In spite of giving Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun top billing in my recent top 20 books list, I’ve long put off reading the other two series set in the same universe: The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun. But, for whatever reason I was inspired to pick up the former, and have recently finished the first volume, Nightside of the Long Sun.
Nightside is an unusual book by Wolfe’s standards – his standard first-person unreliable narrator has been replaced by a more omniscient third-person one, and it’s lacking much of the feel that each chapter is a literary puzzle to be unraveled. The result is that it’s a much more straightforward, conventional read than most of his books, although the setting remains rather obliquely described.
The book is set on the Whorl, a strange, apparently artificial world structured a bit like a dyson sphere. It’s hero is one Patera Silk, an augur (read: priest) in the polytheistic religion that apparently dominates the Whorl. At the beginning, he receives what he believes to be a message from one of the gods, instructing him to save his manteion (read: parish), which is currently mired in debt. Shortly after this, a crime lord called Blood manages to purchase the manteion from the Chapter (read: diocese) by paying its taxes, and the rest of the novel is devoted to Silk’s desperate attempt to win it back from him.
As hinted above, the religion Silk follows seems intentionally designed to be evocative of Catholicism (and Silk himself evocative of a young parish priest) – we get to read Silk hearing confessions from penitents, performing exorcism rites, preaching, etc. – while remaining something entirely different. It’s the sort of fake religion that could only be created by an author who is intimately familiar with a particular religion: it feels authentic in a lot of the small details that a lot of fantasy religions do not. Due to the fact that I’ve already accidentally spoiled one of the Big Twists of the series, I know where Wolfe’s taking all this, which actually makes it all the more fascinating, but I’ll hold off on that for now.
Nightside is also the book where Wolfe’s debt to Chesterton is at its most apparent. The more straightforward narration combined with philosophical/theological meandering gives the book a feel similar to one of Chesterton’s mystery stories. And, indeed, the idea of a priest who uses his wisdom to navigate a world of crime is straight out of Father Brown, although Silk (in addition to being a fantasy priest) is much younger and greener than Chesterton’s sleuth.
All this makes the book rather unusual by sci-fi standards and a curiosity of the highest order. Although I miss his usual literary mind-games, it’s also nice to see Wolfe trying his hand at something a bit different. I have my doubts as to whether Long Sun will ultimately have the same staying power for me as some of his other works, but I’m intrigued enough to follow this one through to the end.