Reading List 2010 (16/177)

Another batch! (And, er, only 72 left to go!)

  • Peace, Gene Wolfe
  • The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe
  • The Shadow of the Torturer, Gene Wolfe
  • The Claw of the Conciliator, Gene Wolfe
  • The Sword of the Lictor, Gene Wolfe
  • The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe
  • The Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
  • Nightside the Long Sun, Gene Wolfe
  • Lake of the Long Sun, Gene Wolfe
  • Calde of the Long Sun, Gene Wolfe
  • Exodus from the Long Sun, Gene Wolfe
  • On Blue’s Waters, Gene Wolfe
  • In Green’s Jungles, Gene Wolfe
  • Return to the Whorl, Gene Wolfe
  • The Book of Days, Gene Wolfe
  • The Castle of the Otter, Gene Wolfe

This rather long list of books is, with the exception of Peace, a unified and delightfully satisfying narrative experience*. There are a number of places where you can choose to stop, if you so desire, but Wolfe’s extraordinary achievement with this series is best enjoyed in one piece.

The first five books of the series – from The Shadow of the Torturer to The Urth of the New Sun – follow the apprentice torturer Severian as he wanders a dying Earth (or Urth). The world he encounters is the first joy of these books. It’s rich and strange and compelling, with visions and genetic engineering and gods and myths and spaceships and cavalry charges and prophecy all existing side by side. Severian’s narration is another great pleasure. The writing is tricky, and you can’t always precisely trust what Severian’s telling you, but the work you’ll do to figure it out is totally worthwhile, and part of the enjoyment of the experience. Each book has its own miniature delights, like the storytelling contest in The Citadel of the Autarch, but they also fit together to provide a nasty, witty, wicked take on some of the tropes of more standard fantasy epics.

The next four books take place on the generation ship Whorl, which has left the dying Urth to seek out new worlds. The story follows Silk, an augur who has a very special relationship with the gods, who are in turn just as quarrelsome and complicated as your average Earth pantheon. Silk’s quest to save his manteion (a school-cum-temple-cum-oracle) ends up having very unexpected consequences. Half the joy of this book is putting together the pieces to figure out what’s really going on, so I won’t tell you much more. Let’s just say that there are wonderful set pieces and unforgettable secondary characters and a very, very powerful personal journey for Silk himself.

Finally, On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, and Return to the Whorl take place after the Whorl‘s arrival at its destination, the twin worlds of Green and Blue. While the first five and second four books can be read separately, these three rely heavily on events in the previous books, especially Exodus from the Long Sun. The narrator, who calls himself Horn, switches between tales of his journey home to his wife (in the book’s present) and tales of his journey away from her (in its past). I particularly liked the former, as in each book Horn is taken captive in a different city and must solve its problems to free itself. His outward journey is richer and stranger, but also less suspenseful and less human. The contrast between the two is effective, but I also especially liked the times when things from his outward journey return to haunt him on his way home.

It’ll take you a while to get through the whole series, but it’s so damn clever and well-written and insightful and strange and beautiful that it’s absolutely worth your time.

*All right, The Fifth Head of Cerberus may or may not be part of the series, depending on your interpretation. Similarly, not all the stories in The Book of Days or essays in The Castle of the Otter are series-related, but the ones that are? Delightful and very much worth including.

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