Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, III

August 22, 2022

The Sword of the Lictor
The Book of the New Sun, Book III
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1982]
205 p.

This third volume of The Book of the New Sun is a strong entry that continues the epic world-building of the previous volumes, introduces dramatic plot developments, and summons up several effective new characters who develop relationships with our hero, Severian.

As to the first point, although it is true that most of the main planks of the world of the novel have been laid, we continue to get intriguing elaboration of details. We learn, for instance, that the story takes place as an ice age threatens the civilization of which Severian is a part, and — I’m not sure why this surprised me so much! — that it takes place in the southern hemisphere. Some of the details we are offered are so perplexing, such as the casual observation that the moon is green, and then the even more disconcerting claim that the moon is “a sort of island hung in the sky, whose color derived from forests, now immemorially old, planted in the earliest days of the race of Man”, that I really don’t know what to make of them.

The science-fiction vibe of the novels is heightened in this volume by more details about interstellar travel and alien life forms, but at the same time the religious character of the novel is deepened. Severian continues to carry a relic called the Claw of the Conciliator, and it continues, to his considerable perplexity, to work wonders by a logic all its own. Of the Conciliator himself, also called the New Sun, a shadowy, possibly-historical figure who figures largely in the religious cosmogony of the story, we continue to learn. Severian remarks at one point, for instance:

“I found myself thinking how strange it would be if the New Sun, the Daystar himself, were to appear now as suddenly as he had appeared so long ago when he was called the Conciliator, appearing here because it was an inappropriate place and he had always preferred the least appropriate places”

which is rather suggestive. There is some evidence that the influence of the Claw — so called because it is a gem with an apparent claw-shaped defect at its heart — is affecting Severian’s own heart without his knowing it; it is, perhaps, the Claw’s influence that sends Severian into the mountains early in the novel, and we even learn, later, after yet another miraculous episode, a suggestion that Severian’s will is being conformed to the will of the Claw:

I came to understand that I should never reach any real knowledge of the tiny thing I held, and with that thought (for it was a thought) came a third state, one of happy obedience to I knew not what, an obedience without reflection because there was no longer anything to reflect upon, and without the least tincture of rebellion.

The Claw is something like the inverse, then, of Tolkien’s One Ring. It is gentle, and it leads its possessor, step by step, toward goodness. Or so it seems. The real nature of the relationship between Severian and the Claw, which in some real sense is the central relationship in the books so far, is still mysterious. Why has it come into Severian’s possession? Where is it taking him?

Two fine new characters appear in this novel, one a young boy, also named Severian, whom our Severian befriends for a time, and one a monstrous creature whom Severian encounters atop a dizzying mountain peak in what was, for me, the best scene in this series thus far.

On the other hand, several characters from previous volumes returned, and, because I didn’t think they were particularly well-developed earlier, and not particularly well-developed here, I found their segments of the book, including the climatic sequence, rather confusing and arbitrary. It is possible that I missed details earlier that would have helped. (People say that this series is one that improves on re-reading.)

Still a bit of a mixed bag, then, but, on balance, the best so far in my judgement. There are still a number of gigantic loose threads dangling, so I’m very curious to see what transpires in the fourth and final volume.

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