Gollancz 50th: The Book of the New Sun

“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.”

I first read these words more than 25 years ago. I had encountered Gene Wolfe at the 1985 World Science Fiction Convention and, although I confess I hadn’t heard of him at the time (in my defence, I wasn’t even out of my teens and this was my first Worldcon), my determined strategy was to take advantage of so many of the great and good of SF being present in my home town to buy, get signed and read books by as many new authors as possible. It’s a method I heartily recommend to neophytes and experienced con-goers alike. My first reaction to that opening passage, in that callow, ohmygodI’vejustdiscoveredthebestwriterEVER kind of way, was . . . well, that I’d just discovered the best writer ever. Now, as a professional working in SF publishing, with many more Wolfes read and – I would hope – more developed and sophisticated tastes . . . I’m not entirely sure I was wrong. Certainly, he’s not an easy read, nor is he everyone’s cup of tea, but I would contend that anyone putting together a list of SF and Fantasy authors who represent the best the form can achieve and leaving Gene Wolfe out, needs to seriously reassess their definition of “best”.

Just look at what is contained in those 70 words. We learn that our narrator is looking back from some time in the future, that his name is Severian, that he is (or was, at the time of the story) a torturer’s apprentice and that this book is to be the story of his exile. We learn that the gate at which Severian and his companions stand is old and is barred against them; from the references to exile and the time being the aftermath of Severian’s swim we can infer that they are standing on the outside seeking a way in; probably back in, as it is reasonable to assume his companions are also apprentice torturers and the group has absconded for a swim, and the wisps of river fog give us a sense of the misty, tenebrous atmosphere that will pervade the novel (alright, it’s possible that I’m cheating here, having read the series a number of times, and I’m seeing this because of my hindsight rather than the author’s foreshadowing – but it’s still a lot of information for a 70-word opening passage).

The novel itself – and, indeed, the entire series – is a remarkable journey through a world both alien and familiar – the Earth under the fading light of a dying sun. The language Wolfe employs is wonderfully archaic, managing to convey both the far-future setting and the almost impossible weight of history pressing down on a world at the end of time. A rich and varied cast of supporting characters drift in and out of Severian’s life, bringing with them the full flavour of the different aspects of life on Urth. And Severian’s journey is at least as extraordinary as the setting in which it takes place. Encounters with aristocrats and criminals, myth and prophecy, texts within texts, and my favourite element: meetings with alien beings travelling in the opposite direction in time to Severian – a full quarter of a century before anyone had even heard of River Song.

The Book of the New Sun is an utterly extraordinary work and each individual volume contributes to its mastery. Collectively, they were shortlisted for the Nebula Award four times, the World Fantasy and BSFA Awards three times, and the Hugo and John W. Campbell Awards twice, picking up wins in all except the Hugo.

Of course, this is all statistics and dry description; the proof of any book is in the reading – and in my entirely unbiased capacity as an employee of the book’s publisher and self-confessed Gene Wolfe fan, who regards The Book of the New Sun as one of the genre’s crowning achievements, my advice is to read it as soon as possible. And then read it again immediately; it really is that good.

The locked and rusted gates stand closed, but there is a remarkable literary experience in store for those who care to breach them.


I’m Gollancz’s Digital Publisher. People ask me what that means and, upon comparing answers, find that I’ve told everyone something different. That’s because it’s the future and it’s changing all the time; at least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. When I’m not digitising thousands of classics for our fabulous SF Gateway project, I like to bore people rigid about SF & Fantasy, comics, cricket, football and Belgian beer. This can only be prevented by bringing me drinks.
  • Al R

    Agreed, it’s a masterful opening. Wolfe goes on to do so much in that first chapter, too – there’s a character with a ray gun, if I remember, and some kind of flying machine, so we know right away we’re not in your usual swords and sorcery universe.

    I still don’t think I’ve ever encountered the word “presentiment” anywhere else, though, other than when I jut googled it.

  • Darren Nash


    I see you your “presentiment”, Al, and raise you a “palagic argosy”!

  • Nev Park

    It’s *pelagic*! (Oh yeah—I’m from the quercine penetralia.)

    If I could read it again for the first time I’d have this database of saints at my elbow, to look up all the names. And a dictionary. It’s lovely as a mystery, but knowledge only adds to its excellence.

  • Darren Nash

    Gah! You’re right, of course! Now, I feel like a rght autochthon . . .

  • Darren Nash

    Or, indeed, “right”. Back to the typing lessons . . .

  • Al R

    Go and stand in the corner of Thrax, the City of Windowless Rooms, and think about what you’ve done.

  • Darren Nash

    All right. I’ll submit myself to Master Gurloes for correction . . .

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  • Pooper

    Will Gollancz also be publishing Volume 2? It would be good to buy this if the entire set is matched on the shelf

  • We do publish the second volume, it’s subtitled Sword and Citadel but is not available in the same cover style. This was a one-off celebration of 50 years of great SF publishing, so the ‘set’ is actually, the Top Ten books we published at the end of last year, rather than other books in the same series. I hope that makes sense – it did in my head!

  • Pooper

    Oh that’s a shame. Ah well I have already ordered the Top Ten version of Shadow and Claw… I suppose it doesn’t matter too much if the second volume is just a paperback

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