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The Book of the New Sun Volume II:
Sword and Citadel

Gene Wolfe
Orion Millennium, 622 pages

Art: Jim Burns
The Book of the New Sun Volume II: Sword and Citadel
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Shadow and Claw
SF Site Review: In Green's Jungles
SF Site Review: Free Live Free
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by A.L. Sirois

This volume comprises of the third and fourth books in the 4-book The Book of the New Sun series, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch. It seems to me as if Gene Wolfe wrote the work to be all of a piece, because there are no synopses of earlier sections. Wolfe several times refers to people or events without bothering to put them in an explanatory context of any kind. It's up to the reader to pay attention.

The four novels were published between 1980 and 1983. The first, The Shadow of the Torturer, begins with this line: "It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future." The last, The Citadel of the Autarch, ends with this line from Wolfe's brief appendix: "It is possible that from the beginning Severian had some presentiment of his future." Indeed.

Severian has been exiled from his native city, Nessus, and from his career as a torturer, because he has been so foolish as to fall in love with one of his "clients," the aristocratic Thecla. Later, she is revived in his mind as a living presence when he ingests of a portion of her body in combination with a gland from an alien creature called an alzabo. The alzabo, a predator, incorporates the personalities and knowledge of its victims into its own mind.

As The Sword of the Lictor opens, Severian and his beloved companion, Dorcas, whom he has unwittingly brought back to life in the first book, are temporarily established in the northern city of Thrax. He is still seeking the Pelerines, the religious order to whom he must return the Claw of the Conciliator, the mysterious gem with which he has restored Dorcas's life. Once again, however, Severian's nature gets the better of him and he lets a client escape her fate. For this, he knows he will be killed because the ruler of Thrax himself had been the one to order the woman's death.

Severian would have had to flee Thrax in any case, because he has made powerful enemies who are seeking to kill him and have set several weird alien creatures on his trail. Dorcas, who can remember nothing of her former existence, also wishes to leave to search for her genesis. He and Dorcas separate, and he heads north, trailing the Pelerines.

What Severian experiences through these pages is really nothing less than what Joseph Campbell has called "the hero's journey." It's the stuff of epics and myth. And these books do have an epic quality to them, which becomes rather more pronounced as they continue. There is scarcely an area of human endeavor, from love and warfare to history and the arts, that Wolfe doesn't touch on. He paints us a detailed portrait of a far future world owing something to William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land and something to Jack Vance's The Dying Earth. But Wolfe's writing is more determined, robust, and profluent than Hodgson's, and deeper in spirit and more emotionally compelling than that of Vance. There are some simply stunning passages, and some unexpected plot turns. There is a funny sequence in which Severian finally finds the Pelerines and tries to hand over the Claw -- but they refuse to believe that it is the actual gem!

Wolfe is as unsentimental with his characters as any writer I can bring to mind. Although Severian endures betrayal and tragic loss, and does not hesitate to kill, the book is ultimately life-affirming. At its end, Severian has lost his "magic" sword, Terminus Est, and seems to be no closer than he was before to the end of his quest. In fact, he is no longer sure what that end might be.

He has been told, however, by superior if short-lived aliens that he is more important in the scheme of things than he has suspected. But in this series nothing is as it seems and everyone has his or her own agenda. Severian is learning that he can't even trust himself, so can he truly trust non-humans?

As the final book, The Citadel of the Autarch, opens, Severian is still faring north. Caught in a great battle, he is eventually exhausted by his travails and falls ill with fever. While recuperating among the Pelerines, he judges a story-telling contest. Wolfe uses this section of the book to make a few wry observations about the fictioneer's art. " must judge us by the tale we told," one of the contestants says to Severian, "and not by the ones we say we know but did not tell." One of the other characters agrees, saying "you should not judge by the content of the stories, but by how well each is told. I'm not sure I agree with that -- still, there may be something in it."

When Severian is dispatched on an errand by the Pelerines, he hides the Claw of the Conciliator under one of their portable altars. When he returns it is to find that the camp has been attacked and dispersed in his absence. Cast adrift again he takes up with a rag-tag band of troopers. He is rescued from death on the battlefield by none other than the Autarch himself, from whom he learns what his fate, and that of Urth itself, is to be.

Unlike the participants in the story-telling contest, we are free to judge Wolfe's tales by their content as well as by the way they are told. His inventiveness never flags, and it's all served up in language that is intricate yet clear. He's the most visual of writers, presenting the reader with strange and exotic scenes and characters. These books form a rich reading experience, one that I've only been able to hint at here. I said in my review of the first two volumes in this series (which I still think of as one novel carved into four pieces) that these tales are masterfully presented and haunting. These final two books have, if anything, affirmed my opinion.

Copyright © 2002 A.L. Sirois

A.L. Sirois has been reading and writing science fiction since he was in single digits. He is now closer to triple digits than he cares to think about. His personal site is at

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