the Little Red Reviewer

Discussing Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor – Book of the New Sun #3

Posted on: November 25, 2017

Out of context, this printing of The Sword of the Lictor looks somewhat awful.  The cover art is embarrassingly terrible, and the font size of the print is just small enough that it was hard for me to read.  If I saw this paperback at a bookstore, and had no idea who Gene Wolfe was, I’d be like “dude. What the fuck.”  Here, let me give you a closer up picture:



The terrible cover art and the too small print sums up my complaints.  And now that I have that out of the way, I can get to what these Book of the New Sun posts have become – new words, questions and guesses, notes I wrote down while reading, stacks of hella awesomeness, and this far into the series there are unavoidable spoilers #SorryNotSorry.


Just joining, and have no idea what I’m talking about?  You can read my previous entries about the first two books of the Book of the New Sun blog entries here:

A Hundred Pages Into Shadow and Claw  – Just starting the first book, The Shadow of the Torturer

Thoughts and Questions on Shadow of the Torturer – Finishing The Shadow of the Torturer

A Little Further into The Book of the New Sun – Finishing the Claw of the Conciliator


And if you’d prefer a slower pace and much better thought out analysis, head over to the Alzabo Soup podcast, where they are doing a few chapters a week.


And if you’ve already read this series a bunch of times? No spoilers in the comments please.


For some reason, I didn’t start taking notes until I was halfway through the book. These books are so dense, with little gems hidden on every page, that without any notes of the first half, I feel like I’ve lost a part of my memory.


Not too many new words, or at least not many that I wrote down:


Estafette         noyade            atlantes        oneiric


I found it funny that Severian keeps inflating his title. Maybe this is distance from his guild, maybe he’s just trying to scare people into respecting him, maybe it’s blind ego. When we first met him, he’d usually introduce himself as “I am but a journeyman”.  He never rises to master, but in this book, sometimes he introduces himself as Master Severian. In one scene, he even introduces himself as Grand Master Severian. Maybe he’s trying to be confident, but he just comes off as egotistical.

Early in the book, Dorcas leaves Severian, she’s unexcited about her life as The Torturer’s Woman, and she wants to try to discover her own past. I like how the people Severian interacts with have their own lives and goals outside of the story. Dorcas, Agia, Jonas, even Dr. Talos and Baldanders, they are each the protagonist of their own story (ok, maybe Dr. Talos isn’t), their lives would continue even if Severian wasn’t around to tell their stories.  After Dorcas leaves, Severian goes on the run and finds himself in the mountains.  Much of the novel is his journey through the mountains, surviving attacks from fearsome creatures, saving a little boy, finding the weirdest city and another crazy old man (more on that later), and playing around with the powers of the Claw, because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.


Severian is remembering a conversation he’d had with Thecla (funny how the longer these books go on, the more mature their relationship becomes), they are talking about if God is dying / has died, and how someone would know.


“ . . . He dies, and his nurses look at the dial  to note the time. Late they find it stopped, and the time is the same.”


I told her “You’re saying that it stops before the owner; so if the universe if running down now, that does not mean that the Increate is dead – only that he never existed.”


“But he is ill. Look around you. See this place, and the towers above you. Do you know, Severian, that you never have?”


Gene Wolfe does this thing with dialog, where the context is gloriously ambiguous. If you were teaching a child good grammar, you’d tell the child to specify who they are talking about and give more context.  It’s the very last sentence in above quote – “Do you know Severian, that you never have?”.  To what exactly, is Thecla referring to? That Severian has never looked around to the towers and seen them for what they are/might be?  That she is answering his previous comment, and telling him that he has never existed?   I can’t get this conversation out of my mind.


Really, anything and everything about towers that are mentioned in these books, I can not get out of my mind.   Later, when Severian and little Severian (interesting, that the little boy has a sister named Severa!)  observe the city they find:


“That again reminded me of the Citadel, where structures never meant to brave the stars are mingled with the towers”


Never meant? Does that imply there were structures at the Citadel that were meant to brave the stars? Is the Citadel a landed or crashed spaceship? As a child, did Severian take all of that for granted and so it didn’t occur to him to tell his readers about it (the way we take combustion engines and alarm clocks for granted!) or did he know exactly what everything was for, and choose not to tell us, so that we’d see only what he wanted us to see*?  I could go around in circles with this probably forever.


More fun with language is this gem of a sentence on page 204:


“We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last”


When this book got translated into other languages, I bet that sentence frustrated the heck out of the translators!


I glossed over Little Severian, but he’s in the story for such a short period of time that he seems to serve no purpose other than for Severian to face a alzabo, and for him to realize that there are other people who have the same first name as him. I didn’t much care about Little Severian.


Some really crazy shit start to go down when Severian gets to this city of metal towers. The Towers are like metal men, with eyes that track things in the sky (satellite dishes? silos?), and he uses the Claw on a corpse found in what might be a temple.  The Corpse guy has two heads, and wakes up. Yes, Typhon has two heads, and the head he wasn’t born with is the one that talks. At this point I began to wonder how much Severian had been starving to death in the mountains, because so much of what this guy says makes zero sense.  Severian seems to understand more of what the silent head says.


Really, my thoughts about Typhon mostly consist of “what the hell is going on with this person”, so I’m gonna skip to the good parts at the end of the book, and try not to spoil too much.


But before I get to the good stuff that happens at the end, I want to talk about alzabos.  So, these freaky alien creatures exude something, and if you drink the gross something, and then eat the flesh of a dead person, you will gain the memories of that person.  Gross in more ways that one. But wait. If learning history, and sharing knowledge is truly as easy as getting a hold of of these alzabos (they seem to run wild in the mountains?) and digging up a dead body,  taboos be damned, it’s a wonder more people don’t do this as a method of gaining an education.  We wouldn’t even need books or libraries, just eat a dead person.


Ok, now that I’ve grossed you out with cannibalism, let’s get to the good stuff:


Severian comes into contact with Dr. Talos and Baldanders again at the end of the book, and this is where Severian finally starts to lose some of that damned ego.  He learns more about the relationship between Baldanders and Dr. Talos, and has some fascinating conversations with their “guests”.


Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but….


  • There are three guests.   Baldanders says he has lived three lifetimes. In a memory of Thecla, she mentions three categories of people.
  • The guests are wearing masks, it helps humans *see what they want to see – a mask (or two!) is part of these people’s office.  Severian wears a mask when he is executing people, a mask is part of his office. Who are you when you wear your mask? Who are you when you’re not wearing your mask?
  • What the guests tell Baldanders about the things they didn’t tell him, and the things he didn’t see, and his reaction to their words is just heartbreaking.


After these scenes, Baldanders and Severian become two unmovable forces, the only difference in their strengths being that Baldanders has nothing left to lose, and that Severian is afraid of being killed.Their entire interaction is slow motion and beautiful. One of them will not be walking away from this, and every moment deserves to be painted into eternity to be cleaned every 50 years by Rudesind.


The Sword of the Lictor seems to be about negation, and about stepping away from time.  I’ll unpack that a little. By negation, i don’t mean it is a negative book, or that people are negative. I mean (and i’m probably using the word incorrectly) that instead of people being told that things are, they are being told what is not, what they are not, what they don’t know.  It’s like the whole message of the book is to look at the negative space, because that is where you can step away from time and see what is going on.


Even Severian can’t escape thoughts about time:


“Time itself is a thing,so it seems to me,  that stands solidly like a fence of iron pilings with its endless rows of years; and we flow past like Gyoll,  on our way to a sea from which we shall return  only as rain.”


Well, this blog post ended up being much longer than I expected!  Again, #SorryNotSorry.  I do love these older style paperbacks, they have advertisements for the last couple of pages.  Along with the ads for Star Trek novels, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Nancy Springer is a full page advertisement for the entire Book of the New Sun series, proclaiming in shoutycaps that Severian is “THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY HERO IN THE HISTORY OF THE HEROIC EPIC”.  I admit, I was scratching my head a bit. Severian so far has not struck me as overly heroic.  He does the occupation he was trained to do and accepts payment for his work, he grows up a little bit, he sleeps with any woman who will speak to him, and he’s finally ok with admitting when he’s afraid. Doesn’t sound overly heroic so far.

3 Responses to "Discussing Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor – Book of the New Sun #3"

“Does that imply there were structures at the Citadel that were meant to brave the stars?”

Heh. Go back and carefully reread the descriptions of the Citadel and in particular Severian’s own Matachin Tower in Shadow again. 🙂


ok, just did. and i think i came across the sentence, and a particular phrase that i glossed over the first time, or at least was like “that was an odd choice of words”. not so much odd, as accurate. and also, the kids completely take this for granted and don’t even think about it.


So frustrating/tantalising to see little glimpses of the book through your eyes, and not remember enough context! Particularly with the ‘guests’ of Baldanders, where there are several layers of things to know, but I can’t remember what you should know already, what hasn’t been said but you could have worked out, and what still remains to be said in the next book (or the one after that)… I can’t even ask, because some things, even raising a possibility is a spoiler.

At some point you’re probably going to want to go back and have another look at what Typhon’s going on about; it may seem like random weird nonsense at this point, but it’s probably actually quite important.

I think this may have been my favourite of the four, although I must admit I can’t really remember what goes where exactly…

Anyway, good luck as you embark on Part Four!

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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