Monday, 2017-06-12

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Comprising of the novels (or parts): The Shadow of the Torturer · The Claw of the Conciliator · The Sword of the Lictor · The Citadel of the Autarch

I’m re-reading these for the first time since my teens - I believe I read them through a couple of times then. Since then I’ve followed Wolfe’s career and read The Wizard King, and I still harbor fond memories of the New Sun series. It made a big impression on me.

Re-reading them now, I’m struck at their relative short length. At the time I read them, the fad for multi-volume fat fantasy series was still in the future. It could be that the many digressions, philosophical asides, and stories-within-the-story felt much longer when I was younger, and I just wanted to get to the action. Now however I find them much more engaging.

This action is pretty straight-forward. It’s essentially a picaresque, with our hero (despite his profession, he’s clearly a hero and not an anti-hero) moving through different settings, meeting, separating and re-uniting with different people, and basically sleeping with every woman he meets, which is frankly rather weird and somehow in variance with the character as presented.

Where the work excels is in the use of language. Wolfe famously used obscure and archaic terms for all sorts of items (and in the first book’s afterword it’s coyly suggested this is because he’s trying to “translate” a future language) and this lends a real charm to what’s essentially far-future SF.

The following long passage from the start of Shadow illustrates this well. Severian is talking about one of the two masters of his guild.

[Master] Gurloes was one of the most complex men I have known, because he was a complex man trying to be simple. Not a simple, but a complex man’s idea of simplicity.

Just as a courtier forms himself into something brilliant and involved, midway between a dancing master and a diplomacist, with a touch of assassin if needed, so Master Gurloes had shaped himself to be the dull creature a pursuivant or bailiff expected to see when he summoned the head of our guild, and that is the only thing a real torturer cannot be. The strain showed; though every part of Gurloes was as it should have been, none of the parts fit. […] Sometimes he went to the top of our tower, above the guns, and waited there talking to himself, peering through glass said to be harder than flint for the first beams [of the rising Sun]. He was the only one in our guild—Master Palaemon not excepted—who was unafraid of the energies there and the unseen mouths that spoke sometimes to human beings and sometimes to other mouths in other towers and keeps. […] His eyes were refulgent, brighter than any woman’s. He mispronounced quite common words: urticate, salpinx, bordereau. I cannot well tell you how bad he looked when I returned to the Citadel recently, how bad he looks now.

The Urth of the New Sun

This sequel is a mess. Wolfe fell into the trap of trying to “explain” all the fascinating background stuff in the first novels, and the result is a sprawling, time-jumping jumble that introduces extraneous concepts for no very good reason. For superfans only.

Wednesday, 2017-05-31

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Not really up to the standards I’ve set for Gleick. It’s not really quite clear what he wants to do with his subject. The fictional portrait drawn in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle sounds like it’s drawn from the same sources but gives a more vivid picture.

Thursday, 2017-05-25

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

A very interesting history but you won’t find any salicious details about depraved emperors or famous battles. Well worth reading if you know a bit about Roman history beforehand.

Sunday, 2017-05-14

River of Gods by Ian McDonald

McDonald likes submerging himself in other settings and getting into the heads of their (near) future inhabitants. He’s obviously done a lot of research for this book, and from my bookish North European viewpoint his future fractured India rings true. It’s certainly easy to fall into the cadence of Anglo-English when reading some of the interior monologues, but it goes beyond that, to an appreciation of the culture and mores that nuanced and well written.

The framing SF plot (rogue AIs planning to do something) is beside the point. The central story is of the characters and their interactions.

Sunday, 2017-05-07

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

A sequel to New Moon. The series can now be read as a dialog and critique of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I must confess I have never read, and purposefully written to make Heinlein, his epigones, and the fans who think his style of SF is the only real SF choke on a bag of dicks. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 2017-05-06

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

A great biography over a man many times called great. A good overview of the key points of his career, wrapped up in a nice framework of history and anecdote.

Sunday, 2017-04-30

Wednesday, 2017-04-19

Goodreads account

Moving to reading electronically has broken up the reading experience for me. Books are now just a stream on a screen and I need to keep track of them in a better way. So I’ve got an account at Goodreads and I’m slowly transferring the reviews on this site to there.

I think I’ll still add the reviews here but this will let me keep track of reading dates etc. with a bit more precision.

Tuesday, 2017-04-18

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

A narrative history of the Plantagenet dynasty.