NPR Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books is The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It is a tetralogy, comprising The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch telling of a distant future of deprivation and decadence in the shadow of a golden age long past, similar to that described in The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. No less an authority than Neil Gaiman has described The Book of the New Sun as "the best SF novel of the last century".
In broad terms, The Book of the New Sun is a Bildungsroman, following the progress of Severian, an apprentice torturer who would one day ascend to great heights, both figuratively and literally. His journey begins with a crisis of conscience in his role as a torturer. He grants mercy to a noblewoman condemned to a horrible death and faces exile for his failure to fulfil his duty. Forced out into a world he knows little about, where his kind are hated and feared, Severian must find his way armed only with a fine executioner's sword and the black cloak that is the badge of his office. Along the way, he encounters bizarre creatures, weird technologies from the ancient past and plenty of women. Yes, Severian chases a lot of women. One turns out to be a clone, another is resurrected from the dead, while the lone, seemingly normal one, spends most of the novels trying to kill him. Eventually on the run for failing a second time to fulfil his duty, Severian joins a mercenary company on the front lines in a war against the Ascians, sworn enemies of his homeland, leading up to the climactic events that reveal his ultimate destiny.
Reading The Book of the New Sun, I was struck by the way Wolfe's world-building, which is truly impressive, parallels the approach taken by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Wolfe would often step outside of the narrative, telling stories largely unrelated to the plot, typically through recitation from Severian's brown book, a treasured possession from his youth, or, in one case, from a storytelling competition among several suitors to win the hand of a woman. These serve a role, much like the many poetic interludes in The Lord of the Rings, to flesh out the world, giving it texture and depth. Without the considerable world-building in The Book of the New Sun, it could have been a significantly shorter work, and probably an easier read, but too much of what makes it truly special would have been lost.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Terminus Est, Severian's sword. Roughly translated as "this is the end", Terminus Est is a marvel. A hollow, flat-tipped greatsword with a reservoir of quicksilver inside, it is the obvious inspiration for the mercurial greatsword introduced to D&D 3.5. Though primarily an executioner's blade, rather than a fighting sword, Terminus Est gets Severian out of many life-threatening situations. It's eventual destruction is as heartbreaking as any of the deaths in the series.
A challenging read, but well-worth the commitment.
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