I am utterly engrossed by the new book I’m reading, by which I mean, I sat down to read at seven and looked up, startled, a little while ago when it turned ten. The book is The Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first book of The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. I picked it up in Powell’s the other day on the recommendation of my friend Bastique, and I am very glad I did.
Every review and article I can find about Wolfe talks about how he’s underappreciated;* which I think must be true, because though I’ve never even heard of him (no fault of his; he won a World Fantasy award) these books are extraordinary. It is one of the most subtle sets of world-building I’ve ever encountered, dense, not absorbing exactly, the way lesser stories are — I haven’t totally lost myself in the world — but I am puzzled, intrigued, startled, disturbed. I’m not quite midway through the first book (it’s a tetralogy) but so far it’s been flawless and utterly original.
The closest styling I think I’ve ever encountered to this is in Borges, in the kind of matter-of-fact dream-fugue that one is dropped into. Great writers don’t explain themselves, and what I am enjoying the most so far is the play with names and terms, a collection of words so dense that someone once felt moved to publish a lexicon of terms in the book.** It’s hard reading — I wouldn’t bring it to the beach — but I like books that give me a run for my money, that encourage close inspection and re-reading and don’t give up their secrets so lightly.*** For all that, it’s still visceral; I knew I was reading a careful writer when he took the time to describe the smells of a place, along with the sounds.**** I look forward to seeing how it turns out — or doesn’t; just about everyone says you have to read it twice or more to get anywhere.
(Incidentally, Wikipedia tells me this is in the “dying earth” genre of SF, which isn’t one I have ever read much in, but there is a lovely little article on the topic for one’s elucidation. In general, I find this whole scenario more compelling than any amount of apocalysm.)
* One reviewer writes “The Book of the New Sun — indeed, Wolfe’s writing in general — divides opinion sharply; it is rare to find someone who has read Wolfe who remains ambivalent to him, but lavish praise and fierce antipathy are commonplace.”here
** Some reviewers call this “clunky” and “pompous”. I suppose it depends on one’s taste in such matters. I like wordplay.
*** Another writer says “Coming to understand The Book of the New Sun is like learning the rules of a game.” here
**** Note that if you are very squeamish — as I am, though I can tolerate a fair bit — this may not be the book for you, as the main character is, indeed, a torturer by trade; though nothing is terribly graphic, the man’s writing is evocative.