Gene Wolfe is a brilliant writer, there is no disputing that. He’s also a very demanding writer to read, and it’s no surprise he’s often found on both “most overrated” and “most underrated” author lists. He writes stories where most everything is mentioned for a reason, but much of the time those reasons are so literary and byzantine that they fly right past, leaving one slightly confused and feeling like they just missed something. This is not a bad thing, or at least not necessarily. It makes his books have high re-read value, for example, there usually always something more there that you missed the first time. On the other hand, it does make it a bit hard to love him as a writer, at least for me; I admire the immaculate craftsmanship that goes into his books, but they don’t always quite “click” for me.
For a Gene Wolfe book, Litany of the Long Sun is fairly straightforward stuff. Which means that on general terms, it’s a dense book filled with metaphor and stylistic flourish… but it’s still perhaps a bit less demanding as much of his other work. This is not a bad thing, I quite liked it as a whole. This book actually collects the first two books of the “Long Sun” sequence, “Nightside the Long Sun” and “Lake of the Long Sun”. It’s a continuation of the grand sequence begun in his earlier masterpiece, the four-book “Book of the New Sun” and the coda book for that, “Urth of the New Sun”. It’s been ages since I read those so I probably missed at least half of the references, but the events here take place centuries after those books so no prior knowledge is really needed.
Mankind has left the solar system, fleeing a dying sun with a vast generation starship known as the Whorl. Society has devolved somewhat; though all know they live in an artificial world, most revere the artificial intelligences who (perhaps) control things as gods. In fact, the protagonist himself is a young priest, one Patera Silk (with “Patera” being a honorific for priest, “Father”). At the beginning of the story, the fact that we’re in a giant artificial world isn’t brought forth much if at all, it reads like strange, baroque fantasy with a young and supposedly naive priest trying to operate in a poor neighborhood, with his mission in danger of being shut down. Slowly, bit by bit, the larger image is revealed.
Still, the science fiction infrastructure is very much in the background, the “feel” here owes much to Book of the New Sun. The society is recognizable, partly, with vague Mediterranean overtones, but the terminology is strange, there are robots (or androids?) walking around, known as “chems”, “chemical people”. There are gods, but those gods (it becomes clear) are not really divine and neither are they all-powerful. In fact, much of the main plot later on is driven by the factional squabbles of these “gods”.
I won’t go too much into the plot itself here, but it starts off with Patera Silk receiving news that his “manteion” (i.e. mission) has been bought, and is going to be closed down. He embarks on a foolhardy quest to convince the new crime boss owner to reconsider, and in this is joined by small-time criminal Auk and various prostitutes. Events start to snowball, and before he quite realizes it Silk is being hailed as the new potential “Caldé” (i.e. divinely supported ruler of the city). When the book ends, a quiet and dusty city has been transformed into ground zero for civil war. There are combat robots, submarines, talking crows, and flying people.
Silk is a fascinating character. Because this book is told in neutral third person instead of the first person of New Sun, you get the impression that the narrator is reliable. That’s not quite the case, since the end of the four-book series makes it clear that there is a narrator here also, and he’s not totally reliable either – there’s a suspicion that Silk has been made into a more messiah figure than he really “was”. That realization comes later, though. Wolfe is fond of his unreliable narrators, though it does make figuring out “what really happened?” somewhat tricky at times. Also, we get the fact that this world contains AI intelligences (and others) capable of possessing and controlling people, on a whim. This means that person X might really be entity Y on the next page, with little warning. You need to pay attention here, and sometimes it gets to be a bit annoying.
I liked the book(s). The world is a bizarre mix of the strange and the somewhat recognizable, the characters are largely quite interesting and stray from the stereotypes you initially presume (for example, Silk is not quite the naive and helpless priest you initially imagine). The story eases you into the background story of the Whorl without too many explicit infodumps, so it feels like an organic revelation of information. While some of Wolfe’s stylistic tendencies annoy somewhat at times, this is still largely in the “easy reading” category for a Gene Wolfe book.
Note that this is the first half of a bigger story, with “Epiphany of the Long Sun” concluding the tale. This volume ends on a cliffhanger note.