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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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.
The Citadel of the Autarch is a satisfying conclusion to Gene Wolfe???s The Book of the New Sun. (A fifth book, The Urth of the New Sun, is a coda to the original four books.) We???ve known all along that Severian the torturer would be the autarch by the end of his story, but his fascinating journey to the throne is what this saga is all about??? on the surface, at least. What it???s really about, for those who want to see it, is the juxtaposition of future and past, the nature of time and space, perception and reality, religion and science, and the Earth???s and humanity???s need for redemption. All of this is explored in the context of the strange characters, situations, and places that Severian meets on his way. The Book of the New Sun is not an easy read, but it???s what speculative fiction is all about ??? it???s brain-bending, it makes the reader consider and question, it stretches the intellect and opens the mind to new ideas and experiences. In The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe accomplishes all this and does it in a beautiful way. This is my measuring rod for excellent fantasy literature.
For readers who don???t want to be bothered by allegory and symbolism, or don???t want to risk scorching their synapses, there???s still much to admire in The Book of the New Sun, for though it wallows in weirdness, all of it is tied loosely together by Wolfe???s lovely language, detailed world-building, smart ideas, and astounding imagination.