This book is the second half of the four-novel work “The Book of the New Sun” published in the early 1980s. I’ve reviewed the first two HERE. It’s really one long novel, and remarkably, author Wolfe wrote it all in his spare time while editing a non-fiction magazine. It’s an impressively creative world-building story taking place in Earth’s far future when our sun is dimming with old age, and when Earth has seen many civilizations and empires rise and fall, and is now full of decaying machines and artifacts and people who have fallen into ignorance about their own heritage ruled over by an elite class, headed by an Autarch that most have never seen.
Severian, the narrator of the story, had been raised in The Citadel, an ancient massive city, as an apprentice in the Torturer’s Guild. There he was disgraced when he allowed a young female prisoner, Thecla, to escape her tortures through a quick death. At first imprisoned, Severian is released when he agrees to take a position of Lictor, or jailer and executioner, in the distant northern city of Thrax. After many adventures, this book begins with Severian at his duties in Thrax. A young woman who loves him and followed him to Thrax, Dorcas, has fallen into a deep depression, and Severian finds a way to send her back to her original home in the Citadel. He then makes another mistake out of kindness, allowing another woman to go free when he should have executed her. This makes Severian a fugitive himself, and he flees Thrax on foot over the northern mountains, and has many more close calls with death. Everyone who befriends him seems to come to some unhappy end, and eventually Severian finds himself involved in a long-running war at the northern end of the Autarch’s kingdom, where the enemy is stranger and more ruthless than even Severian himself. As the story progresses, narrator Severian drops many hints about his eventual rise in power to the position of Autarch, but the way he gets there is quite surprising, and the entire journey he makes is consistently inventive and fascinating.
This is a long story, but the kind in which you are not checking to see how much more you have to go to finish, but instead are checking to see how much more you still have to enjoy. Recommended.