The Book of the New Sun consists of four novels by Gene Wolfe. I bought all four in two volumes after I had added Gene Wolfe to the list of authors whose work I wanted to look into. This tetralogy is considered some of his best work. Unfortunately, I didn’t really know about his work until shortly before he passed away in April of last year, but I’m glad I am no longer ignorant of its existence.
I would normally have written a book recommendation for the first book in the series, but there are several reasons I did not do that for this story. Of course, I would not recommend the series if I did not like it or I didn’t think it held value. I am glad I read the series since I have learned a lot from it. However, this recommendation comes with a few reservations so let’s get started.
First, a very short introduction: The universe of the New Sun is definitely strange and the adventures of the main character, Severian, lead us through it. He is an apprentice in a guild of torturers and faces consequences for showing mercy to a client (as they refer to the prisoners).
We often compare things to better describe them to others, and I think in this case it would be easier for me to describe this story as a comparison or mixture of a few others you may already know. Since reading the first book, I could not help but think of the story as a mixture between The Name of the Wind (TNotW), Alice in Wonderland, and The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A weird combination, I know, but hear me out.
I thought of TNotW for several reasons. The story of the New Sun is told as a recounting of events by the main character, much like in TNofW, and they both include a spurious young man who has many travels and finds himself involved in powers much greater than himself that impact their entire world. New Sun has many fantastical elements as well and the loner-ish main character often has to fend for himself. I liken New Sun to Alice in the way that we as readers are thrown into a strange land where strange things happen seemingly at random. We don’t get a lot of information about the strange world but are given just enough to know what is going on and how things (kind of) work within the rules of that world. The last comparison, to Hitchhiker’s Guide, brings in the science fiction elements and continues the comparison to Alice insofar as the story’s universe is much larger than the glimpses we are given and things seem to happen randomly but often come back around before the story ends. Unlike Alice and Hitchhiker’s Guide, the random events of this story are not whimsical but often lead Severian into dangerous situations.
So, this series is a mixture of fantasy, science fiction, myth, philosophy, and many other areas I’m sure I may have missed or forgotten. I believe this series is greater than the sum of its parts, which is why I was so hesitant to recommend the first book without having read the entire story. Another reason was because it took me several chapters to get adjusted to the style of the book. Yes, it was written as an account by the main character, but the verbiage and structure took some time getting used to. This alone may deter some readers, but if you can get into the story, you will find it is well-written and engaging.
I consider myself well-read, but I learned a lot of new vocabulary from this series. This, for me, is a bonus though I can see some readers viewing it as negative if they need to look up several words per chapter or page. Most of the terms are more archaic. Very few, if any, were made up as part of the fictional world. This being the case, I’m happy to say that I have several new words in my arsenal for my own writing. I think an expanded vocabulary is definitely a positive.
Another reason I was hesitant in recommending the first book alone was because the transition from the first to second book was a little jarring. I think the series should be viewed as one continuous text, which I just discovered it had been written in its entirety before the first book was published. This may explain why each installment doesn’t follow a familiar story path or begin and end in a traditional method. This could also be seen as a negative, which is why I think considering all four books as one volume is an easy way to escape that thought concern.
I did see a few reviews of readers giving up during or after books two or three because they couldn’t continue with the seemingly random events. I had also heard that the fourth book wrapped things up nicely and fits all the pieces together. I would agree that the ending does bring the whole series together, but there is a lot to get through before this ending and many readers may not be committed to doing so. Which is another reason why I’m recommending this as a series instead of a standalone book. I definitely could have used a little more details regarding how the world of Urth worked, and there is a sequel novel title The Urth of the New Sun which I could read, but I think I may save that for another time.
I recommend this series because it is well written and engaging despite the events seeming to be random at first. There were several times where I thought I just had no idea what was happening or I didn’t have enough information to appreciate the story, but at the end of it all I felt satisfied. I was always interested in the events and characters, and I did read all four books fairly quickly. I am also still thinking about the book and what the whole story accomplished. I will definitely be looking into other books by Gene Wolfe in the future.
You may like this series or find it isn’t for you. I enjoyed it and wanted to (hopefully) introduce others to Gene Wolfe if not this particular story. I have entered the camp of those who believe his work has gone overlooked and I’m glad I remedied my own oversight. I look forward to discovering more of his stories. Perhaps you will too.