The Book of the New Sun
by Gene Wolf
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf is composed of four "books" that I have in two volumes. It is set on a far future Earth, with the sun dying but human kind still around. Much has changed and much forgotten, almost all history is lost or barely remembered.
In brief, we follow a young man called Severian, an apprentice torturer (the guild otherwise known as "The Seekers for Truth and Penitence"). Expelled from his guild for showing mercy, he is exiled and has to go on a journey to a far city, armed with an impressive sword and picking up a mysterious gem stone by accident on the way. We meet some odd characters who he joins or join him, and he battles some more bizarre creatures. The gem stone has some strange power and over the course of his travels he learns part of the secret to the world and its governing powers.
A number of times over the last few years I have come across people saying how great this novel was and so I added it to my reading list. The time was finally right to jump in. Or so I thought.
Well, I seriously struggled to get through the books and almost gave up on multiple occasions: after the first book, then after the second. I think I decided that, like having a "sunk cost" here, I might as well push through it. It's not a bad book, and not badly written, but just quite baffling in many ways. I found the (far future Earth) world interesting but hardly revealed or explained. The same with the characters, whose motivations were obscure to me mostly. Always expecting the pace to pick up and something to happen, it mostly didn't and things plodded forward, often slowly. When things did happen, they often seemed to happen as merely a plot device: people would appear, go away and then meet later. Often a bit too much coincidence. As each book ended, I felt generally unrewarded. On to the next?
Like I say, I did read all of them and the books improved for me after the bumpy start. Maybe it was actually the wrong time for me to read the novels; maybe I was expecting something quite different. When I read many other positive reviews now I see much talk of the books needing to be read more than once, to get the nuance and pick up Wolf's cleverly constructed, but slightly obscured, meaning. However, I think a book should stand up to a first reading. Even if the novels contain a lot of not-so-obvious clues to the events and history of the place, Wolf might have been a bit too clever for me.