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Sword & Citadel: The Second Half of 'The Book of the New Sun' Paperback – October 15, 1994
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“Outstanding...A major work of twentieth-century American literature.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Wonderfully vivid and inventive...the most extraordinary hero in the history of the heroic epic.” ―Washington Post Book World
“Brilliant...terrific...a fantasy so epic it beggars the mind. An extraordinary work of art!” ―Philadelphia Inquirer
About the Author
Gene Wolfe has been called "the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced" by The Washington Post. A former engineer, he has written numerous books and won a variety of awards for his SF writing.
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Top Customer Reviews
Sword and Citadel follows Severian as he continues on his travels, finally arriving at his designated position as town executioner before once again failing due to an act of undeserved mercy. From there, he wanders the countryside, drifting through a series of encounters ranging from a talking, intelligent beast to a being that might just be a ruler, or even a god, before becoming involved in the war that’s constantly been lurking outside of the boundaries of the series. That’s about all of the story I can really tell you, if we’re being honest; this is not a book whose plot is easy, or maybe even relevant. Rather, it’s about the world being explored, and about how Severian sees and interacts with that world – interactions that are often spiked with cruelty, violence, and judgment.
What’s more compelling – and more frustrating – at times is how unreliably Severian narrates his tale. It becomes clear early on that Severian isn’t telling us enough information, through no fault of his own – it’s just that his descriptions don’t account for the fact that we know more information than he does. The description of a knight with a golden visor holding a flag aloft, for instance, is presented as simple fact; nonetheless, as we learn more, it becomes evident that this is no knight, but perhaps an astronaut, holding aloft an American flag. The castles and metal buildings we so often see? Those may be rockets and ships…or perhaps not. But then, as if Severian’s limited perspective isn’t enough, there’s the gradual realization that our narrator quite simply isn’t being straight with us – he withholds, he obfuscates, he distorts, and quite possibly, he lies.
All of this comes together in a literary tour-de-force that’s undeniably an intelligent, incredibly-crafted novel. What Wolfe has done boggles the mind; he’s created a world, then filtered that world through an inhabitant trying to describe it, then given that world a spin and perspective that makes it even more unreliable, and then gives this to us in the form of a picaresque journey without clear form and fashion, despite the sense that every single sentence and scene matters. It’s remarkable, brilliant, thoughtful work. And it’s also incredibly difficult, dense, and often frustrating, as you sense that to truly understand this work is going to mean diving deep within its waters, questioning every sentence and every word, and constructing something new from the clues and hints along the way.
So do I recommend the series? Yes…and no. To no small degree, what you think of The Book of the New Sun will depend on what you expect out of it. If you expect a straightforward narrative, or a traditional anti-hero, or an epic in the style of Lord of the Rings or Dune, you’ll be frustrated at what you find. This is something wholly else. But if you want something truly – and I hate to use this term, but it’s the only thing that fits – literary, something that displays an astonishing gift of prose and craft, and that you’re willing to work with, you’ll be rewarded for your time and then some.
As for myself, I can’t deny that I’m dazzled by the construction and world of New Sun. I’m floored by the scope, and the imagination, and the characters, and the way Wolfe works between layers and layers and layers of artifice. And yet, even now, I’m not sure I truly understand or even come close to getting this book, and that’s frustrating. It’s a series I feel like I need to read a second time, or even a third, to truly get, and I’d be lying if I said that was something I was truly excited about. It’s a series that felt challenging, and it’s all the more so for how deceptively simple it all seems. Is it a remarkable accomplishment, something truly incredible to behold? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t necessarily make it fun in any sense of the word, or something you’re going to jump into without some thought. Take that as you will.
It's safe to say that you will encounter a much more demanding book here than your typical Sci-fi / Fantasy novel. You will see uncommon words derived from Latin. A good example are the name of army units that resemble those of the Roman Empire, and a lot of these words won't be explained, you will have to get their meaning from the context they are used. Also a lot of things are told indirectly, almost offhand as if they weren't important. The best example would be from the first book, when Severian, without saying it directly, he makes us understand that he is the Autarch and is writing the story from the House Absolute. Be warned that these are slow novels, where the action isn't as important as in other fantasy novels. This is a book that'll make you think and that I recommend you read slowly to enjoy all of the little details about its epic tale.
Unfortunately, the people disappoint. Agia, the vengeful woman who stalked Severian through the first volumes, never makes a final appearance. Dorcus, whose identity was foreshadowed heavily from the time she appeared in the Botanic Garden, played an even more passive role than before - and the final twist in her relationship to Severian made me shake my head. Severian's encounter with the Autarch is anti-climatic compared to his final meeting with the giant Baldanders.
Random encounters bring new characters that are pointless to the plot, although I enjoyed the story-telling contest among the wounded soldiers (particularly the Ascian, an Orwellian character brainwashed to speak only in politically-correct aphorisms). On the flip side, Valeria of the Atrium of Time seems somehow important to Severian's story but her role isn't fleshed out. She's a young woman Severian meets prior to his expulsion from the Citadel, and their meeting is the first clue that Severian is/will experience time travel. At the end of the story, Severian makes a point of going to see her. He never explains why nor does he tell the reader anything about their meeting. Was it merely a sexual dalliance like almost all his other meetings with women? Is he spurred to see her because of something he knows as Autarch? Severian is an unreliable narrator, but other such protagonists (including Wolfe's protagonist in "Peace") give the reader enough details to piece together a puzzle.