash is safe, and in no need of protection, but Severian nevertheless forces him to leave. But Severian’s present will not lead to Ash’s present: he dissipates into non-existence.
Though his mission is a failure, Severian discovers it has been a lifesaver. In his absence, the lazaret has been attacked and almost razed by Ascian troops. Only Foila has survived from the storytellers, whose work Severian never judged, and it is heavily implied that she will not last long.
Severian goes out to fend for himself. He is picked up by a band of cavalry Irregulars, acquitting himself well in the hazing that precedes acceptance, and demonstrates his quick wits and intelligence over a coachful of gold, but when battle – true battle – approaches, Severian discovers in himself a true fear, one that he must handle.
It is not gone when battle commences, but nevertheless Severian fights hard and well, until he is hit in the leg by the equivalent of a laser beam (it is another of Wolfe’s motifs that his heroes are lamed in one fashion or another and this is Severian’s turn: the wound is permanent). He is rescued in a quite startling fashion, by an intelligent mammoth under the direction of a minor official of the Commonwealth, the master of the brothel, the eunuch that both Severian and Thecla know to be eternal.
But though Severian pretends to hide his knowledge, it is beyond the point of mattering. The Autarch announces himself: Severian is, as he has known since before their first meeting in the House Azure, his successor.
And just as Severian is two in one, thanks to the use of the alzabo, and the lodging of Thecla’s mind and memories within his own, the Autarch is legion in one, containing the thoughts, experiences and memories of all his predecessors, minds that will merge into Severian as his rite of passage.
But before all of this can be done, the Autarch takes Severian for a tour of the Ascian lines, by flier. The craft is hit by a bolt and brought down, injuring both men. The Autarch signals for help from Vodalus that he is in a downed craft and that the Autarch is there. It is the Ascians who find the flyer first, but Vodalus’s men are not far behind and take charge of the two men. They are under the command of Agia, who rakes open Severian’s cheek with a palm-held blade, scarring him for ever.
Severian is taken to Vodalus for questioning, whilst the Autarch, though mortally wounded, is cared for. Severian is quizzed about who else was with them. He admits the presence of the Autarch, and denies – truthfully – that the Autarch is him. Agia demands Severian as her reward, but Vodalus owes a debt to him. Moreover, he remains confused, especially as Severian betrays knowledge of the Autarch’s nature that very few have.
Severian remains Vodalus’s prisoner for endless weeks. He is taken to the Ascian leaders, who quiz him to see if he is the Autarch, but he satisfies them that he is not. Nevertheless, he is handed over as a prisoner and held with the dying Autarch. This enables him to complete the ritual as the Autarch requires, and come into his own authority.
Nevertheless, he is still a prisoner of the Ascians, though his status is unknown to them. Not for much longer, as he is rescued by the combination of Agia and the Green Man. The latter has been travelling the Corridors of Time searching for a moment in which he can repay Severian for giving him the means to free himself in Saltus. Agia is acting against the Ascians, whom she will not serve: she has killed Vodalus using one of Hethor’s creatures, and she is taking his place as rebel.
The Green Man also leaves, his debt not yet fully paid. To leave the north, Severian is taken aboard a cacogen craft, led there by two aquastors, in the forms of Master Malrubius and the dog Triskele: shapes taken from his mind and impressed upon the air: Malrubius tells him some of what he needs to know of the purpose of the Autarch.
Mankind has fallen far, far in among itself. Once, it spanned stars, created peoples who rose until they passed beyond this Universe of Briah, into the higher Universe of Yesod. Some remain, acting in gratitude, seeking to assist humanity to raise again. Only when it is ready will a New Sun be sent, literally: a White Fountain (the opposite end of a Black Hole) will be opened in Urth’s Sun, restoring its light and vigour.
It is for the Autarchs, if they choose, if they have the courage, to leave Urth for Yesod and undergo a test. If they fail, as did the Autarch preceding Severian, they are unmanned and returned, unable to create a dynasty. It will be Severian’s choice to take the test, and face his fate.
The aquastors leave him on the shores of Ocean, at dawn, near the mouth of Gyoll. Severian resumes his journey north, but now it is a return to Nessus he seeks.
This is, as Severian notes to himself, the end of his story, but there are other matters he wishes to record. He travels north along Gyoll on a trading ship whose master speaks of strange things on and in the river. When he reaches the abandoned, southern quarters of the city, he leaves the ship for a time, to cross a peninsula of land whilst the ship sweeps around its ox-bow bend.
For he has seen a newly-arrived boat drawn up, and following intuitions that he so recently did not possess, he finds Dorcas, whose journey from Thrax in the north has taken the length of time he has travelled. He sees her but she does not see him. She has found her past, and weeps over the body of an old boatman: the man whom Severian met as long ago as the second chapter of The Shadow of the Torturer, the boatman who ferried Agia, Severian and Dorcas over the Lake of Birds, the old man seeking his young dead wife,’Cas.
Severian rejoins the boat and leaves it at the Citadel, announcing himself as Autarch for the first time at the Citadel and coming in state to the Matachin Tower. He meets with Master Palaemon, who eventually recognises his voice. Word is spreading. Palaemon and Severian debate the Guild, and though Palaemon spiritedly defends it as a good and necessary thing, Severian has decided that it shall end.
First though, he has need of old friends to accompany him, Drotte, Roche and Eata. In ordinary garb, they travel north on Gyoll, until Severian leads them to the Inn of Lost Loves, on the edge of the Sanguinary Field. There he asks for the waiter, Ouen, and quizzes him about his past. About the young blonde woman who so resembled his mother, who died young, in childbirth. About the dark haired exultant, Katherine, who he loved before she was taken. The Innkeeper is taken by the resemblance between the scarred Severian and the older waiter Ouen.
Severian knows who this man is. He intends to take him to the south, to find, stay with and protect his mother.
That is almost all. Severian finishes his tale in the last hours before his flight to beyond the stars, to save Urth. He has thought hard about his journeys, seen the hidden pattern. He is not the first Severian. That Severian had all the adventures, and went to the stars to undergo the test, returned and was buried. Severian has seen his tomb, and played in it within the Atrium of Time.
Then those who wanted to see him succeed walked the Corridors of Time to his youth and took certain actions to ensure their end would be fulfilled. And the result is the Severian who writes these words, who understands why he has been the object of their attention.
He will end the book, to go into Ultan’s Library. In his cabin on the ship he will write it out again, word for word, seal it in lead and abandon it to the void, to where it will go, even into the deep past.
For the last time, Severian the Lame, Autarch of the Commonwealth, lays down his pen. He and his reader turn away from each other, each back to their own life.

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.

 

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.