The Book of the New Sun: The Sword of the Lictor

Novel * Gene Wolf * Man, I Don’t Even Know Anymore * 1981


So far, these novels have been equal parts wonder, confusion, and frustration. At this point, I know I’m going to finish them. What I don’t know is if I’m actually enjoying them. After skimming the articles I wrote following the last two books, it occurs to me that when I talk about the Book of the New Sun, I spend most of my time trying to work out the details of what I just read. I don’t expect that to change. Further, these are the kind of books that require a second time through to fully understand what is happening, and boy I don’t think I have that in me. I also have no real desire to poke around the internet and figure it out that way, because that’s no fun and also the internet wasn’t a thing in 1981, when this was published. I guess if you’re a fan of the series you can read these and laugh at me for misunderstanding everything that’s happening while I muddle around and feel stupid. I mean, that’s something I would enjoy doing, probably. I’m not proud of that.

The last book, The Claw of the Conciliator, ended on a scene of chaos which I still don’t quite understand. Part of the reason is that by the end of these fucking things I lose some steam and am just trying to get on with my life already. The other part is that so far, all of these books have ended on a chaotic scene which is purposefully obscure to the reader. This third volume begins like the second, in which the ending of the previous book is very nearly ignored and we begin after a time-skip of indeterminate length. That’s frustrating, but it’s also just how these books work. I may not know what the hell is going on, but I’ve figured out the pattern at least.

Another pattern: each successive volume of this series undermines assumptions made in the previous installment. Sometimes this obfuscation occurs because Severian tends to skip certain details of the narrative, sometimes it happens because Wolfe as a writer muddies the water with meaningless details and borderline incomprehensible archaic diction. Last time out, one of the things Severian did that bugged me was having a brief boat-affair with Jolenta, a sexy actress who is also an ugly ancient witch (???) and always just seems kind of detached and bored. This was bothersome because the story would have us believe that Severian and Dorcas were an item, kind of maybe. Now in this third book, Severian makes an offhand mention that Jolenta and Dorcas were an item, and that Severian hooking up with Jolenta was kind of a revenge-fuck situation, but what-even-ever, who cares! None of this matters! All of this is just me as a reader trying to invent some kind of romantic subplot so that I have some kind of humanity to latch on to.

sword of the lictor2



So Dorcas is dead I guess. Not, like, she died and Severian is sad about it. I mean, Severian isn’t sad about anything ever from what I can see. Anyway, Dorcas is dead as in she’s a reanimated corpse. This is not a gross zombie situation, at least I hope it isn’t because while Severian has an intimate relationship with death I doubt he gets his jollies by plowing a cold field, if you get me. Early in Sword of the Lictor she figures this out, and is bummed about it. Dorcas has vague memories of a husband and child, but also has no way of knowing how much time has passed between her death and resurrection. She then makes a decision to leave Severian, which is honestly for the best considering how fucked up that guy is, and to find her lost past down in Nessus. Exeunt Dorcas, for now.

Meanwhile, Severian has a new job, which seems to be the administrator of justice for the fortress-city of Thrax. In typical Severian fashion, he fucks this up pretty much right away. Like he did with Thecla back in the day, he gets hung up on a girl he’s supposed to kill and lets her go. Well, this time the lady actually lives, but you get what I mean. This scene is also described in such a way that I was utterly confused by events until he explains to Dorcas a little later before absconding into the mountains. Like, all he seemed to do was chat some bored housewife up, fuck her, and now he’s running for his life apparently. Also there’s a flame monster. And then I’m thinking, well that husband sure works quickly, but then he finds Dorcas and explains and it’s like, oooh, I get it, that’s a typical Severian move.

While I have specifically avoided places which would explicitly explain the plot, the timeline, the character motivations, and all that other stuff which makes a novel a novel, I have skimmed a few non-spoilery reviews of these books. After my experience with these books so far, I’m very curious about the critical reception. For the most part, it seems overwhelmingly positive. However, here and there I’ve found sentiments that echo mine. Wolfe writes in such a way, with such a dense and layered style, that the first instinct of the reader is to assume that something is up. That the author is holding all the cards and knows secrets that, despite writing all these words, he is unwilling to give up. The very style of the prose and the sheer density of the material here is like catnip to people looking for literary meaning. The worry is that, despite appearances, there’s nothing underneath the layers of text, and subtext, and sub-subtext. Like a bad magician, once you get to the moment of truth, poof! It’s fucking nothing.

We shall see. After all, there’s one more book left. In the meantime, Severian has a few more adventures which will eventually lead him back, I imagine, to the House Absolute. On the run from the Thrax authorities who want to murder him for not murdering the lady, he escapes into the towering Andes Mountains. I think. With the advanced aged of the world, it’s difficult to make assumptions. There are details here and there which allude that the Earth is now tectonically dead, which means that either a vast amount of time has passed or something cataclysmic happened. The answer is probably a combination of the two, although if enough time has passed for the Earth to geologically die naturally, humans should have long since evolved, right? Or maybe our sentience prevents further mutations and natural evolution? I don’t know science. Anyway, it seems like this all takes place in South America.

In the mountains Severian finds shelter in a small hut where it seems Agia from the first novel is still all pissed off and trying to kill him. Unfortunately for her, an Alzabo shows up and interrupts her revenge-murder. If you recall, an Alzabo is a creature which has the super-creepy power of retaining the memories of the ingested. Like, it’ll eat your face and then run around speaking in your own voice to lure out your loved ones so that it can eat them too. The small hut was home to a rustic family, who all end up dying horribly. The Alzabo rolls up speaking in the eaten husband’s voice, and the kid (with the unlikely name of Severian) is all ‘daddy daddy!’ and the monster goes ‘I’ll eat your face and we’ll be together forever’ or at least until the Alzebo poops. I’m not really sure how this all works. The outcome of this encounter is that Agia runs away and everyone else dies except the two Severians. And the big Severian kind of lets the slaughter happen because he was pissed off this terrified housewife didn’t help him out in a fight.

Moving on from this, Severian goes back up into the mountains, which oh by the way are carved to look like huge dudes. Here he finds some fabulous technology because right, this is the distant future. Little Severian dies horribly, fried to a crisp by defensive lasers or something, and big Severian is ostensibly upset by this. Shortly after this, he meets a future-man who I guess has a spaceship and fancies himself Lord of Space and Time and the Whole of the Known Galaxy. He offers Severian mastership of Urth, so long as he pays fealty to him. Instead, Severian kills him. This whole scene is actually a lot cooler than I seem to be giving it credit for. And here’s why these books are such an enigma. As you can probably infer, they frustrate me with their murkiness. Yet Wolfe is capable of writing scenes of fantastic weirdness that just, for lack of a graceful literary term, feel fucking awesome.

Like the others, The Sword of the Lictor ends on a baffling scene of chaos that will almost certainly go unexplained in the next book. There are aliens, and a strange, primitive people that make their home on living islands in a vast lake, and another unlikely encounter with characters from the first novel. Baldanders and Dr. Talos are holed up in a big old castle on the shores of this lake. They seem to be exploiting the locals for their own mysterious ends. Aliens show up. Baldanders… is bad? The aliens peace out, the lake-natives raid the place, Baldanders is kerplunked in the lake and presumed dead even though, come on, he’ll be back. Also the mystical Claw of the Conciliator is broken, save for some weird little bit that Severian makes off with. Considering Severian’s quest has been to return this thing to whence it came, that’s a bit of a bummer. But really, who even knows.

That’s your subtitle for the last book. The Book of the New Sun: Who Even Knows.

Jump to the rest of the series: The Shadow of the Torturer; The Claw of the Conciliator; The Citadel of the Autarch

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7 Responses to The Book of the New Sun: The Sword of the Lictor

  1. apollos5600 says:

    This post has Spoilers, maybe, at least for those who have not yet read this book that was reviewed:

    You missed the Christ references (or just didn’t mention them) with Severian’s meeting with Typhon. Typhon itself, I’m guessing, is snake-related, perhaps a snake god of some kind. I’m too lazy to highlight it and do a google search. Severian is taken to the top of a mountain, like Christ is taken to the pinnacle of the Temple. Typhon then offers Severian the world, in the same way Satan offered Christ the whole world, provided that Christ worships Satan.

    You also might have missed the hint that Severian’s Claw has no power in and of itself. It’s just a religious artifact, maybe not even the Conciliator’s, even though Typhon seemed to recognize the amulet, or had some reason to believe that the Conciliator was still somehow alive and around.

    In other words, this volume is plainly suggesting that Severian is the ancient Conciliator, or is, somehow, his second coming. The power that Severian wields in the claw, therefore, is coming from him, and was coming from him all along.


  2. apollos5600 says:

    By the way, apparently there are 2 academic-style books that were published just interpreting The Book of the New Sun, and I’ve found entire websites dedicated to discussing WTF was going on in these books. Like you, it seems we both started reading in November or December, and I finished the second volume perhaps within the past week or so.

    There are a huge number of strange details, allusions, metaphors, alternative meanings spread throughout the book, but you might need some familiarity with the Occult, Christianity, and esoteric topics in general. Even a little short story about a chicken, which you will read in the next installment (I think), seemed to be making some complicated point. (I said “I think” because my version of the series is split into only two books.)


  3. apollos5600 says:

    One last spoiler for those who have not read the book and skipped the Discussion section of this view:

    Jolenta wasn’t an ancient witch, though I can see why you might think so if there was a gap of time in the reading between the first and second books. I read those two books as one single volume, so it stood out to me right away.

    Jolenta was the waitress that Dr. Talos convinced to become an actress for him. That means that between the time it took Severian to get the Avern, kill Agia’s brother, and finally reunite with Dr. Talos and Baldanders, Dr. Talos (or Baldanders) significantly modified not only Jolenta’s body but also mind. It is mentioned at one point by Severian that Talos was administering to Jolenta some kind of a medicine. There are also other hints, in that she is “bored” all the time, has difficulty walking and moving around in general. When Jolenta dies, Severian either directly calls her by her real name, or mentions that she was the waitress. The Witches also state that she was under a powerful “charm” designed to make her believe herself to be beautiful, when in fact she was mostly artificial. And this belief forces that same belief into others (yet another occult theme). Severian simply didn’t recognize her before that because of Talo’s extreme plastic surgery. This also means that when Talos and Baldanders abandoned Jolenta, they were abandoning her to her death, because she required the medicine in order to maintain her form. That’s why Baldanders being evil, and even horribly experimenting on human bodies, wasn’t much of a surprise when we discovered it. They had picked up a random waitress to begin with, dazzled this poor woman with the prospect of wealth, and then cast her off to her death.


    • apocalypedia says:

      First of all, thank you for taking the time to engage! These are the kind of books that I read and simply accept that I’m going to miss all kinds of things the first time through. This effect is compounded by the sad fact that I’m totally losing interest as the series progresses. I’m halfway through the final book now and it’s something of a chore. Which is disappointing! This probably means I’m not going to reread them, and these books definitely need that second pass. Also you are correct that these should be read in a single go. I read like six or seven books in between so when I come back things make even less sense than they did before.

      All that said, Wolfe isn’t exactly making it easy. Now that I’ve read your explanation of Jolenta I’m sitting here like “of course, I’m a dummy.” I think I even understood that she’s that random waitress from the first book. I just didn’t make that final connection because those characters just vanish for a while and in the meantime all kinds of crazy nonsense is popping off and it’s all rather exhausting. My main issue is that Severian kind of sucks. As I’m finishing the series, the ‘Severian as Conciliator’ thing is becoming fairly evident. The power was within you the whole time, Severian! Okay, that’s great, but as a character my feeling is Severian remains flat and detached, and that makes it difficult to form any kind of connection with him. A big part of that is Wolfe’s style, which is purposefully obscure to, I dunno, create a sense of wonder or something, but the side-effect is to create a tone of neutral indifference.

      Of course it’s possible that, like Severian, that tone of neutral indifference might be a power that’s coming from within me. Like, there’s no chance I’m reading a scholarly analysis of this series. I might bop through a few discussion threads or fan sites for funsies, but my sense of wonder about this world and this series is close to fluttering out. Which is a bummer. I’ll finish the final book in a few days and who knows, maybe some revelation is forthcoming that will inspire a closer reading of the material. I actually kind of hope this is the case. Regardless, thanks again for the helpful comments. Now I have to try and figure out what the hell is up with that chicken.


      • apollos5600 says:

        Severian appears to be suppressing his emotions throughout most of the book. Notice how detached he SEEMED to be after little Severian got zapped, then a little down the page he is casually talking about killing himself. First, saying how he would cut his throat if he managed to heal little Severian, since it would have meant that he could have saved Thecla, then, a little further down the page, his casual statement that he was considering tossing himself off the mountain. The same detached style is used throughout, but there is definitely something going on inside of him.

        Of course, Severian is indeed twisted and insane. We really can’t be sure how much of what is happening is actually real. He admits at one point, early in the first book, that he might have seen the face of Vodalus and of Thea despite the intense darkness “because I wanted to.” In other words, that entire episode, or at least aspects of it, might not have even been real. It might have been a fabrication of his own mind.

        Without giving away spoilers from the ending, I suspect Severian, throughout this whole series, has been shaping and changing his own reality throughout the book in some real, temporal way, both as a narrator (changing his own past?) and as he goes along with his own life (actively changing his own destiny). His imagination, his insanity, is having real world effects on the universe. This is an occult theme, hinted on heavily throughout the 4 books, where human will–or his will in particular– has some ability to change things, not just in healing people or raising the dead, but even in changing the course of events. Apparently there are contradictions throughout the book, according to people who have closely read it, beyond the most obvious things we’ve probably noticed. For example, descriptions changing (clothes that the Autarch is “always” seen wearing, minor details), facts outright being different, etc. I assumed it was just Wolfe forgetting what he wrote from one book to the last (LOL), but it might also be because reality is constantly being re-written by Severian.


      • apollos5600 says:

        Oh, and thanks for the website. I was googling around for what other people thought of The Book of the New Sun, and now I’ve found this wonderful blog I can use for picking up new books to check out :).


  4. apocalypedia says:

    All of this is crazy and makes my head hurt if I think about it too long. I’ve got like 100 pages left on the final book and I catch myself thinking that it’s real weird, but how is that any different than what’s come before? Ever since he just casually ate his dead girlfriend it’s difficult to really get behind anything Severian thinks or does. Anyway, thanks again for the comments since they make me feel slightly less insane for having read these. And I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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