This is the first book in “the Book of the New Sun” series, and honestly one of the best books I have ever read. I said this about The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance, and it stands true still.
This book follows Severian, who starts out as an apprentice torturer. The guild he’s in is respected for their craft and though they have a dark job to do, they don’t hire the bloodthirsty or sadistic. Instead, they pick children at a young age and teach them about it and seemingly participate as a part of the justice system. It becomes somewhat clear that torturers exist as both a means of punishment from the judicial branch and an executioner.
Severian commits a crime among his guild, having fallen for a woman they kept imprisoned in their halls, and is sent on assignment to another city. They would have liked to kill him, but his masters seemingly had pity on him for the situation and wanted to spare him his death.
Ultimately, it follows his travel to another city, his challenge to a duel, and his subsequent ritual in order to meet the requirements of the duel. Though the ending is a bit lacking (it was obviously set up for a sequel) there are hints of future events from the narrative of Severian himself. You know he survives the duel, you know something will happen to raise his status in society, but you don’t know what.
The world is fascinating, full, and vibrant, with rich characters and an interesting setting. Wolfe really shines here with the fleshed-out guild of torturers and the unique social structure the society seems to employ.
Ultimately, I consider this among the best fantasy works I’ve ever read, though it seems to mention some science fiction elements.
If you’re a fan of those genres, give it a chance and see if it works for you. I, meanwhile, will begin to read the next book.
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