Saturday, 20 June 2009

Book Review: Litany of the Long Sun: The First Half of The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe's four volume The Book of the New Sun, an epic dying earth tale of the distant future, is one of the literary accomplishments of science fiction and fantasy. It's also an all-time favourite of mine although I've not read much of Gene Wolfe's work. I was impressed with The Fifth Head of Cerberus and Peace, but these did not have the same type of impact on my imagination as the above and maybe helps explain why I did not attempt any more Gene Wolfe novels until now. Like The Book of the New Sun , The Book of the Long Sun is a huge novel split into four volumes. The book I'm reviewing is an omnibus edition comprising the first two novels: Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun and attracted by the beautiful front cover illustration, obviously influenced by 19th Century Symbolism, I decided to commit myself once more to the author's brand of complex science fiction with an overlaying of fantasy.

There are similarities with Book of the New Sun but also differences. Both are about entropic worlds-here a generation starship called The Whorl, an artificial planet travelling through space, containing a medieval society scattered with left over technology, its origin and history forgotten. Litany of the Long Sun, though not having the vast canvas nor quite the singular invention of Wolfe's masterpiece, still offers the reader a detailed scientifically plausible, but unusual environment, especially appealing to science fiction fans. He uses the tropes of the genre-robots, gods who are not what they seem, even a light sabre-in a story that combines a large dose of adventure, complex political intrigue, and spiritual speculation.

The central character, Patera Silk, like Severian in Book of the New Sun, a member of a tightly knit group of professionals-the priesthood of a pagan religion (almost the mirror opposite of Severian's guild of torturers), becomes unwittingly embroiled with power politics and espionage, uncovering the realities of the Whorl and his beloved gods. The people who populate Litany of the Long Sun are varied, exotic but real to life and although the plot is dense with complexities it keeps you reading as it slowly reveals what's under the surface.

Of course I have two more novels to go (contained in the Epiphany of the Long Sun omnibus) before the story ends, but it's shaping up to be, if not as exceptionally imaginative as Book of the New Sun, an engrossing read, full of surprises and vivid images.

I will continue to read Gene Wolfe's prolific output in the years to come.

For those who would like to delve further into the world of Gene Wolfe have a look at Ultan's Library-a resource for the study of Gene Wolfe.

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