The Citadel of the Autarch brings The Book of the New Sun to its harrowing conclusion, as Severian clashes in a final reckoning with the dread Autarch, fulfilling an ancient prophecy that will alter forever the realm known as Urth.
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So with this book, I have finally finished Gene Wolfe's tetralogy 'The Book of the New Sun'. While I don't think it quite measures up to Tolkien's 'the Lord of the Rings' or Dan Simmons 'Hyperion Cantos', and while I'm not a big fan of science fantasy (mainly due to my huge bias against fantasy), I was still kinda amazed at the sheer amount of what Wolfe pulled off with this novel. He played with the form, with the genre, with almost everything he began with. He explored time, love, relationships, pain and power. For me, 'the Sword of the Lictor' (book 3) almost discouraged me from continuing, but 'the Citadel of the Autarch' (book 4) pulled it all together.
- Darwin8u "I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - Salinger ^(;,;)^"
The strange trip concludes
This is the last part of the Book of the New Sun tetralogy, which is acclaimed as one of the most intelligent, imaginative, beautifully-written works in fantasy. And, certainly, it is. Wolfe's richly rendered distant future setting of Urth is like nothing else out there and the novels thrum with wonder, gorgeous imagery, and philosophical contemplation. There are interesting characters, strange beings, and fantastic places. There are moments of terror, humor, awe, and sadness. There are multiple layers and puzzles whose illumination reaches from the final chapters back to small moments in Shadow of the Torturer.
The tetralogy is also known as one of the most oblique, self-referential, meandering, WTF works in the genre, and that’s certainly true as well. Revelations about the mutability of time and being cast things that happened in previous books in a new light, which isn’t surprising given that Severian’s interpretation of events never seemed totally reliable. At the end, it *appears* that Wolfe has left some significant questions unanswered, but Severian insists that everything we need to know is in the text he’s written so far. People on the internet (including one guy who apparently did his thesis on these books) have said that rereading the cycle provides more insight, that passages that didn’t seem particularly important the first time take on new significance. With a lot still fresh in my memory, that seems credible enough -- maybe in a few years, I’ll see what emerges for me from a second pass.
Yet, not fully getting a work doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Taken on a scene-by-scene level, Citadel is as imaginative, thought-provoking, and moving as the rest of the Cycle. Severian at last finds himself at the front of the war with the Ascians, which was a vague background detail in the previous three books. The nightmarishly fascinating engagements with massive formations of mind-warped enemy troops, who speak in stock phrases reminiscent of Orwell’s newspeak, are a high point of Wolfe’s already impressive imagination and storytelling. I also enjoyed his resurrection of the soldier Miles, which proceeds in a somewhat comical way, and the storytelling competition between patients in a camp hospital, which seems to be sly meta-commentary from Wolfe on what the purpose of stories really is (an Ascian even has an entry).
And Wolfe does answer a number of questions directly. We learn who the autarch really is, and how Severian ends up becoming the autarch himself. Mysteries concerning Dorcas, Thecla, the goals of the aliens, and apparitions that had appeared to Severian get resolved, or at least illuminated enough for readers to draw their own conclusions.
If you search the internet, it becomes apparent that intelligent people hold widely varying opinions on Wolfe’s masterwork. Make no mistake, it is difficult and dense compared to most SF and fantasy, with multiple layers and allusions contained in its dreamlike world. Yet, if you feel up for the challenge, this is a work that pushes the envelope of what speculative fiction can be. I strongly recommend treating all four as one large book and taking them on in a single pass. Finally, I loved the audiobook treatment -- the cool, attentive reading of Jonathan Davis, a talent in his own right, was perfect for Wolfe’s precise, crafted prose.