Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Book Of The New Sun Tetralogy by Gene Wolfe

Books one & two of the tetralogy...
...and three ampersand four.
You know those books, the ones that gnaw at you, when you browse in book shops and online, when you skim past them on the book case or in drop-down menu lists, they catch the corner of your eye, tugging at your hand, wolf-whistling from the shelves, and you know you should probably read them, but then you've got so many books on that pile already - those books? For me, Gene Wolfe has occupied this dusty corner of my literary life ever since my mother began bringing home the Piers Anthony Xanth books, the Discworld novels, Robin Hobb and David Eddings fantasy series, from the library in which she worked, when I was but a tender lad of years between ten and fifteen. I was always aware of him, and as a bookseller, knowing that his place as the principal author in the Fantasy Masterworks series afforded him a singular notoriety, I resolutely ignored him, thanks in part to an injurious recommendation by someone I was determined to never end up like. And frankly, having not worked in the bookselling trade for half a decade, I'd grown comfortable indulging my ignorance. That is, until I followed a link to an article from The New Yorker.

And once again I became aware that I'd done myself, and not least Gene Wolfe, a disservice. Who suffers when one maintains a stupid prejudice? One, that's who. But it is now finito, kaput, no more, for I have finished all four of the novels that make up the New Sun tetralogy.

A thousand pages or so of epic-ish* fantasy would be hard to distill into five hundred words, so all you're going to get is a run-down of salient-ish points. We have our narrator, the torturer (or rather, journeyman torturer) Severian, reporting his life and adventures from gate to gate (read from rags to riches, child to man, ignorance to enlightenment, life to death, all are apt), with the aid of a perfect recall, something which comes and goes throughout and which adds a hint of unreliability to the tale, augmenting what otherwise might have been a pretty eye-brow-raisingly ridiculous story even if we were to believe in Wolfe's vision of a far future Earth where the sun is dying and aliens wander the globe, where giant women patrol the seas and one can absorb not just the memories but also the personalities and experiences of dead people by eating their dead flesh (with the little help of some alien hormones or glandular excretions). We have a noble quest, with a repeating cast of friends, enemies and, in some cases, frenemies. We have sacred and powerful artefacts (or do we...? Read it yourself to find out) and a war that is possibly centuries old. And there's a forest on the moon. Severian as narrator is a little full of himself, repeatedly deprecating his intelligence with phrases like I am but a humble etc., and then laying out developed observational philosophies for us readers, and basically fucking any women he comes across, all the while telling us how what he calls his love waxes and wanes as his understanding of love changes page to page. He also takes pride in cheerfully chopping off the heads of people along the way with his gigantic sword, pleasingly named Terminus Est, for a bit of travelling money. It's hard to trust him, but I found it makes his prose all the more diverting, enabling a little more engagement than if I was just blindly accepting. In fact, something I didn't think would be the case, I found that Wolfe's own 'translator's notes' at the end of each individual novel supported this by adding to the doubt and confusion where Severian mentions measures, animals, weaponry etc. by explaining that his meaning is unclear and any clarifications are made within our own reference framework.

Okay, so am I sounding impressed? Because I am. I am very happy to have read these novels and happily recommend them to you, my beloved reader. What impressed me the most was the extent to which one of my own slightly annoying traits, that of finding myself thinking in the style of the author / novel which I might be reading currently was very pronounced, almost as if by the reading of Wolfe's words I was training my mind to anticipate the ebb and flow of his language, and I delighted in writing entries in my notebooks in a mimetic fashion. Of course, being fantasy one might level at it the argument that it's all a little juvenile, killing and sex aside (or even included), but it's also really entertaining. And what more can you want, really?

* I say epic-ish because the story takes place over the course of only a single year.


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