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The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
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The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)

by Gene Wolfe

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Book of the New Sun (4), Solar Cycle (8)

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1,0211512,570 (4.16)1 / 31
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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
This is the fourth book in the series The Book of the New Sun. There’s still one more book, but this was the conclusion to the main story arc that our main character, Severian, has been telling us. This review is therefore more of a review of the first four books as a whole than it is of this fourth book in particular.

I’ve enjoyed this series quite a bit. It’s an interesting mix of genres. It was clear from early on that this was really science fiction, and that becomes increasingly apparent as the series progresses, but the setting feels more like a fantasy setting and the story-telling method makes it feel more like an epic fantasy story.

The story is a bit complicated. Maybe complicated is the wrong word, because it really isn’t difficult to follow or understand, but there are a lot of little bits and pieces that we’re introduced to separately. We have to weave some of those pieces together for ourselves to understand the bigger picture, and we have to be paying attention once the narrator finally weaves some of the other pieces together for us. I’ve seen several people say the series improves with re-reading, and I can definitely understand how that would be true. I felt like I grasped most of it, but I’m sure I missed more things than I realized and would understand other things more deeply if I ever read it again. This isn’t a series to pick up if you’re in the mood for a light read, but it’s a good one if you want something you can sink your teeth into.

Despite my above description, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a twisty series. On the one hand, the story ended very, very far from where I ever would have guessed based on its beginning. On the other hand, the foreshadowing is pretty blatant. There were surprises, but nothing shocking. Severian, our narrator, gives us small hints here and there, and he also flat-out tells us some things in advance. In other cases, he recounts conversations in which somebody gives him answers, but he somehow fails to grasp what he's told because it’s so contrary to what he believed to be true. So he ignores what he's told and continues to carry on as if his own beliefs were true. Then, later on in the narrative when he “discovers” the thing he had already been told and recounts it to us, he acts like we the reader should be as surprised as he was. Severian claims a few times that he’s not particularly intelligent, and I frequently agreed with him. :) Still, while he exasperated me a few times throughout the series, and occasionally did things I disliked very much, he also grew on me and I mostly enjoyed reading his story.

This book wrapped things up pretty well, although not in a neat bow for sure. Severian himself speculates about explanations for some of the things he never found definite answers for, and sometimes his speculations made me question things I had thought I knew the answers to. There’s also a pretty big “What happens next?” question at the end, as Severian’s life has recently taken a brand new twist and he has an upcoming task that sounds pretty interesting. I might have been a little exasperated if this had been the last book, so I look forward to reading the fifth book to hopefully find out where things go from here. ( )
1 vote YouKneeK | Sep 1, 2017 |
The Citadel of the Autarch ends the series with, as the readers expected from the very first book, Severian becoming Autarch. Along the way he resolves the plot with the Pelerines (though in a somewhat troubling way), experiences being a soldier in the war, meets the old Autarch, ties up loose threads with Vodalus and Agia, and encounters more weird aliens. There's a few hints of explanation for why the events of this four-book epic proceeded in such a seemingly random manner--the old Autarch appears to have been keeping tabs on Severian knowing he'd be his successor (though no explanation of how he was chosen was given), and the aliens gave some hints of partaking in some sort of Groundhog Day-style time manipulation (the details of which are exceedingly scarce). This didn't keep me from viewing the whole thing as more of a wild ride than a cohesive narrative, though. ( )
  Phrim | Apr 21, 2015 |
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

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.

I look forward to reading on in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle (there are two sequel series: The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun.) ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
Gene Wolfe’s deceptively long Book of the New Sun comes to a close with this, the final volume, The Citadel of the Autarch. (Actually, that’s not quite true – he apparently wrote an extra book in 1987 called The Urth of the New Sun, which I may or may not read in the future.)

This was a difficult series to review because it’s really just one long book split into four, and – like many promising stories whose ultimate value hinges on how well they turn out – I couldn’t really judge it until now. So this is going to be a review of both The Citadel of the Autarch and the Book of the New Sun as a whole, and spoilers will abound.

I originally heard about this series in 2011 when I was working in a bookstore and trying to get back into the fantasy genre. The Book of the New Sun and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were the two series which, above all others, were mentioned as the high point of fantasy fiction in the last fifty years. The only reason I chose to go with Martin first was that 2012 was clearly his year, with the TV series coming out and out store shifting more than 50 copies of A Game of Thrones every day. Given how thick that series is, I didn’t get around to the Book of the New Sun until last month.

It’s ostensibly fantasy, but is really science fiction; a good example of why these sections are often lumped together in bookstores. The protagonist, Severian, is a journeyman apprentice from the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, more commonly known as the guild of torturers. After breaking his vow, Severian is expelled from the guild and sent out to face the wonders and dangers of Wolfe’s rich fantasy world, which is actually our own planet far into the future, when the sun is slowly dying.

Wolfe excels at fantasy world-building – not just in the imaginative creation of the world itself, but the techniques he uses to create it. Unusually for a fantasy series, The Book of the New Sun is narrated in first person, and Severian’s point of view is used to great effect. He regularly interprets certain scientific processes as magical and casually skims over tantalising details because he considers them mundane. Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from parsing Severian’s story for details about his world, and trying to piece together what’s going on and what kind of a place he’s in.

The Citadel of the Autarch does and doesn’t lead to answers. This isn’t Lost, and it’s not like I really expected precise answers, given that so much of the book was written in mystic, arcane prose designed to hint at the truth rather than reveal it. The central conceit of the book – the awaited New Sun – is dealt with in a way that perfectly summarises Wolfe’s marriage of fantasy and science fiction, describing processes of such high, theoretical quantum physics that to a layman they are almost fantasy, and planting them in a world where the inhabitants do indeed consider them to be the stuff of religion, myth and prophecy:

“You know of the chasms of space, which some call the Black Pits, from which no speck of matter or gleam of light ever returns. But what you have not known until now is that these chasms have their counterparts in the White Fountains, from which matter and energy rejected from a higher universe flow in endless cataract into this one. If you pass – if our race is judged ready to reenter the wide seas of space – such a White Fountain will be created in the heart of our sun.”

The Book of the New Sun embraces, more than any other work I have seen, Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Remaining on the subject of things I enjoyed in The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian’s ascent to the throne – which is casually mentioned to be his fate early in the first book – always seemed unlikely given his station in life, but is handled perfectly believably, utilising fantasy/sci-fi elements that were a major part of the series from the very first chapter. (It also gives a clever twist to the royal pronoun “we.”)

The problem with the Book of the New Sun is that while Severian’s retrospective memoir narrative works wonders in establishing a great fantasy world, it fails at actually telling a good story. It can be overly dry and constantly digresses, and the plot-driven parts of the book suffer for it. The Citadel of the Autarch, in particular, has a clump of unforgivably tedious battle sequences at its centre which almost sent me to sleep. And The Book of the New Sun is, overall, a plot-driven story, which means that more often than not I was pushing myself through because I was fascinated by the world, rather than genuinely enjoying the book because I liked the story. (See also – China Mieville.) The Book of the New Sun is undoubtedly a series that would reward re-reading, but I doubt I’ll ever have the inclination to do so.

The series also feels far too constrained and dictated. Severian is a free agent with free will, and throughout the book he regularly informs to the reader of his goals and motives. Yet he feels like a puppet on a string, because he keeps randomly encountering important people and major events and recurring characters. It feels as though everything he does is pre-ordained. Which, as far as I can tell from the book’s conclusion, it may be – but then there’s the problem of deus ex machina, which the series is marinated in. Wolfe even has the cheek to have a minor character say:

“It refers to some supernatural force, personified and brought onto the stage in the last act in order that the play may end well. None but poor playwrights do it, they say, but those who say so forget that it is better to have a power lowered on a rope, and a play that ends well, than nothing, and a play that ends badly.”

The Book of the New Sun often feels more like conceptual literary fantasy/sci-fi than an actual story that one reads for enjoyment. I find it quite interesting that it’s considered to rank alongside A Song of Ice and Fire, because the two are apples and oranges. I definitely prefer Martin’s series, because it’s easier to read, more entertaining, and bucks enough cliches to elevate itself above schlock genre fiction. Wolfe’s series, on the other hand, pulls up just shy of the point where I’d call it pretentious, and I can easily see how it’s stuck in an uneasy niche – too literary for fantasy readers, and too fantasy for literary readers.

They’re not bad books. They aren’t the books I was expecting them to be, and I can’t say I truly enjoyed them, but they are bold and unique and worth at least checking out for fans of both fantasy and science fiction. I also suspect that, like certain other critically acclaimed books that I didn’t give great reviews to (Wolf Hall, True History of the Kelly Gang) I’ll find that they stick in my mind and I come to think much better of them than I do right now.

A final note, which didn’t fit elsewhere – Wolfe’s note-bearing epilogues at the end of each book are just plain strange. The epilogues – which run at the end of each of the four books, for only three or four pages – are in-universe frame story notes written from the point of view of a “scholar,” apparently of our own time, studying the Book of the New Sun as a “manuscript” and attempting to learn about Severian’s world. They go some way to explaining a few bits and piece, but I’m confused as to why Wolfe would insert them in the first place when he obviously trusted most readers to be smart enough and engaged enough to pick out the details themselves. Furthermore, if he was going to use this technique, it should have been employed more regularly, in footnotes and endnotes and chapter breaks all over the novels, ala Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Instead we have four epilogues, totalling about 10 pages, versus 1,212 pages of narrative. Why bother? Either put them in often or cut them entirely. ( )
  edgeworth | Mar 10, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gene Wolfeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Frick, JohanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maitz, DonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pennington, BruceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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At two o'clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen,
You will hear the feet of the Wind that is going to call the sun.
And the trees in the shadow rustle and the trees in the moonlight glisten,
And though it is deep, dark night, you feel that the night is done.
—Rudyard Kipling
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I had never seen war, or even talked of it at length with someone who had, but I was young and knew something of violence, and so believed the war would be no more than a new experience for me, as other things—the possession of authority in Thrax, say, or my escape from the House Absolute—had been new experiences.
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Alors que sa quête touche à sa fin, Sévérian se trouve pris au beau milieu des combats contre les rebelles asciens. Sévèrement blessé, il est contraint de se reposer et profite des récits narrés par ses compagnons d'infortune pour faire le point sur le chemin parcouru depuis son départ de la tour Matachine. Bientôt, la citadelle de l'Autarque sera en vue et nombre de secrets seront enfin dévoilés.
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