Gene Wolfe
The Shadow of the Torturer
Tor 1980

Gene Wolfe
The Claw of the Conciliator
Tor 1981

Gene Wolfe
The Sword of the Lictor
Tor 1981

Gene Wolfe
The Citadel of the Autarch
Tor 1982

When Severian tells us this story, he is the Autarch: supreme ruler of his civilization. But he had a long way to go to reach that position. Like all boys raised by the Guild of the Torturers, he was an orphan. The guild is just a small one, and most people think they are just a myth of the past, a story used to frighten unruly children with. But in the old Citadel in the enormous city of Nessus, they still exist: two Masters, some journeymen and the apprentices, all locked up in their tower, doing the biddings of the judges and the autarchs, inflicting pain and ending lives. Eighteen years old, Severian has just become a journeyman when a beautiful young noblewoman is sent to their tower to meet her fate. Severian becomes her jailer and her lover. She teaches him a lot about life outside the Torturers's tower, but in the end her torture is about to begin. Then Severian breaks the single most important commandment of the torturers: he shows mercy, slipping her a knife so she can commit suicide. His punishment: he is sent away from the Citadel to become the torturer of faraway town Thrax. A long journey is about to begin.

Severian's world is a strange place, inhabited by strange people and even stranger beings, ruled by cultures alien from anything we know, and natural laws that transcends science and magic, blending into something unique. But "The Book of the New Sun" is nevertheless set on our own planet, Urth, in the far future when the sun is dying. That's not a unique concept. Jack Vance's wonderful Dying Earth-series is one example, like Gene Wolfe mixing science fiction and fantasy. Brian Aldiss's marvellous "Hothouse" is usually found on the science fiction shelf but just like the works of Vance and Wolfe his novel is far away from anything even remotely scientific. Dying Earth-novels might be considered an established subgenre on the border between science fiction and fantasy. A border where almost anything is permitted, traditional sci-fi properties like spacecrafts and aliens as well as magic and medieval socities traditionally belonging to the fantasy field, or strange things we mostly find in Tarzan novels or the works of A.E. Van Vogt, like the weird flowers used in duels in "The Book of the New Sun" or the spider webs to the moon in "Hothouse".

If you think a novel or a world should follow easily understood and predictable rules, you'll have some problems with this genre. Personally, I use to have such objections, but when a writer uses his freedom to fabulate without any boundaries in such an excellent way as Gene Wolfe does in this series, or Aldiss or Vance in their books, I have no problem giving in. It's not really my type of series - but it's a masterpiece and I love it. No wonder it was a smash hit among the judges for the major science fiction and fantasy awards, winning both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Awards.

Karl Henriksson


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Henriksson & Henriksson 1999.