Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe

With The Citadel of the Autarch I have finished Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.  And I am certainly glad I reached back into my teen years to read it.

The last book finishes Severian's heroic journey.  Spoiler alert--I just feel like giving away the ending, so quit here if you don't want to know.  Severian continues his fall in his detached, almost elegiac way, making his way through war zones and abandoned places.  He learns the true nature of his associates Dr. Talos and Baldanders.  And in a quite unexpected twist (except that one gets the sense Severian almost DID expect it) he himself becomes the autarch.

Of course we knew this all along, because Severian is writing the account of his adventures and has already told us that he is the autarch.  But this is no story of a rise to power, though I kept expecting that given his capability.  No, it sneaks up on him--the current autarch (the absolute ruler of the country, and also the administrator of a brother) makes Severian his successor in a personal encounter.  We see the autarch's bravery, and hear more of it as Severian is told what must be done to bring the New Sun.  The previous autarch tried and failed, and survived as a eunuch.  Severian closes as he is about to embark on a voyage to try again.

The series won't raise the hairs on the back of your neck, but if you have any SF writing aspirations it is a must read.  I would also say that anyone who has read a lot of science fiction, but somehow skipped this one (as I had) should definitely read it.  Wolfe does much more than create a setting through these novels.  Through the unusual words (a mix of created and obscure) and the detachment of the tale he captures a very broad "feeling" of the time, the sense of winding down but with hope for a future.  He gives that a definite kick with his interesting appendices.

Severian pulls at us by portraying a jailer and torturer in about the best light one could do it.  The Torturers practice a detachment from the sentences they carry out, but it is not a cold detachment at all.  They care about their clients and try to make the torments and executions bearable.  They steadfastly do not judge.  Severian has a strong belief in the rightness of what he does, even as he knows others cannot understand it.  This extends to the entertainment qualities of executions and the careful details of "excruciations".  It's a challenging work to read and enjoy, but one simply revels in the mastery Wolfe displays.  I give it three stars, because it is such a stretch for most SF fans.  But by all means try it.

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