The Book of the New Sun: The Citadel of the Autarch

Novel * Gene Wolfe * Is Any of This, Like, Even Real, Man? * 1982


With every additional entry in this series, I feel less and less confident in my ability to grasp just what in the actual fuck is going on. That should probably be the baseline of reading a book, right? To be able to identify incredibly basic things like: Who are these people? Where do they live? What are they doing? And maybe, even: Why are they doing these things? Answering those questions in an artful way is pretty much how you tell a story. At first, The Book of the New Sun seemed to do these things as you’d expect. There is a boy named Severian. He lives in a massive, ancient city named Nessus. He’s a torturer. Eventually he gets kicked out of his home for being nice to a lady (by which I mean he allows her to kill herself rather than continue to torture her). From here he is to travel north and seek his fortune as a traveling executioner (it’s more complicated than that, but we’re talking basics here). His journey is interrupted by weird shit almost immediately, however, and that’s what injects uncertainty into the narrative. This uncertainty continues to ramp up with every page, and by the end of the cycle I barely understand what I’ve just read.

So here’s some pro-tips for folks who are deciding whether or not this series is for you. First of all, maybe don’t skip to an article about the last book in the series. That said, I don’t think it’s possible to actually spoil anything about these books. Anything I’d say about the ending would just be inscrutable to anyone unfamiliar with not only the story, but Wolfe’s delivery of the story. The other tips are pretty straightforward. Read slowly and pay attention. I tend to blast through novels as quickly as possible and sometimes I miss subtleties. Everything in The Book of the New Sun is a subtlety. Try and read them all together. Again, I did not do this, often reading four or five (or more) books in between entries. By the end of each book I felt like I was almost catching on to Wolfe’s rhythms and narrative tricks, and if I had stuck with it I think the following volumes would have been easier to unravel. Instead I’d return to this murky, fascinating world just as confused as I was when I started. Finally, these books probably need to be read more than once to really grasp what’s happening. I read the first novel twice (the first time a couple of years ago, before I wrote about everything I read) and the second time through it made a bit more sense. I’m sure a third time through would be even more enlightening.

This is all to say that if you intend to read The Book of the New Sun, you best bring your fucking A-game as a reader. I understand if you look at the cover art of these things and think to yourself: “Oh, heh, this looks like some pulpy-ass sci-fi/fantasy nonsense” with the intention of enjoying some light summer reading. This is not that. You have to work. Wolfe isn’t trying to make your life easier, he doesn’t care if you like Severian or not, he doesn’t care if you understand when and where this even takes place. The author is obfuscating the narrative to himself, which barely makes sense but that’s what these books are all about. Layers upon layers of obfuscation. Which is fine, because it allows me to use the world “obfuscate” a lot, which I enjoy. Other than that, boy, this was actually exhausting. I’m glad I read them, but I don’t know if I will ever try and read them again. I don’t even know if I can in good conscience recommend them. Yet now that I’ve finished The Citadel of the Autarch, I’m going to try and unravel what I just read. I have assuredly missed things. Like, most of the things. Therefore the following section is going to be more trying to explain to myself what happened, and less identifying and discussing themes. It turns out you have to be able to understand the characters and plot before making grand assumptions of authorial intent.

citadel autarch2

This weird-ass depiction of The Citadel of the Autarch pretty much encapsulates the feel of the novel. It looks rad, is compelling and strange, and makes no damn sense at all.


From the very beginning of the series, it has been clear that Severian is writing from a future point of view. Specifically, we know very early on that he is going to become the Autarch, which is like the king/dictator/emperor of the Commonwealth. This kind of narrative framing is not uncommon, but I’ve never been a huge fan, as I feel like it can rob a story of its immediacy. However, The Book of the New Sun ain’t about that. There are action set pieces and moments of dark despair and tense moments fraught with uncertainty, but underlying all of that is the knowledge that Severian, at least, will end up running the place. His life is not in danger. And you know, if it was, whatever. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Severian kind of sucks, and nothing that happens in this final volume has changed that.

Okay, I’m going to try and walk through the plot as I experienced it here. From the beginning Severian has wandered the land with two constant companions: His sword, Terminus Est and the relic known as the Claw of the Conciliator. Terminus Est was real good at lopping heads off and the Claw seemed to contain the power to heal and at times straight up raise the dead. At the end of the previous book, the sword was destroyed and the Claw was shattered but still vital. Oh, but get this you guys, the power of the Conciliator has been inside Severian all along. Because Severian is the Conciliator? That’s less clear. Anyway, Severian is once again in desperate straits, wandering around a fresh battlefield trying not to dehydrate and/or starve to death. He eventually catches up to the war we’ve been hearing about for three books and resurrects yet another poor bastard with his inherent Claw power. These two stumble into a camp for the wounded where people either die or are rehabilitated. Severian kind of does neither.

While in this camp, Severian listens to stories. They’re probably important, I don’t know. One of them is about a rooster who has a hubris, another is about fratricide over a lady, there was another one I forget. Look, like I said, if you’re here hoping I’m going to elucidate something for you, you’re going to be disappointed. After storytime, Severian decides he would like to try a war out. The combatants are the forces of the Commonwealth, who are ostensibly led by the Autarch. The enemies are a civilization called Ascia, of which Severian knows nothing. Eventually we meet a citizen of Ascia, and it turns out they’re fucking weird too. Like, so weird. Fascinatingly weird, but what in these books isn’t? Now the Ascians seem to operate like some kind of individuated Borg. Their minds are utterly assimilated, and they are only able to speak in pamphlet form. By that I mean they speak in formal paragraphs of propaganda, as if their only education is in the form of social indoctrination. Their entire language seems to be comprised of bullet points from some kind of mysterious manifesto. You can understand the words they use, but there is literally no context which makes them coherent. Of course one of the Ascians tells a story too, which other characters “translate,” but come on now.

citadel autarch3

I may be wrong, but I think fantasy art probably peaked in the ’80s.

Bleep blop bloop, some other things happen. Look, I’ll skip to the important bit. Eventually Severian meets the Autarch, a thing which has been destined to happen the entire time. Severian has to succeed him at some point, right? Now, if you recall, during his adventures Severian participated in a ceremony where he ate his dead girlfriend which was spiked with a drug allowing her consciousness to reside in his mind. As the series has progressed, Thecla’s personality has become a part of Severian. He’s literally two people in one body. So that’s weird, but the Autarch has over a thousand. It turns out that this is a prerequisite of being in charge. Now the Autarch is on his deathbed and bequeaths control of the Commonwealth over to this nutbar young torturer. So Severian kills the Autarch while freebasing his brain juice (I have no idea what this process actually looks like) and now Severian has all the Autarch’s personalities within him.

In the end Severian returns to his home in Nessus, and returns to the Citadel where he grew up. Oh, first he catches up with poor, dead Dorcas and chooses not to speak with her. Okay. Anyway, he goes home then some apparently important things happen which serve to leave me confused, just like every other book in the series. There are aliens who might actually be humans who have left Earth to colonize the stars and are now differentiated from the parent species enough to be beyond our reckoning. Severian takes up the responsibilities of the Autarch – because he has assimilated all of the previous Autarchs – but he’s also the Conciliator maybe but we don’t know for sure. There’s a test? If there is he hasn’t taken it yet or maybe he did and created some kind of temporal time wave that sent this document of the future millions of years into the past – which is where live – and straight into Gene Wolfe’s brain and that’s what this whole “New Sun” thing is.

Nailed it.

I’m really trying not to be overly flip about all of this, and am apparently failing, because the world Wolfe has created here really is fascinating. I totally understand that these books have serious fans who really, really get into it. There’s a ton to uncover and disseminate here, mysteries to unravel and theories to argue over. I’m way into the idea of a late, late, late stage version of humanity still around to witness the very death of the sun. It’s a little unnerving that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, but whatever, it’s a cool thing to imagine. Like of course a society staring down the gun of assured final destruction would get super weird and invent a new religion based on a dream of reversing the heat death of the universe. However – and I’m clearly in the minority of readers here, I think – there’s just not enough to really hold on to which would really ignite that drive to discover more about the world. I need a foothold in this world, a viewpoint I care about to allow me to ease into the setting a little bit. As is, Severian is slippery and quite possible insane, which is a difficult foothold to try and understand such an alien society. In the end, I’m glad I forced myself to finish these. I just wish I liked them more

Jump to the rest of the series: The Shadow of the Torturer; The Claw of the Conciliator; The Sword of the Lictor

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4 Responses to The Book of the New Sun: The Citadel of the Autarch

  1. apollos5600 says:


    I think the biggest flaw of the book, or maybe its biggest asset, is that it requires a great deal of background knowledge in religion and the esoteric in general to really understand.

    For example, one must know a great deal of occult theory to understand all the references to “belief” shaping reality. That is how magic is supposed to work, especially in the “Chaos Magick” school of thought that would have been pretty big during the late 70s and into the 80s. According to this particular group of occultists, magic rituals are a form of brainwashing. If you can convince your unconscious into believing you have performed an act of magic, your unconscious–which is somehow connected to the universe–will actually alter reality for you.

    The symbol of the Black Sun, which is another name for the Conciliator as the book mentions, is also an occult symbol that has associations with the Nazi party, though it is not exclusive to the Nazi occultists. The Black Sun, in the context of the book, may represent Saturn and delusion. Saturn is the planet that creates what we view as reality and anchors you to it. Saturn is repressive, associated with Satan (the Tarot card for Capricorns is, in fact, the Satanic tarot card), and with chains, ambition, cruelty, and many other negative things (but Saturn isn’t all bad–I’m only thinking on the dark side of Saturn that is likely relevant). Some New Age folks consider Saturn to be a negative force, because it keeps you from seeing reality as it truly is. The material world is a delusion that keeps you from seeing the true spiritual world.

    What’s interesting about this is that it is all implying that Severian is, in fact, altering the shape of reality to suit his interests through the power of his unconscious thoughts. He saves people from death unconsciously. Like Saturn he creates reality and anchors himself and others to it. He also obfuscates, just like Saturn, keeping you from seeing the world as it truly is. He might, in fact, be the ultimate bad guy in the entire novel.

    In religious history, the name Severian belongs to a notoriously hateful and evil Bishop, a rival of Saint Chrysostom. Bishop Severian might have made a great torturer, and maybe he was a torturer. The name Thecla, on the other hand, belongs to Saint Thecla, a saint that was not even considered real even in ancient times in most of the Catholic Church (though she was still venerated anyway by various churches). Saint Thecla was supposedly the close companion of the Apostle Paul according to the book “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” (Tertullian called it a forgery.) Severian’s Thecla (from our book), with her great height and pale white skin, resembles the type of perfect human being you might see depicted in statue form in some church somewhere–but like the historical Thecla, our fictional Thecla is a type of fraud. She is no saint. In fact, she is actually rather common and probably has a vicious streak. But both Theclas are venerated. I think the connection between the two is deliberate.

    So we have the names of an evil Bishop tied to a fake saint, and we also have the association that Thecla has with the Apostle Paul, who you might regard as one of the founding fathers of Christianity.

    Severian, in our book, actually goes on a very Paulian journey. He travels the world, farther than most people ever dream of, performing miracles, just like the Biblical Apostle. Severian also has direct connections with the Biblical Christ. The most obvious being the incident with Typhon (associate with snakes– or the devil). If you recall, Christ is carried up by Satan miraculously and instantaneously to the highest point of the temple, surveying the whole world. Satan promises Christ to give him control of the whole world, provided that Christ worship Satan. The same thing happens to Severian, except Severian actually KILLS our metaphorical devil. And like Christ, Severian is supposed to save the world in the end.

    I think what Wolfe is telling us, with all these different connections, is that the Book of the New Sun is a fraudulent religious text created by Severian the Autarch. It’s propaganda created by Severian. Recall that Severian is supposed to undergo the test, but that the aliens/humans/whatever have told him that he can’t go on the test until he has sorted out the war situation. This is an important point, because the war has been going on for hundreds if not thousands of years, and all the Autarchs that came before him have been unable to totally end the war. That’s very convenient if you, like an ancient Caesar, have decided to declare yourself a deity but need a plausible excuse for why you don’t immediately deliver salvation.

    Anyway, as you can see from all this, you need to know a great deal of obscure facts to catch these connections. It was very enjoyable for me because I’ve been studying religion for about a decade, including the occult and all manner of high weirdness besides. Most normal people, I imagine, wouldn’t catch these things.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. apollos5600 says:

    Oh, and on the Apostle Paul = Severian subject, I forgot to mention that Paul, of course, also goes for a type of “test.” The Book of Acts concludes with the Apostle being sent by boat to stand in judgment before the emperor. Severian will ride a space ship to undergo a test and receive judgment from the aliens/space-humans.


  3. apocalypedia says:

    That’s all super cool. And impressive. And all things I know very little about! It’s easy to see that people with that level of interest in religion and the occult and whatnot would be super into these books. However, as you admit, most people who will read this book will not have this background knowledge. It’s up to the author to craft a novel to appeal to those without that specific information. While those connections help elucidate the narrative and Severian’s motives, they shouldn’t be necessary for a basic understanding of the story. I’m currently re-reading Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley, which features a bunch of characters based on real-life people from the London Modernist scene in the ’20’s. I happen to know a lot about that, so there’s an extra level of enjoyment to be had picking up on those allusions. However, having a background in Modernism isn’t a prerequisite to understanding what Huxley’s doing with the book. Wolfe — for me at least — obscures his own story to the point of frustration.

    All that said, I really appreciate you taking the time to explain some of the more obscure references Wolfe is making. I’m not sure if it makes me want to re-read the series ever again, but now I feel like I have to make an effort to learn more about religious history, texts, and their occult counterparts. Especially considering an upcoming post about an Umberto Eco book which really gets into these themes and has likewise left me feeling ignorant about the whole situation. There are too many books in the world.


    • apollos5600 says:

      I think the series is designed to appeal to a certain class of young geek that enjoys obscurity, as well as sex and violence. You said it wasn’t “pulpy,” but I couldn’t help but to compare the character Severian to Conan the Barbarian or Doc Savage. You have the violence, you have the sexism, you have Severian getting it on with the babes. It’s just that you have all this other high strangeness going on that you don’t feel it’s just another episode of Conan raiding this or that castle and getting this or that woman.


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