The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
Review by Bowden P (Trey)
In the last volume of the Book of the New Sun, the campaign against the Accians is the focus of the story. A large part of it is spent in a Pelerine hospital, where Severian finds himself after the events of Sword of the Lictor. He’s hurt, he’s exhausted and literally wrung out after the climatic battle. There, he and his companion (picked up in the first chapters of the novel) are taken for a pair of wounded – Miles as a wounded and amnesiac soldier, Severian as a civil servant attached to the administration of the army. Miles, recovers more quickly than Severian, so Severian, so he is left in a tent with other soldiers suffering long term injuries.
While there, he’s asked to judge a story contest between the soldiers and one Accian prisoner, all for the hand of a female soldier. These little stories help showcase Wolfe’s talents as a writer. Despite his busyness and illness, he even manages to return the Claw to its proper home. Which is a minor miracle of itself given the skepticism of the Pelerines. After his recovery, and errand that takes him far away (Wolfe continues to play with time and space here) to the enigmatic Father Ash, Severian returns to a massacre and then truly goes to war.
So… is it good? Yes. Wolfe goes back to some of his earlier tricks with vocabulary of looting the and out of use for terms. Its refreshing to see and returns the earlier flavor of the series. We readers are also introduced to the fantastic – anpiels (angels in all but name), mastiff men and cat ladies. And with the last two, it seems Wolfe has some fun with their personal names as well. More importantly than the games Wolfe plays with language and history, he revisits Severian’s past for new spins on past events and characters of the novels. Specifically:
- The Autarch returns and he has laid plans for Severian.
- Wolfe begins to answer questions, closing plot holes and time loops.
- Chekhov’s guns introduced in the earlier volumes are fired with great enthusiasm.
Wolfe crafted Citadel of the Autarch with great skill. It has very well done plot, good characterization and some sense of wonder moments (with wonder’s dark twin of horror not far behind). As before, I love the little stories Wolfe weaves into the book. They’re recognizable confabulation of myth, history and fable, and readers may even be able to spot the origins. I was particularly taken with the tale of the Accian Prisoner, Loyal to the Group of Seventeen, because it was so unsettling – a nightmare fairy tale from 1984. Again, I maintain if Wolfe had gotten into writing children’s books with a good illustrator, he’d have given Geisel a run for his money.
The verdict: 5 stars. As a close to the series, Citadel of the Autarch is worth it. What’s more, the title refers less to the Autarch’s incredible palace with its hidden inner citadel, but more to the very nature of the Autarch him/herself. I hope I’m not spoiling it with that, but read the book. Or if you have, please feel free to comment.
Likes: The closing of plot holes; The use of earlier Chekhov’s guns (totally worth it to get the collected SFBC edition and Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus to help keep track of them all); The return to playing with discarded and old terms – but still having a good idea of what they mean; Revisiting characters and what they did; Closing plot holes and time loops – often at the same time; Sense of wonder and horror moments; The little stories braided in among the novel.
Dislikes: As before, I’m not sure how I feel about what Wolfe demands of his readers. Its not an easy or fast read. I have to take it a few chapters at a time. But the pay off has been worth it so far…
Suggested for: Gene Wolfe fans, those that like challenging books and science fiction that verges onto literature.