Be warned: this is a negative review. However, my disappointment is more in the author than in the book itself. I would have rated higher had it come from any other pen but that of Gene Wolfe.
I read this second volume of the Long Sun Cycle immediately after finishing the first. I found it confusing - more so than is usually the case with Wolfe. This is an author who likes to challenge his readers, and confusion, followed by cogitation and re-reading, is an essential part of the Gene Wolfe experience. However, much of the confusion in this instance seems to be the result of the author having too many subplots to juggle, making his performance unappealingly frantic. The disparate plot threads are woven together in a great hurry at the end of the book, resulting in a fabric coarser and less attractive than we have come to expect from Wolfe, or any writer who aspires to the highest standards.
Speaking both as a reader and as a writer, I must say I found the Book of the Long Sun disappointing. Although the religious and mythological aspects of the tale being told are as central to it as those in Wolfe's masterpiece, the Book of the New Sun, the layered depth of ideas and philosophical maturity evident in that book are not, to my mind, to be found here. Rather, the subtext is an allegorical reprise of Christian doctrine complete with original sin, a Fall and a world damaged by it, the manifestation of God to humanity and the coming of a saviour who redeems mankind. Yes, much or all of this was in the Book of the New Sun too, but in that cycle these ideas are critically examined and re-examined, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about them; the writer does not force his own on us. Sadly, this cannot be said of the Long Sun cycle. It is a much more superficial work that imposes its religious subtext on the reader willy-nilly.
In other ways, too, the Long Sun books disappoint. People like to use the word 'Dickensian' in a complimentary way; I, who am no fan of Dickens, would agree that Wolfe's characterization is, in these books, Dickensian: idiosyncratic and exaggerated to the point where disbelief can no longer be suspended and the character becomes a capering painted clown on the stage of the page. Other reviewers have made much of the different 'voices' in which the characters in the Book of the Long Sun speak - but many of these voices are artificial and annoying, just as Dickens's characters' often are. Examples include Pateras Incus and Remora, the various talking animals (including one named Catachrest whose dialogue is sloppily rendered in catachreses - this kind of thing has been done far better by writers like Will Self and the Amises père et fils
) and a mad swordfighter whose! speech! is! lousy! with! exclamation! marks. The fact is that Wolfe is not really very good at characterization by dialogue; you hear the same voices, with minor variations, in book after book.
More generally, Wolfe is a writer with a naturally formal style that lapses too easily into ponderousness. This is by no means a fatal flaw - in the mouth of Severian the Autarch, for example, or Latro the proto-Roman mercenary, it works very well indeed. It also fits well into the science-fiction/fantasy milieu in which Gene Wolfe operates. But it does limit his auctorial options, because it makes giving believable voices to all his characters difficult (as we have seen). Wolfe's young people are always either old people in disguise or else caricatures of the young as their elders see them; similarly, his women tend to talk and act not as real women, but as women as conceived by men. Clearly Wolfe pays less attention than he should to how real people speak - which is to say his characters are not drawn from life. Given the science-fiction/fantasy milieu in which he operates, is this such a grave flaw? I believe it is. Together with the unedifying attitude to women and sex I mentioned in my review of Litany of the Long Sun
, this is Wolfe's greatest fault as a writer.
Overall, my verdict on this book, and on the Long Sun Cycle as a whole, is that Gene Wolfe, who has proved himself capable of far better work, here falls disappointingly short of the standard we expect of him.
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