A tale of two cities.
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.