Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun, IV

September 19, 2022

The Citadel of the Autarch
The Book of the New Sun, Book IV
Gene Wolfe
(ORB, 1994) [1983]
210 p.

In this fourth and final volume of The Book of the New Sun, our hero Severian continues his northward journey into the mountains, encounters and enters a war, returns the precious Claw of the Conciliator to its guardians, finds another Claw, or something like that, eats a brain, becomes the Autarch, and goes on an interstellar journey, or something like that.

For the most part, I found this the least successful of the four volumes. This was partly because certain elements of the plot seemed arbitrary, but mostly because some significant chunk of the book is involved in pulling together all of the loose threads that Wolfe has been spooling out through the gargantuan fabric of his story. This gathering up involves a number of “reveals”, and those are usually my least favourite part of any tale.

I will grant that Wolfe’s version of this device is more virtuosic than most, for his “reveals”, to the extent that I have understood them, which might not be very far, are such as to recontextualize much, or even all, of the preceding story, injecting new meaning into old scenes and altering our view of what the book has been about. I can understand that some readers might like that sort of thing, but I confess I dislike it.

Before beginning the book I’d read more than once that it was a book that improved on re-reading, and now I can see clearly why that might be true. It is, possibly, in a certain sense, a puzzle tale, but that’s not evident until one nears the end.

For me one of the more intriguing aspects of the tetralogy was the religious cosmology that it slowly unveiled. Severian came into possession of a relic, the Claw of the Conciliator, which apparently wielded in his hands miraculous powers, and the religious significance of the Conciliator seemed to be important to the story. And maybe it was. I found, however, that this fourth volume  muddied these waters, such that I no longer know if I’m supposed to know there was a Conciliator, or that there wasn’t one, or that Severian is somehow himself the Conciliator, or something else? I feel like the Claw turned to dust in my hands.

To be candid, I found the tail end of this volume to be frustratingly opaque. There’s a time travel element that was hinted at earlier but here comes to prominence, and I’m pretty sure I failed to grasp its implications. There are a bunch of denouement scenes as the story winds down, and I think I was supposed to see the point of them more than I did.


Having stumbled to the end of the tetralogy, let me conclude with a few brief remarks.

The world-building that Wolfe undertakes is, for me, the most impressive aspect of the books. The far, far future setting he imagines, which blends hyper-advanced technologies with a quasi-medieval social structure and a general sense of comprehensive decay, is superbly done. Like Tolkien, he is good at slowly revealing the true depth and breadth of his world through incidental details.

Several segments of the story were, for me, very successful. This was especially true of the third volume, which, as I said at the time, I thought the best. My very favourite scene was the one between Severian and Typhon, a marvellously dramatic encounter, fraught with tension and mystery, that took place atop a dizzyingly high mountain. Yet the point of that scene, within the structure of the story as a whole, eludes me. Indeed, the story seemed to carry on as though that scene had not occurred, which I found odd and frustrating.

The religious dimension of the book surprised and engrossed me, but, as I’ve already said, appeared to me to have been muddled in the end, or, perhaps, clarified in a way that I didn’t understand.

The books have a strong reputation, and have earned praise from fine writers and critics. Although my experience has been mixed, I leave open the possibility that they are better books than I was able to discover.

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