Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
Review byBowden P. (Trey)
Sword of the Lictor was interesting, if only for some of the contrasts. The quiet of Severian wandering the sculpted mountains of the Andes and his time with his adopted son. And the conflicts with an ancient tyrant and then his one companion. Its also some very fine writing and makes me wonder how the Book of the New Sun will wrap up.
The novel opens with Severian and Dorcas in Thrax and Severian thriving in his new position. He’s reformed the local prison and carrying out his trade. Dorcas, however, isn’t doing as well. She’s no longer Severian’s council and aide there, and her memories are returning. This leads to her going missing with Severian seeking her out (and giving us the reader a walking tour of Thrax). After finding her and making sure she’s safe, Severian returns home. There, the archon asks him to a party and carry out a commission. Naturally, Severian assents.
At the party, he meets a woman who he thinks is a Pelerine (remember The Shadow of the Torturer?) and plans to give her the Claw. She thinks he’s a torturer in truth and faints. After she recovers, we get the Tale of the Library which gives us a very abstract view of the history of humanity and its expansion to the stars and how it came to its current state.
Of course, the woman he meets is his commission…
From there, its a tale of Severian the fugitive as he salves his conscience with the Claw and flees the city into the mountains.
And that is as far as I want to go. Even though the book is almost thirty years old, I don’t want to spoil it for new readers.
Its also notable for Severian being philosophical, whether its in his walking tour of Thrax, or as the captive of sorcerers before a magical duel. And for what its worth, as a fan of stage magic and sleight of hand, the capture and duel with the sorcerers was worth the price of admission alone.
The tale of “The Boy Called Frog” is also a wonderful confabulation of the myth Romulus and Remus and the Jungle Book, making me periodically wish that Wolfe had written children’s stories. I think if he had, he would have been great at it.
So, what makes it good? Severian is interesting, but not all that sympathetic. However, he is very human and aware of his faults, more so than most. That makes him unique. And for all his faults, he’s not that unlikable.
Another thing that makes it good is wondering what Wolfe will steal from, or twist a trope in an unique way. “The Boy Called Frog” is an excellent example of that. As are some of Severian’s confrontations with the past. Wolfe also plays with the reader’s expectations. When Dr. Talos opens a door for Severian, its a bit surprising. Finding out Dr. Talos’ role is even moreso, just as Severian’s conversation with the Cacogens reveals more about life at the end of history and their role in it.
In short, its a interesting well drawn character and a sense of discovery paired with a desire to see what happens next.
Likes: Severian, because he’s human; The walking tour of Thrax and Severian’s musings on people; Capture and magical duel; The final battle of Lake Diuturna; Wolfe’s confabulation of disparate myths and stories into something unique; His play with language and knowledge of history and cultures.
Dislikes: That for all of Severian’s humanity, he does get repetitive; Fate of Little Severian; Loss of Terminus Est.
Suggested for: Gene Wolfe fans, fans of the Dying Earth sub-genre, folks who like a challenging read.