A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

not merely superfluous, but ridiculous

Review: Sword and Citadel by Gene Wolfe

From my Goodreads review:

A young man from marginal circumstances finds an artifact of great power, and goes on a quest that leads to him ruling over the land: any reader of fantasy is familiar with the basic outlines of this story. It first appears in, oh, let’s say Exodus, and has become such a standard narrative that many longtime readers of genre fiction regard it with a sigh: not this again. They so frequently see some variation on this story that it now appears to be a declaration of laziness.

But laziness in literature cuts both ways: if a book can be written without any regard for originality or acknowledgement of literary tradition, it follows that a book can be read without sufficient attention to the details of the narrative, or sufficient understanding of how it is handling the recognized tropes. A series of familiar story beats can lull the reader into a sense of complacency, making them ignore a story’s idiosyncrasies so that they can sigh over the parts they recognize. The unspoken goal of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun seems to be to keep throwing wrenches into that impulse at every step.

Take the first volume of this collection, which was originally published as four novellas: in one of the first chapters, less than fifty pages into the book, the narrator, Severian, pauses his account of his life as a lowly apprentice a hated guild to mention in passing that as he is writing this account, he is now the Autarch, the ruler of the society in which he started out as a marginal member. With a subordinate clause, Wolfe has removed the primary bit of tension from the story—or, more accurately, shifted it. We know that Severian survives his story and goes on to become ruler of all the land—but then, we probably suspected that already, based on what we knew going in. The source of tension, from that point on, shifts to how he’s going to do it.

The last two volumes of the story, contained in this book, further confound expectations. The artifact doesn’t play the role you might expect, and in the end might not even be that important. Severian goes to the war, but the battles are not decisive and do not have much to do with his gaining the throne…or at least, not in the way you might expect.

The Book of the New Sun is written with the outline of a typical epic fantasy, but its plotting is more in line with literary fiction—frequently I felt like I was reading about lives in flux, carried forward by events beyond their control rather than influencing the course of history with their actions. Familiar faces pursue them like psychological manifestations of their fears and desires, strange elder gods lurk beneath the waters and call them in their sleep, people die in painfully arbitrary and meaningless ways. We learn about the world, but never as clearly as we hope—it appears to us as it would in a primary account, with much of the culture left unexplained, and much of the world possibly inexplicable. Mysteries abound, so that I was left wondering how rents in the fabric of space-time had apparently opened at various places in the world.

I feel like this book has not yet given up its secrets—another readthrough, preferably with a dictionary at hand, will make things clearer—and yet I have no doubts, reading the text, that the world can be explained, will yield its secrets up for study. The book is dense, frustrating, and fascinating in the way that something can only be when it has a great deal of thought behind it, and finding this degree of difficulty in the science fiction/fantasy section has opened my eyes to ideas I would not have thought of otherwise.

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This entry was posted on 14 July 2017 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , .
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