Mark's Reviews > Sword and Citadel

Sword and Citadel by Gene Wolfe
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's review
Feb 28, 12

bookshelves: sciencefiction
Recommended for: EVERYONE
Read from September 06 to November 15, 2011

Sheesh! I originally wrote a review for Gene Wolfe's "Sword and Citadel". It was brilliant, pulitzer-prize-winning prose. However, the computer I was using while writing it threw a blue screen of death at me right after I finished it. A familiar tale, I'm sure. It's the modern version of "the dog ate my homework". Sometimes, though, the dog really does eat your homework. What do you say then? Tell the truth or make up a more plausible lie?

The Plot

Severian is a member of the torturer's guild. He's narrating the "Book of the New Sun" from his memory, which is eidectic. The series tells how he is thrown out of the torturer's guild, travels the world, and then ends up being the autarch of the commonwealth. The action of the book takes place in the far flung future, where the sun is dying and the earth has been depleted of its resources. Ancient technology capable of spanning the stars is sitting around like so much junk, and strange creatures, presumably imported to earth from the stars, run amok in the wilderness. The commonwealth, of which Severian is a citizen, is at war with the Ascians, a totalitarian society reminiscent of the one described in George Orwell's 1984.

The Good

It seems that every word, every letter written in the pages of the "Book of the New Sun" was deliberately put there to add layers of meaning and symbolism and self-reference to the story as well as to advance the plot, of which there is plenty.

Most fantasy authors seem to use neologisms, or made-up words, to fabricate their worlds. Wolfe eschews "made up" words in favor of archaic or obscure words. For example, he uses the word "claviger" to describe a prison guard. If you look up "claviger" in a dictionary, you'll see that it is "one who carries the keys of any place" or "one who carries a club; a club bearer". Either would be applicable to a prison guard.

The names of people have meaning also, The names seem to be unique, made up names. However, if you do a search on the character's names, you'll see that these characters are named after historical or mythological people...and that the historical or mythological people these characters are named after have some similarity to their namesakes. For example, Dorcas is a female who, in Acts 9:39, is raised from the dead by the Apostle Peter. Dorcas, in the Book of the New Sun, is a woman who is raised from the dead by Severian.

The plot also does funny things with the concept of time. When it's all said and done, the plot seems to fold in upon itself in strange, interesting, and wonderful ways.

The Author also uses stories to flesh out the plot. You can tell a lot about a society by its stories, and this future society is no exception. There's a play within the story that seems to relate the biblical story of creation (with some changes). There's also a book that Severian keeps reading that contains stories that seem to have some kind of mystifying morality to them and perhaps are re-imaginings of ancient Greek, Roman, and Norse myths. Finally, there's a contest where a woman professes that she'll marry the man who tells the best story, and it includes a story by an Ascian, who has an odd but wonderful way of talking, so that she has to translate the story for the rest of the group. In my opinion, the story within a story is wonderful when done correctly, and it is definitely done correctly here.

The Not-So-Good

Some of the plot consists of long, drawn out passages of Severian traveling, punctuated by action. I felt the travelogue could have used some trimming. However, I do think there's a reason for this seemingly excessive plot. Although, it's not apparent to me.

Severian has a knack for encountering events and people that are odd, to say the least. He seems to shrug off these events as just things that happen. He doesn't really ask any of the questions we would want asked in that same situation. However, this could just be strong characterization on Wolfe's part. I mean, Severian is narrating the story, and what may seem strange to us is commonplace to him.

This is a dense book. It's not an easy read. Don't expect to blow through this on your beach vacation and still be able to figure out what's going on. It lends itself to more than one reading and many people have told me that they have gotten a lot out of a second or even third read of the Book of the New Sun. I don't know if I can really commit myself that fully to this book...or to any book for that matter.


I plan on reading the "coda" to the New Sun series; Urth of the New Sun. However, I think I need some brain candy after this series. It was not an easy read but it was a good read.

The Book of the New Sun is a novel that transcends genre fiction and rips through the barriers into the arena of pure literary genius. This is literature, not sci-fi. This is something that can only be read actively and can, and has been, studied by others. You could probably write your doctoral thesis on this book if you can convince your advisor that it's not just another sci-fi book. It's a good read. Go forth and read it!

Incomplete List of Obscure/Archaic words found in Sword and Citadel:

autochthons -- The indigenous people of a place.
Yesod -- from kabbalah. The sephirah of Yesod translates spiritual concepts into actions that unite us with God.
anpiels -- from kabbalah. Anpiel is one of the angels charged by rabbis with the government of birds, for every known species was put under the protection of one or more angels.
sannyasins -- Hindu. a type of monk. In this phase of life, the person develops vairāgya, or a state of dispassion and detachment from material life. He renounces all worldly thoughts and desires, and spends the rest of his life in spiritual contemplation.
cenobites -- priests. monks.
acaryas -- A hindu religious teacher.
aquastors -- Greek. A being or entity formed by the power of concentrated thought.
Ver-thandi (or verthandi) -- The Present. One of the old norse norns; three women, past, present and future who decide the fate of all.
Araton -- The olympian spirit of Saturn. In the novel, this term relates to the planet itself.
Bethor -- The olympian spirit of Jupiter. In the novel, this term relates to the planet itself.
Phaley -- The olympian spirit of the sun. In the novel, this term relates to the sun itself.
platybelodons -- An elephant-like creature from pre-history; now extinct.
uintathers -- A rhinocerous-like creature from pre-history; now extinct.
cerbotanas -- A blowgun.
fulgurant -- Flashing like lightning; dazzlingly bright.
delator -- Latin/Roman term for someone who accuses someone else in a court of law.
atelier -- French word for the workshop of an artist.
evzones -- Greek term for light infantry who fought on mountainous terrain.
orpiment -- A type of sulphur containing mineral. A favorite of alchemists, used in trade in the ancient Roman empire, and used medicinally by the Chinese.
Algedonic -- characterized by or relating to pain especially as associated with pleasure.
argosy -- An archaic term for a flotilla.
pelagic -- Of, relating to, or living in open oceans or seas rather than waters adjacent to land or inland waters.
orphicleide -- A keyed brass instrument of the bugle family with a baritone range that was the structural precursor of the bass saxophone and was replaced by the tuba in orchestras.
onyger -- a donkey-like animal.
graisle -- a type of horn used in battle.
peltasts -- was a type of light infantry in Ancient Greece who often served as skirmishers.
contus -- Roman word for a greek weapon that was a type of long wooden cavalry lance used by Iranian, especially Achaemenid successors' cavalry, most notably cataphracts. It was also used by the Germanic warriors of the south as a pike.
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