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Severian Of The Guild by Gene Wolfe

02/03/2009. Contributed by Paul Skevington

Buy Severian Of The Guild in the USA - or Buy Severian Of The Guild in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 905 page enlarged paperback. Price: 14.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-5750-8130-7.

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Some may argue against the validity of SF as a genre for creating works of true artistic merit. When one examines a text such as 'Severian Of The Guild' it is difficult to comprehend why the argument continues, when it seems that it was won many years ago. I'd challenge any literary critic to find a book more complex, more layered, more sweet and dark and majestic than this one.

'Severian' collects together the four books of Gene Wolfe's 'Book Of The New Sun' into a single volume that dares the reader to finish it in one go. I found myself envying those readers of a previous generation who were able to read this work in short bursts as it was originally released. It would have been nice to have a year to digest each book in the sequence.

'The Book Of The New Sun' is the tale of Severian, who begins the story as an apprentice in the guild of torturers. In his late teens, he commits an offence against them that, by rights, should have meant his death but through the favour of one of the guild masters, he is merely exiled and sent to wander the harsh landscape of Urth.

It is a world that we are led to believe may actually be the distant future of our own, in a time when the sun has started to pale and lose its energy and the planet is almost completely stripped of its natural resources. The majority if its peoples live poor lives, filled with hunger and desperation, clawing for position like ants boiling out of a poisoned nest.

Their technology is principally medieval in nature with swords and bows, sailing ships and animal-powered vehicles being a standard part of everyday life. This co-exists with the lingering remnants of the high technology of former ages, energy weapons, fantastical buildings and travelling theatres that incorporate holographic images into the plays, as well as the more traditional accoutrements of the stage.

This description was enough to get a friend of mine, who principally only reads crime novels, interested enough to consider seeking the books out. This is one of the strengths of the work. It has a fascinating setting and a main character with a back-story that immediately grips the imagination. It would have been so easy for this book to have just been an involving Science Fictional tale, powered by its ideas and its fast-paced action sequences.

There is no doubt that you will find these elements within 'Severian', but you will also discover that the work is packed full of finely tuned images, like metaphorical landmines, waiting for the weight of your gaze to pressurise them and set them off. It is a thousand crystal bottles found on a beach, each one filled with strange messages that are impossible to forget.

Gene Wolfe succeeds where countless Booker Prize winning authors and their ilk fail. He confronts the reader with a deep, rich literary style whilst still maintaining a narrative as enjoyable and involving as any supermarket page-turner. Severian speaks with the voice of Wolfe when he compares performing an execution with the act of writing. Both activities require that the practitioner satisfy a diverse group of people with separate needs.

As Severian puts it, 'One desires ease; the other richness of experience in the execution...of the writing.' Wolfe satisfies both desires with a skill that you will rarely encounter elsewhere.

It is the sort of book that recommends itself to multiple readings and so a short review such as mine cannot hope to address all of the themes contained within this tome. I can only point towards those things that resonate most to my own sensibilities. I have already mentioned the allusions towards the act of artistic creation, there are countless others to be found within the text. For starters, the prose that we are reading comes from a book that Severian himself wrote, in a future some years removed from the events that he describes.

Severian talks of his time spent with a theatre troupe and an entire chapter is dedicated to the script of the play they performed. Later in the novel, Severian judges a story-telling competition and these tales are also related to the reader. The simple act of opening a book is the direct cause of one of the most traumatising moments in the story.

They are continuous reminders of the fictive nature of the piece. However, they are prevented from distancing the reader from the story by the use of the conceit that Severian has an eidetic memory and forgets nothing from his earliest memory onwards. This is pointed out to us very early in the text, so that we come to accept it by the time that it becomes truly crucial to the narrative. It allows Wolfe to write the book in such a way as would be unbelievable with a more conventional narrator.

The nature of identity plays a strong role as well, in all its forms. Gender characteristics and sexuality are fluid or sometimes over-emphasised, such as in the case of Jolenta, an almost comical vision of stereotypically feminine traits. Severian is often referred to as being 'Death, which he mostly refutes and eventually accepts. He does this not with the attitude of someone who has been convinced of a truth, but of someone adopting alternate personas whenever it is convenient.

Everything is covered by a mask, from the text itself, delivered to us as it is by a narrator who claims to forget nothing and yet leaves out much, to the people of Urth themselves who hide behind costumes, ranks and legends.

This natural flow of being leads to the creation of characters that seem all the more real for it and prove unforgettable. This applies to the women in Severian's life perhaps more than any others, but this shouldn't be that surprising, it is his tale after all. There is at least one other star, though. I don't think anyone in my life will ever again make me feel so strongly about what is, after all, just a bloody sword.

This is what literature should be about. Buy it, read it, treasure it and then read it again.

Paul Skevington

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