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Urth/Solar Cycle Books In Order

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Publication Order of Urth: Book of the New Sun Books

The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)Description / Buy at Amazon
The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)Description / Buy at Amazon
The Sword of the Lictor (1982)Description / Buy at Amazon
The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)Description / Buy at Amazon
The Urth of the New Sun (1987)Description / Buy at Amazon

Publication Order of Urth: Book of the Long Sun Books

Nightside the Long Sun (1993)Description / Buy at Amazon
Litany of the Long Sun (1994)Description / Buy at Amazon
Caldé of the Long Sun (1994)Description / Buy at Amazon
Lake of the Long Sun (1994)Description / Buy at Amazon
Epiphany of the Long Sun (1996)Description / Buy at Amazon
Exodus from the Long Sun (1996)Description / Buy at Amazon

Publication Order of Urth: Book of the Short Sun Books

On Blue's Waters (1999)Description / Buy at Amazon
In Green's Jungles (2000)Description / Buy at Amazon
The Book of the Short Sun (2001)Description / Buy at Amazon
Return to the Whorl (2001)Description / Buy at Amazon

Science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe is known for penning entertaining reads that nevertheless feature a high level of literary quality and craftsmanship. This is certainly the case with his “Urth/Solar Cycle” series of works, which consists of 12 novels written over the course of more than 20 years. It is divided into the five-volume “Book of the New Sun,” the four installments of “Book of the Long Sun” and the three works of “Book of the Short Sun.” Wolfe has also produced a number of short stories set in the same world as the “Solar Cycle,” but these aren’t typically viewed by fans as essential reading.

The discrete parts of this lengthy series must be treated separately because each sub-series contains different characters and settings, and they’re only loosely related to each other. Accordingly, the protagonist of the first book, named Severian, is the main character only of the five novels in “Book of the New Sun.” “The Shadow of the Torturer” is the name of the first book in the series.

Book 1: The Shadow of the Torturer

When we first meet Severian, he’s a young apprentice with the guild of torturers in the city of Nessus. This organization operates with the full backing of the government and is a respected institution. Nevertheless, we get an idea of what the regular citizens of the city think of Severian and his cohorts by the fact that the uniform of the guild – a cloak described by Wolfe as “darker than black” – inspires terror wherever Severian goes. The world drawn by Wolfe appears to be at a roughly medieval level of technology and social development although there are signs that a previous civilization had advanced to great heights before collapsing.

Severian’s story gets interesting when he disobeys the rules of his guild by letting a prisoner escape the worst of her torture. The leadership of the guild therefore expels Severian. He isn’t thrown completely to his own devices however: The guild arranges a position for him as executioner in Thrax, a far-off city. The book follows Severian’s progress as he heads to the gates of Nessus to leave it for good. Along the way, he encounters various traveling companions and gets into all sorts of predicaments, like having to fight a duel and standing accused of stealing a religious artifact.

Book 2: The Claw of the Conciliator

Picking up where the previous book left off, the second installment begins after Severian has exited Nessus and is now working his way to Thrax, where his new assignment is waiting for him. Much as his journey out of Nessus was, Severian’s travel toward his destination is filled with adventure and difficulty. People whom he thought he had left behind catch up with him and act as friends, rivals, enemies or – as in common in Wolfe’s writings – some combination of the three.

It becomes apparent that Severian’s world contains hidden layers that make it even stranger than it first seemed. Lurking beneath the facade of everyday life are bizarre secrets, hidden conspiracies and alliances, and even supernatural or magical forces. These revelations continue in the rest of the “Book of the New Sun.” as Severian learns more about his planet and his ultimate fate. The remainder of the “Urth/Solar Cycle” sequence of publications expands the scope of the action, being set in other environments that – while not immediately accessible to Severian – serve to broaden and deepen the entire universe that all the characters inhabit.

Severian’s Character

Wolfe utilizes a first-person narrative in “Book of the New Sun,” which means that we get to hear Severian’s thoughts about himself, his surroundings, and the people and locations that he interacts with. Although he presents himself as an ordinary young man whose path is directed by events mostly outside his control, Severian’s descriptions and justifications soon appear inadequate to the astute reader. It can’t be pure luck that all these fantastic and convoluted events happen to him. The strengths and flaws of his personality undoubtedly contribute significantly to the action even as Severian takes pains to minimize the agency he has in the decisions he makes.

Severian thus stands as an outstanding example of one of Gene Wolfe’s most beloved literary devices: that of the unreliable narrator. While we can trust that Severian mostly tells us the truth, he omits or glosses over important details that might serve to show him in a bad light.

At several points in the series, Severian displays remarkable kindness and mercy to those within his power, but he doesn’t really dwell on this soft-heartedness or think much about its consequences on his life. Compassion might seem like an unusual trait to try to downplay or be ashamed of, but it makes sense when we consider that Severian’s emotional desires often conflict with what he perceives to be his duty. Rather than trying to work out the implications of this collision of values, he does as he thinks best and then tries to forget that any crisis had even occurred.

Gene Wolfe’s Literary Style

Wolfe’s deft use of language immerses the reader in the settings he creates. Instead of calling upon commonplace words to describe the outlandish or making up artificial terms, the author digs up obsolete verbiage and seeks inspiration from dead or foreign languages. The occasional presence of an unfamiliar term makes the setting of “Urth/Solar Cycle” seem just unusual enough to be exotic while still echoing concepts and objects from our own world.

An example is the adjective “fuligin,” used to describe Severian’s cloak. “Fuliginous” is an obscure English word meaning sooty or dark, so Wolfe omitted the last few letters and used it to describe the “darker than black” cloak worn by the torturers. Details like this show why he’s considered a master of his trade, and they allow diligent readers to extract further meaning from the phrasing employed.

Gene Wolfe’s “Urth/Solar Cycle” fictions have won accolades that include the Locus Award, the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. There’s a reason why he’s cited as an influence by many colleagues and has amassed a loyal and growing readership. Delving into the “Solar Cycle” in its entirety requires quite a commitment of time, but there are rich rewards in store for the dedicated bookworm.

Book Series In Order » Characters » Urth/Solar Cycle

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