Frequent readers know that quality literature knows no genre boundaries. Even so, in mainstream circles science fiction has historically been dismissed as lacking literary quality. Science fiction fans are of course quick to dispute such false claims, ready with examples of authors who continually disprove those assertions. One of the authors most cited as being able to hold his own against any author in any genre is Gene Wolfe. Simply put, Gene Wolfe is one of literature's greatest treasures.
Sadly, the world lost him earlier this year but, like any gifted artist, he lives on through his work. Wolfe has written many novels and short story collections, among them Peace, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, the Latro/Soldier series, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, The Wizard Knight duology, Pirate Freedom, An Evil Guest, Home Fires, The Land Acrossand A Borrowed Man. Inarguably his most famous books are part of the multi-volume Solar Cycle, which itself is comprised of the multiple series: Book of The New Sun, Book of The Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun.
The word "ambitious" doesn't even begin to cover the scope of the entire cycle. But it all started with what is considered to be Wolfe's masterpiece: Book of The New Sun. This is a 4-volume series that includes the novels The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982), and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Note, however, that they can (and should) be read as one long novel. Wolfe's Book of The New Sun is what science fiction fans point to when anyone outside the genre questions the quality of science fiction.
Book of the New Sun takes place in the far future of Earth (then known as "Urth") when the strength of the Old Sun has waned. It is thus considered to be of the Dying Earth subgenre. Severian is a torturer who makes the mistake of falling in love with his victim, a beautiful aristocratic prisoner named Thecla. As a forbidden act of mercy and pity, Severian helps Thecla commit suicide by sneaking her a sharp blade for a quick death. Instead of being executed for his crime, Severian is surprisingly banished and dispatched to the distant city of Thrax to assume the role of their Executioner. Along the way, he makes new friends and deadly enemies. He also comes across a strange jewel that seems to command power over life and death. Book of the New Sun is told from the point of view of Severian via his manuscript of events. Severian remembers everything yet admits to being an unreliable narrator.
There have been many publications of Book of the New Sun since it first appeared in the early 1980s, but a new edition being published by the Folio Society is one of the most lavish there is. If you didn't already realize that books can be art, this edition will change your mind. Their limited collector's edition of Book of the New Sun is fully illustrated by Sam Weber, whose atmospheric and moody images immerse readers even more into Wolfe's stellar world. The attention to detail usually found in Folio's upscale editions extends to Sam's work as well. Chapters begin with decorative initials referencing an event or character in the book. The spines of each volume include foiled indicators of the book's place in the series. (Here's a video of Sam Weber talking about the excellent illustrations made for this stunning set.) The entire 4-volume set additionally comes in a sturdy slipcase so you can show it off to your friends.
This new edition comes with a new introduction, this one written by Neil Gaiman four months before Wolfe's death. Gaiman discusses his own experiences with Wolfe's work. He notes, as Wolfe's readers eventually come to realize, that novels written by Gene Wolfe reward multiple readings. His stories are so layered that subsequent re-reads reveal new layers of complexity and thus different ways in which the book can be viewed. With each re-read, Gaiman says, the volumes in Book of the New Sun assume a different shape. In other words, they're subtle masterpieces.
Each of Folio's 750 limited editions comes autographed by Neil Gaiman, Sam Weber and Gene Wolfe himself, who knew of the forthcoming publication but sadly did not live to see it published. He may be gone, but with works of art like Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe will never be forgotten.