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©1982 Gene Wolfe; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
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"Best plotless book ever."
Gene Wolfe???s The Sword of the Lictor essentially contains no plot, but it???s the best plotless book I???ve ever read. It???s one of the best books I???ve ever read, period. I loved every moment of it! This third installment of The Book of the New Sun continues Severian???s journey from apprentice in the torturers??? guild to Autarch. He doesn???t seem to be getting any closer to his exalted position (if anything, I???d say farther) and we???re no closer to understanding how he???s going to get there. But that???s totally fine. Unburdened by a need to be anywhere or to achieve any goals or deadlines, Severian wanders the earth almost aimlessly, and it???s this wandering that???s so fascinating. For a reader who???s only anxious for action and story progression, The Sword of the Lictor is not likely to work and, indeed, I usually get annoyed with authors who take too long to tell their stories. However, when I???m reading Gene Wolfe, it not only works ??? it is pure delight. For Wolfe???s old earth, set in a far future when the sun is dying (similar to Jack Vance???s Dying Earth), is full of wonder and amazement and he tells us all about it in his simple but elegant style... I wish I could be there with Severian as he climbs down the steep cliff overhung with a waterfall and embedded with the fossils of earth???s lost architecture, and explores the round metal building that we recognize (but he doesn???t) as a spaceship??? I???d love to tell you more and to discuss what it all means (there???s so much symbolism here), but then you???d miss the jaw-dropping, eye-widening, brain-expanding experience for yourself. I???ll just say that what Severian experiences on his journey perfectly captures the essence of excellent speculative fiction ??? it???s the reason I love SFF.
Nobody creates such a sense of wonder and amazement, such truly unique and bizarre ideas, and relates them in such a beautiful way as Gene Wolfe does. I want to spend a lot more time exploring his world.
"Shone brilliant @ times, but muted in the middle"
Not a usual Science Fantasy reader, I approached this The Book of the New Sun tetralogy with no slight hesitation, but it came highly recommended from a friend whose judgement I trust. I loved the first half (Shadow of the Torturer and the Claw of the Conciliator). The third book however just didn't do it for me. It was brilliant at times, but more muted in certain middle sections and occasionally it almost seemed phoned-in. I have enough faith in Wolfe and the reputation of this work to finish, but if I had started with book three, I might have given the rest of the series a pass.
Still, I think Wolfe brings more to genre writing than most SF/fantasy authors, so I probably need to cut him a little slack. My expectations after the first two novels was pretty high and I'm almost certainly judging him against über-high standards which he set with his earlier New Sun novels.
"Become a Seeker for Truth and Penitence"
This is a review of the four volume THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN (TBNS) by Gene Wolfe; which traces the coming of age of Severian, once a member of The Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence.
In printed form the earlier works of Gene Wolfe can be quite challenging and this is the quintessential Wolfe novel. The esoteric language employed forces your eyes to slow down and read with great care. So many of the words, while supposedly all authentic English words, are unfamiliar that looking up at least a handful of them is necessary to understand the text. As a result, the reader’s mind has time to explore Severian’s world as the protagonist himself is doing. The printed books are heavy in the hand and the weight of the pages fore and aft serve as constant reminders of what has come before, and what is yet to be.
The most telling observation I can give about the audio book is that it transforms a massive tome into a much more personal narrative. As an audio book TBNS takes on a less intimidating, much more intimate and even more friendly character. The inexorable pacing of the narrator, Jonathan Davis, does not permit pauses for reflection, or speculation, the story plows on, without pausing to try to pronounce a word, without going back to regain the flow of the plot after a difficult flashback. And it is just fine.
Jonathan Davis is a most excellent narrator for TBNS. His voice has a deep calming quality that is well suited to recounting Severian’s story. He gives each character their own individual voice. He gives a fine performance ranking this among my favorite audio books. I can recommend all four of the volumes of TBNS here on Audible without reservation.
Note: The short afterwards that are part of each of the four volumes are not included in the audio versions. They should be read to get the full effect intended by the author Gene Wolfe.
"Severian on the road"
This is the third book in Gene Wolfe's fantastical, literary-aspiring Book of the New Sun tetralogy, and I won't say much about the cycle in its entirety here (see my reviews of the others for that). While the first book had Severian getting acquainted with Urth and its ways, and the second involved him in various intrigues near the city of Nessus, this is the one where he finally makes it to his posting as jailer/executioner in the provincial city of Thrax. Not surprisingly, circumstances eventually compel him to move on to points further.
Compared to Shadow and Claw, this one is more of a road-tripping book, and thus is more episodic in structure. There’s not much going on that really advances the plot, unless you want to read it at an allegorical level, but I enjoyed getting a wider glimpse of the world, which, as you've no doubt figured out by now, is South America in the distant future. There's a cliffside city, an encounter with an old evil high in the mountains, and a strange fortress on a lakeside. Severian battles an Alzabo, one of the creepiest monsters I've come across in fiction in a while. And Wolfe does shed more light on the nature of characters and objects we've met already, such as Dorcas, the Claw, Agia, the Pelerines, the offworlders, and Doctor Talos and Baldanders. The science fiction elements of the story, always in the background, come more to the fore.
As before, most significant events are occasions for some philosophical musings from Wolfe, which might get to be tedious for some readers, though I found them interesting. There are thoughts on the meaning of justice, being human versus being animal, and the impossibility of finding utopia without surrendering what drives us to seek it. Wolfe even seems to comment on his own goals as an author.
“I fell to thinking about the worlds that circled [other] suns... At first I thought of green skies, blue grass, and all the rest of the childish exotica apt to inflict the mind that conceives of other than Urthly worlds. But, in time, I tired of those puerile ideas and began in their place to think of societies and ways of thought wholly different from our own... worlds where there was no currency but honor... worlds in which the long war between mankind and the beasts was pursued no more...”
Sometimes a third book in a fantasy series will derail my interest in continuing it, but I'm pleased to say that that wasn't the case here. Something about the writing feels less fragmentary and more self-assured, too. I've mentioned before that Jonathan Davis is a great audiobook narrator, but I'll say it again.
"thick and powerful"
absolutely better than print...gene wolffe is a master of imagery and depth...listening ensure nothing is missed and everything makes sense.
the sheer convoluted poetry and descriptive abundance
a beautiful and long range voice
if only i had the time
get it now
"The Sublime Failure to Grasp the Ungraspable"
By the beginning of The Sword of the Lictor (1982), the third novel in Gene Wolfe's unique science fiction masterpiece, Dorcas and Severian have finally reached Thrax, City of Windowless Rooms, where Severian has become the "master of chains," the lictor of the Vincula, the prison shaft bored into the side of the mountain, along both sides of which the shackled prisoners await torture or death. By closing off unnecessary tunnels and diligently attending court sessions, Severian is doing his best to restore the honor he believes that his torturers' guild deserves, but Dorcas is unhappy. On their way to Thrax, they were equal lovers and friends, but now she is the paramour of the lictor. And Severian's tour with Dorcas of the Vincula has so traumatized her with the stench and misery of the prisoners that, despite her hydrophobia, she has repeatedly stood beneath the waterfall in the public baths in an attempt to cleanse her hair of the smell. Worse still, she has begun to remember who and how she was before she met Severian. Dorcas' depression and Severian's apparent helplessness to assuage it are devastating. There is more pain in The Sword of the Lictor, as in the sweet relationship between Severian and little Severian, a boy he later meets in the mountains.
But the novel is not all grief, being primarily his experience with the sublime. In writing his history, Severian recounts his encounters with various sublime phenomena, involving space, time, nature, artifacts, alien Others, or the divine. Numerous awe-inspiring, perception-changing, identity-threatening things impress Severian with beauty and scale: mountain peaks, oceans of air, mountain-sized statues, ancient cities buried in mountains, limitless depths of starry space. Severian also finds the sublime in small things, as when his contemplation of a black, luminous "claw" erases his mind into a higher state. And he meets beings and creatures from other worlds that appear terrifyingly monstrous or beautiful to human eyes.
In addition to dizzying Severian and opening him to beauty, the sublime orients him towards the ineffable: "the beauty of the sky and the mountainside were such that it seemed they colored all my musings, so that I felt I nearly grasped ungraspable things." And the wonderful and reassuring point is that even when he fails to gain "insight into immense realities," as he knows he must, he accepts his failure with "happy obedience" to something beyond his comprehension.
Severian also engages in plenty of stimulating philosophical speculations, as when he imagines different ways of living on different worlds or wonders whether the human-eating alzabo is moved by its own predatory instincts or by those of the people it has already consumed when it tries to eat their surviving family members, and whence comes instinct at all. And the novel has at least as many interesting characters, dramatic situations, and exciting or poignant scenes as Severian's first two books. And unlike them, it even ends with a comprehensible climax with a satisfying resolution.
As always, Jonathan Davis reads the audiobook version of the novel with great wit, sensitivity, and skill.
As Severian says, "the greatest adventures are those that act most strongly upon our minds" (even to the point of maddening us), and because his life-history is a great adventure, it is rewards working hard to read and understand and enjoy it.
"If you've made it this far, keep reading"
Wolfe's use of symbolism and language are among the best I have ever read. His books are not for the faint of heart. Although his main character is a headsman, the content is not why I caution casual readers to think twice. Wolfe is a master, and he doesn't slow down to let you in on any of his secrets. You HAVE to pay attention to each word.
Severian is a richly-penned antagonist. His idetic memory makes for some fun times and deeply philosophical rants. I think he would be a difficult character to put on the big screen because of it, but he shines in book form because we get to hear every word of his (and others') thoughts.
The easy answer here is that he gives life to the words that the author has chosen. That could be meaningless drivel, except that Wolfe provides eloquent use of vocabulary that few others would dare to use. Each sentence is a finely crafted work of art. Davis has a mild, calm delivery which fits well with Severian's demeanor. I have always considered myself an "audio learner" and this is the first book which I absolutely had to hear to absorb.
I was too busy thinking to have much of an emotional reaction. His strength is in building a world and making the reader question his or her concept of memory, religion, violence, honor, etc., rather than invoking an emotional response.
Again--do not tread lightly. If you choose to read this book, you must listen closely to every word. I expect to re-read the whole series just to re-build the timeline in my head.
"The best of the series"
I just finished the 4th book and I would have to say that this one by far is the best of the series. There is plenty of action and if examined closely enough, you can see things starting to form. It's hard to go into detail without spoiling anything. However if you recall, in the first book it was a lot of history (yes I know this story is a history in itself but the book kind of dragged a little). In the second book, there was more meat to it and the second half of the second book moved things along quite readily. This book, while some make think it's a pointless wandering reunites some characters while setting the preface for the fourth book. If you've decided to continue this story, I don't think you will be disappointed with this book.
"Continuing the tale of the New Sun"
This book maintains the pace and feeling of awe established in the first two of the series
As with the other New Sun books, Davis continues his superb performance bringing personality to all of the characters and highlighting the subtle nuances that Wolfe weaves into his story
If you loved the first two books (and lets face it, why would you pick this one up if the first two weren't your cup of tea), then you'll not be disappointed by this installment of the series. Once again we rejoin Severian quite a bit further along in his journey then when we left him at the end of the last book, but I found this transition easier to follow than the last, maybe just because I was expecting it more.
We follow Severian through the book as usual, with some familiar characters coming and going, and some new ones too. If it's been a while since you finished the last book, probably wouldn't hurt to refresh your memory before you start this one. This book probably has as many random tangents as the last but I found them more enjoyable or easier to follow or more relevant than the side stories in the last book.
I realized while listening to this book that part of what I love about Gene Wolfe's writing is that so much happens in the book, but every scene or incident is so well described and fleshed out. It's never rushed. But nor is it weighed down with unnecessary description. A lot of writers could learn from Wolfe. The world he creates is so realistic and easy to immerse yourself in, but so lacking in detailed descriptions (ie. what does the alzabo actually look like?).
Johnathan Davis's voice and narration style couldn't be more perfect for these books. I've been listening to some of the other things he's done, and he's an excellent narrator, but nowhere is he as good as he is here.
Can't wait to download the last book!!
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