Fantasy literature has often been looked down on as a teen market or a less than serious escapist out let. Its twin sibling, Science Fiction, is often used to discuss big philosophical issues, mortality, the sustainability of culture, dystopian futuristic possibilities and even the very essence of where life came from but Fantasy literature rarely offers anything so deep. There are a few authors that bring something exceptional to the table, the grandeur and span of Tolkien’s story telling, the acid laced multiverse of Moorcock’s heroes and the Dickensian density of Mervyn Peake but much of the canon is derivative and sadly lives up to the low expectations many place on the genre.
That was why revisiting this series of books, books I read in my youth but probably didn’t fully appreciate at the time was enlightening for the fact that for everything I have said is often lacking in the genre, Gene Wolf, proves that there is a better way.
The story is simple but as I will explain later, it isn’t the story that is the real selling point. Severian is a young man brought up in the bosom of a very ancient guild, a guild of torturers, an organisation who via strict codes operate as the impassive face of justice as decreed from above. After allowing an act of what he sees as mercy towards a prisoner in his charge he is banished from the guild and so begins a journey through a world he has barely experienced. The first few chapters set off down a very traditional fantasy path but when Severian finally encounters the city around him to head into exile the scope of Wolfe’s writing is revealed.
We learn of the world at the same pace as Severian himself, much of it as mysterious and strange to him as it is to the reader and this is where perspectives change. Initially the descriptions of this city give it a medieval or ancient feel but hints are given that this is not just another arbitrary setting with the typical swords and sorcery settings plundered for the sake of familiarity. This is actually Earth in the far future, one where the technology of this distant time seems like magic to his (and thus our) uneducated eyes. Small pieces of detail make reference to our own times, a time now ancient history in the timeline of the books.
But like all good literature it is also the quality of the writing that stands it apart from the pack. The story is being told by Severian in later life, so we are reading a memoir of his life and so the narrative is surrounded with insights, reflections and hindsight’s from a position where the narrator is already aware of the full scope of the story, his final destiny and the effects of the choices that he made along the way. It is this quality, along with the strength of the writing that add some wonderful philosophical dimensions to the story, a chance to rethink the twists and turns of his life and their role in his journey.
To add to the mystery the back-story of society is coloured in very slowly and Wolfe’s use of archaic and often invented words add to the exotic feel. There is a complex class structure which we learn about as our protagonist does, the guilds and history of the world around him often hang half finished allowing the reader to mentally complete the picture and even Severian’s own childhood is only hinted at as the narrative requires.
It is a series, which is slow and subtle, rich in detail rather than action and all the better for it. It is also Severian’s story own we are allowed into only via his recollections and thoughts. Many fantasy’s can be summed up easily, A fellowship must destroy a ring to save a world, Thomas Covenant must defeat Lord Foul to preserve the Land, this series of books is much more difficult to predict and is much more about the journey, a slow unravelling of information which follows the ethic of “it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”