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Literature / Book of the New Sun

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The Book of the New Sun is a lengthy Science Fantasy novel by Gene Wolfe, originally published as four separate books. Wolfe, and this novel in particular, have a cult following for its deceptively engaging Worldbuilding couched in Science Fiction trappings that take the form of the narrator's memoirs.

The story takes place in a feudal society a million years in the future. Severian, an apprentice of the Torturer's Guild, narrates his story. After falling in love with one of his charges, Severian is exiled from the guild and sent to a distant city as its appointed executioner. Along the way he meets many strange people and experiences many life-altering events. The earliest chapters, in particular have a Low Fantasy feel as Severian largely wanders from place to place. As the seemingly disconnected characters and episodes gradually reveal their importance to the overall plot, the story takes on overtones of High Fantasy, or perhaps a strange Deconstruction juxtaposed with increasingly surreal scifi elements and religious philosophy.

The book delights in shrouding its events, characters, history, and even locations in a thick layer of ambiguity. As Severian is a relatively uneducated Unreliable Narrator in a time far removed from our own, he often fails to grasp the significance of what he sees, frequently misremembers earlier chapters, and will inexplicably contradict himself on a number of occasions. As a result, the reader is left to draw many of their own conclusions themselves, putting together obscure literary references and terms with briefly mentioned symbolism to connect the dots. While the book can be enjoyed and appreciated on the surface level as a Science Fantasy journey of heroism, the book is encouraged to be read multiple times.

Later reprintings have collected the four books into two volumes (‘’Shadow & Claw’’ and ‘’Sword & Citadel’’) or into one. A follow-up novel called ‘’The Urth of the New Sun’’ subsequently appeared to explain aspects of the plot more overtly, while adding in several twists of its own. While the book was seen as somewhat superfluous at the time as a looser sequel to the originally-planned four volumes, most fans now find it a worthy novel by its own merits.


  1. The Shadow of the Torturer
  2. The Claw of the Conciliator
  3. The Sword of the Lictor
  4. The Citadel of the Autarch
  5. The Urth of the New Sun, a coda

‘’Lexicon Urthus’’ by Michael Andre-Driussi (if you can find a copy) explains much, though it does contain many spoilers.

It is, along with the Book of the Long Sun tetralogy and Book of the Short Sun trilogy, loosely part of the Solar cycle.

This series contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil:
    • Despite his seemingly generous nature, Dr. Talos.
    • Though not overly affable, Severian, the hero, who is a trained torturer and executioner, and often defends those occupations as necessary parts of society. Though one of his first acts as Autarch is to lock up the members of his guild in the oubliette for a while to see how they like it, and then to issue an order banning torture and dissolving the guild. "By our mercy we will grant even the foulest a quick death. Not because we pity them, but because it is intolerable that good men should spend a lifetime dispensing pain."
  • All There in the Manual:
    • The rare supplementary books Lexicon Urthus by Michael Andre-Driussi (which explains some of the more oblique aspects of The Book of the New Sun, as well as the archaic terminology) and The Castle of the Otter (a collection of essays by Wolfe himself about various aspects of the series).
    • GURPS New Sun, an RPG sourcebook by the author of Lexicon Urthus includes a lot of background hints.
    • "Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader" concentrates on the techniques used by Wolfe to guide and misdirect the reader.
  • Alien Sky: Urth. The Moon is now green thanks to terraforming, the sun is red and dim, and the stars can be seen during the day.
  • Angel Unaware: In Urth of the New Sun, Zak is actually Tzadkiel.
  • Animated Armor: Sidero in Urth of the New Sun. He is not happy when Severian wears him.
  • Artificial Human:
    • Severian's best friend, Jonas is an android from one of Urth's colonies.
    • Dr. Talos, Baldanders' assistant is a homunculus.
    • Master Malrubius in his post-death appearances is not a ghost or hallucination, but a construct based on Severian's memories.
  • Attack Its Weak Point: Ancient evil Typhon extended his life by grafting his head next to the head of an enormous servant. While he contemptuously deflects Severian's attacks to his own head, Severian realizes the host body's head is vulnerable and puts Typhon down with a well timed attack.
  • Author Vocabulary Calendar: There are plenty of obscure or archaic words that are used in the books. However, it's used to describe alien creatures and futuristic technology that simply have no modern day analogs for.
  • Back from the Dead: Dorcas and several others, including probably Severian himself, thanks to the Claw of the Conciliator. Also Dr. Talos, if we're to assume, as it's implied, that Severian hit him a little too hard and broke his neck during their previous meeting.
  • Banana Republic: The story takes place in a far future, alternate universe version of South America. The massive inequalities of its feudal system are a futuristic spin on this trope.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: Citadel gives us the Third Battle of Orithiya, a huge meat grinder of a battle between the hordes of Ascia and legions of the Commonwealth, which Severian finds himself right on the front lines of. It's implied by Severian that it's just the latest of a series of inconclusive battles between the two factions over the same valley, highlighting how pointless the Forever War is.
  • Big Labyrinthine Building: The House Absolute. Not only is the House so vast and complex that its extents are unknown, but there is a secret Second House coextensive with the first.
  • Body Horror: Baldanders has attained eternal life at the cost of ceaseless growth. The implication is that he's become a humanoid cancer.
  • Brain Bleach:
    • Baldanders' castle/laboratory contains a room whose central feature is a wide-awake vivisected pregnant woman under glass. Severian also finds a gigantic infant (that is, the size of a full-grown man) chained to Baldanders' bed. Even Severian is sharp enough to think "catamite."
    • Also, at one point it becomes necessary for Severian to crack a man's head open and eat his forebrain while he's still alive. Yeah.
  • Brain Food: The Autarchy is passed on by the successor eating the forebrain of the reigning Autarch along with alzabo gland extract.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Agia and Agilus are brother/sister lovers.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit":
    • Most of the alien, genetically-engineered or otherwise exotic creatures are named after obscure prehistoric beasts. Apparently, not one term in the tetralogy was made up by the author. That claim has confused quite a few readers due to unfortunate typos such as "onegars", a type of animal no one could identify. Turns out it was meant to be "onagers", donkey-like animals. Wolfe gave the definitions for the more obscure terms from the first volume in The Castle of the Otter (collected in Castle of Days).
    • Additionally, even well known words commonly substitute for some far future equivalent, which occasionally doesn't become obvious for a while. For example, "sailor" can either refer to someone who sails on the sea, or to someone who crews a spaceship.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Wolfe was a devout Catholic and the religions existing on Urth are derived from Catholicism.
  • Clarke's Third Law: This theme runs throughout the entire series. Urth is filled with the remnants of advanced and alien technology ... but they might as well be dragons or spells, for all Severian or anyone else understands their workings. In fact, the books are best described as science-fiction novels whose narrator & characters have only fantasy-novel vocabulary at their disposal to describe anything.
  • Cliffhanger Copout: The novel was originally published as four separate volumes. Each of the first three volumes ended with a cliffhanger. In each case, the next book begins some time after the resolution of the cliffhanger with the resolution never explained in detail.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The Torturer's Guild tortures people as punishment, not interrogation, and has no interest in the innocence, guilt, or any other attributes of their victims. The punishments the torturers inflict are handed down to them from judges and they take no liberties with their orders. They perform exactly what they're told to, no more and no less, and are entirely professional, in a twisted way, even calling their prisoners "clients".
    • Severian mentions that he practiced his craft during his journey, but attempts to avoid details of his profession in his story. What little is described is only what is necessary to make sense of the plot.
  • Cool Sword: Terminus Est, an executioner's blade given to Severian when he is exiled. It has a hollow filled with mercury in the blade that causes the center of weight of the blade to shift when swung. It's taller than Severian, who is said to be tall himself.
  • Covers Always Lie: The back cover blurb of the compilation version of The Sword of the Lictor / The Citadel of the Autarch describes the book as containing "Severian's final showdown with the evil Autarch." Not only does this never happen, but to top it off, the "evil Autarch" is an affable eunuch with a penchant for flamboyant attire.
  • Crapsack World: The old sun has dimmed, and the planet that was Earth is cooling. Urth itself is exhausted, and many of its inhabitants live on a medieval tech level. The best place to live is a dictatorship that is constantly under attack externally.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: In a very Future Imperfect way, religious orders exist that are remnants of Christianity but have become really odd. The Torturer's Guild seems to be a warped version of the Catholic priesthood, as they still think about Saint Catherine in terms of a patron saint and torture is thought of as a messed up version of Confession. Even their formal name, "The Order for the Seekers of Truth and Penitence" equally describes torturers and Catholic clergy. There are the Pelerines who are like nuns but with some Eastern religion thrown in. Finally, there is the ritual of the Alzabo wherein you can gain someone's memories by eating their body along with this alien creature, which has echoes of the Eucharist.
    • It goes even further. There is an actual Crystal Dragon Jesus in the form of the Conciliator. The religious orders are not actually remnants of Christianity but parallel to Christianity; angels, prophets and healing powers are all very much real. The New Sun's universe is cyclic, so Christianity may have existed, but not in the same form as in our (later) universe and the Conciliator, though being set up to be a distant memory of Jesus, is really Severian himself, via time-travel.
    • Chillingly subverted in that the Conciliator myth is engineered by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens to make it appear that their plan to destroy/renew Urth has a divine purpose. Arguably, the entire plot is about Severian being manipulated into believing he is on a divine mission, so that he will create the Conciliator myth.
  • Cue the Sun: An apparent miracle attributed to Apu-Punchau.
  • Dark Messiah / Messianic Archetype: Severian, a.k.a. Apu-Punchau. He's also the Conciliator and the New Sun... i.e., the bringer of the apocalypse.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jonas, who often uses deadpan jokes. It is for this reason that Severian deduces that Jonas must have been a sailor.
  • Dead All Along: Severian. For clarification, in the coda, The Urth of the New Sun, Severian died early in the book but immediately had all his memories implanted into a new, identical body that Tzadkiel fashioned for him on the spot. Unless he died earlier than that. And there's reason to think he did... there's a skull at the bottom of the river where he "nearly" dies in the first book.
  • Deadly Euphemism: The Torturer's Guild refers to its victims as "clients"; also, its technical name is "Guild of The Seekers for Truth and Penitence."
  • Deconstructor Fleet: The series deconstructs many things, but particularly of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey. On the surface, Severian is a torturer and executioner who spares a woman, gets banished for it, and eventually rises to become the ruler of the nation, and the savior of the world, while becoming a better person. However, Severian's entire journey is prearranged and destined by Sufficiently Advanced Aliens so that he will bring about a future where humanity evolves into the Sufficiently Advanced Aliens. Severian is, for the most part, incapable of seeing the strings.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: In general, the culture of the Commonwealth has several different social values. Not surprising considering the setting. Severian himself doesn't have any problem with torture, considering it more humane than forced labor or an indiscriminate death penalty. He changes his mind on the matter later on.
  • Destructive Saviour: The New Sun will restore the dying Urth to health by reigniting the sun, which is otherwise on its way of going out. However, this will create gravitational shifts that will drown all populated land and reduce humanity to the mere handful of people who were on ships or off-world. Many people consider this abrupt cataclysm to be a worse fate than a nice, slow process of extinction.
  • Deus ex Machina: In Book 4, The Citadel of the Autarch, when Severian is rescued by aliens in a spaceship (who had been introduced earlier). His rescuers explicitly state that they are pulling a Deus Ex Machina. However, it is likely that this is a subversion rather than simply lampshading an unsatisfying plot development. The thoughtful reader is supposed to connect this with the puppet imagery earlier in the narrative, and wonder what else the 'powers from above the stage' have been doing during the story. The fact that Severian relates this Deus Ex Machina conversation but still doesn't understand how he's being manipulated, is one of the clearest examples of his status as Unreliable Narrator.
  • Diamonds in the Buff: Jolenta's outfit in Dr. Talos' play. (Severian and Dorcas are naked.)
  • Direct Line to the Author: The whole series is presented as a memoir by Severian after his ascension to the Phoenix Throne, somehow sent back in time and translated into contemporary English by Gene Wolfe. Each volume ends with a note from Gene Wolfe on the 'translation' of a language that doesn't exist yet, often with mentions of how frustratingly unclear Severian sometimes is.
  • Dirty Commies: For the deep future neo-feudal setting, the Ascians turn out to be a very modern Communist stereotype: an authoritarian police state that suppresses individuality and speaks exclusively in slogans about how all actions should benefit "the populace" (this being an effort to prevent them from thinking incorrect thoughts). The Ascians themselves are physically identical and uniformly miserable. Not to mention how they're actually servants of dark powers that want to destroy the world — compare how certain Christian groups identified Gog and Magog of apocalyptic prophecy with Soviet Russia.
    The Autarch: Until the New Sun comes, we have but a choice of evils. All have been tried, and all have failed. Goods in common, the rule of the people... everything. You wish for progress? The Ascians have it. They are deafened by it, crazed by the death of Nature till they are ready to accept Erebus and the rest as gods.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: When Severian discovers a bush covered in Claws on a beach in book IV, does he join the dots and recall that aliens just told him to his face that they were "powers from above stage" orchestrating the story of his life, taking him to the beach so he would have a necessary little adventure? No. He has a religious epiphany instead.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Severian undresses Jolenta as she sleeps.
  • Dueling Messiahs: Though it may not be apparent to the protagonist, there are two apparent candidates for the messiah figure known as the Conciliator, namely Baldanders and Serverian himself. Naturally they end up fighting - the trigger being the science-driven former destroying a relic belonging to the faith-driven latter.
  • Dystopia: The Ascian nation is an Orwellian dystopia. While the Commonwealth is no utopia, at least it doesn't force people to speak only in authorized quotations.
  • Eat Brain for Memories: Eating an alzabo gland extract along with the flesh of a human, gives the partaker the memories of source of the flesh.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Abaia and Erebus are particularly nasty, apparently, though they're never seen in person - only their human worshippers/slaves, the Ascians, who are an Orwellian totalitarian nation.
  • Exalted Torturer: Subverted with Severian. He may be the protagonist, and he believes that torture is necessary. But the reader is not meant to see him as heroic for it.
  • The Executioner: There's an entire guild of them, and the protagonist is an apprentice.
  • Expy: Severian has aspects of the Emperor Claudius as seen in I, Claudius by Robert Graves. He has the epithets "Severian the Mad" and "Severian the Lame", and, like Claudius. has a less than happy marriage to a woman named Valeria.
    • In The Urth of the New Sun he mentioned that his friends called him "Severian the Lame" and his soldiers called him "Severian the Great." This may be a shout-out to the Asian warlord Timur, who was also known by both titles. (It was apparently a pun in Timur's language.)
    • Also, sort of a combination of Expy and Shout-Out is the Librarian Ultan who Severian meets, who is clearly based on the author Jorge Luis Borges.
    • Which in turn suggests Borges' story Funes the Memorious, about a young man with a voluminous memory, who is so weighed down with details that he is incapable of making the generalizations needed to truly understand those facts - which shows us how Severian is an Unreliable Narrator.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Commonwealth is based on the Byzantine empire, though set in South America.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Either Urth freezes beneath the dying Sun, or billions die with the coming of the New Sun, as prophesied by the Conciliator.
  • Forever War: The Commonwealth has been locked in a stalemated war with its northern neighbor Ascia for an unknown number of decades, and the Commonwealth is slowly but surely losing ground.
  • Future Imperfect: Several examples. While at the library, Severian sees a picture of the first man on the moon and not only describes it in an Innocent Inaccurate way, but also wonders why there's no vegetation on it. Another scene makes reference to the planet Mars being renamed "Present" at some point, and one character can't believe a language existed where the words for "gift" and "now" were the same. There's also a scene where Severian hears a story which has a definite similarity to that of Theseus, but has no idea of the connection. Long-lived robot Jonas does understand the connection.
    • "The Tale of The Student and His Son" is a mix of Theseus and the naval Battle of Hampton Roads. The joke is that after so many centuries, people got the Minotaur confused with the Monitor. (There's a similar story that is a mashup of The Jungle Book and Romulus the founder of Rome - both children raised by wolves.)
      The further joke being that the unnamed hero is dreamed up by a student - confusing 'Theseus' with a thesis. And the ship being called The Land of the Virgins is intended as another pun. It ties in nicely with the sacrifice of maidens to the Minotaur, and that the ship fighting the Monitor was the Virgina.
  • Genetic Memory: Severian, after ingesting alzabo gland extract and eating part of Thecla, inherits her memories.
  • Genius Bruiser: Baldanders is a Mad Scientist.
  • Gentle Giant: Subverted. Baldanders appears to fit the archetype, but is actually an Omnidisciplinary Mad Scientist who will eventually, it is implied, ascend at least to demigod-hood. Note that while he's a giant already, he's not even close to full-grown. He will get big enough to have to live in the water eventually, among the Undines and other giant-types too big to walk on land, which as the comment above states, seem to have eerie abilities - there's a throwaway reference to them swimming between the stars.
  • God: In the Catholic derived religions of Urth, God the Father is the Pantocrator, Christ is the Conciliator, and the Holy Spirit is the Increate.
  • God Guise: Tzadkiel appears to Severian in the form of an angel.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Dorcas has blonde hair and is one of the series' few genuinely nice and good-natured people.
  • Handsome Lech: While he does experience Character Development, Severian has a really hard time relating women in terms other than their physical attractiveness. While Severian states outright that he himself is not at all attractive, he isn't necessarily reliable on that topic.
    • Torturers are forbidden to marry (because their wives would be outcasts the same way torturers are, but without the compensations of belonging to a guild and knowing they are a critical part of the government apparatus.) However, they aren't required to be celibate, and they seem to hire prostitutes whenever they can scrape the money together; also, they're occasionally required to sexually assault the prisoners as part of a court-ordered punishment. Severian's behavior towards women is surprisingly considerate for someone who spent his entire childhood in this environment. (As he says at one point, he's a bad man trying to be a good one.)
  • Hero Stole My Bike: Despite him having a ride, when Severian sees a Destrier (a horse-analog that is far faster than our current day equines) unlike any before, and proceeds to steal it to get to his destination faster.
  • Homage: Many of the shorter stories encountered throughout the main text contain more or less obvious parallels to real-life mythology and literature. One is quite clearly the first chapter of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, mashed up with the myth of Romulus and Remus and an American Thanksgiving story.
    • Compare and contrast the Man-Apes in the mines with the Morlocks from The Time Machine (which also features the dying sun).
  • Hopeless War: While the Commonwealth has been able to keep the war against Ascia stalemated for decades, they're unable to make real progress against the enemy and are slowly but surely losing ground.
  • Have We Met Yet?: Played straight and inverted, at the same time. The Hierodules are moving backwards in time, while Severian moves through time normally. Hence, his last meeting with them in The Urth of the New Sun is their first meeting with him.
  • High-Dive Escape: Baldanders makes one after the battle at Lake Diaturna.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Severian and Agilus, during their duel, use plants which poisonous leaves are picked and thrown like darts.
  • Informed Attractiveness: As with other aspects of the books' world, standards of beauty appear to undergo a ton of translation loss between actuality and the narration. There are hints that some of the books' most "beautiful" characters would appear downright unsettling to our eyes.
    • Consider the unnatural height and alien-influenced appearance of Exultants, whose numbers include Thecla, Vodalus, and Thea. The exact degree of their distinctive height and features is vague, leaving it uncertain whether they'd strike us as beautiful, or as Humanoid Abominations.
    • Severian's throwaway asides about Jolenta suggest a figure that goes right past Curves in All the Right Places to extremes that border on Gonk.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: Severian combines this with being a straight Unreliable Narrator. He's more of the former in describing the world he lives in (e.g. his description of a photo of the moon landing), but is more like the latter in describing his own life.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Agilus' stated motive for drawing Severian into a duel to the death? Severian refused to sell him his sword. And a man who refuses to sell an item at any price is a man who threatens to undermine the very principle of commerce upon which society is built, and therefore a man who must die! Given the nature of the story, it's not entirely clear whether this is just Agilus' personal nutty belief, or if this is a philosophy that a significant number of people subscribes to and that Severian just wasn't aware of due to his secluded upbringing.
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): As suggested in the ''GURPS'' game, the Commonwealth where Severian lives is in South America (Buenos Aires is often suggested as the location of Nessus), the Ascians are the former United States of America, and the Xanthic peoples are Asian.
  • Kavorka Man: Severian is often misogynistic, and, you know, a professional torturer and executioner... but the number of women who don't seem to mind is rather staggering.
  • King Incognito: The Autarch is (at least) several of his own minor officials, a brothel-keeper, and a conspirator against the throne.
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre: Only sometimes sexual in this case, but Jonas' verbal mannerism is his "as the actress said to the bishop"-type comments.
  • Language of Truth: The "newspeak"-like language of the Ascians is intended to be this. Subverted by Loyal To The Group Of Seventeen's story.
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine: Severian spends a large part of the first book alongside Agia (dark-haired, scheming, seductive: the dark feminine) and Dorcas (blonde, friendly, vulnerable: the light feminine). In the second book, Jolenta takes over as the dark feminine, including in the roles she and Dorcas assume during Dr. Talos' play.
  • Low Culture, High Tech: The Commonwealth has access to advanced technology (either through space trade or what's scavenged), but it's limited to the upper classes. The Commonality and middle class are largely a medieval level technology and culture. Urth can no longer produce any higher technology, and is considered a backwater world to the rest of the galaxy, without the resources to trade for anything better.
  • Mad Scientist: Genius Bruiser Baldanders.
  • Magic Feather: The Claw of the Conciliator. It's heavily implied that it was just a prop all along, and that the miracles Severian credits to it came entirely from him.
  • The Man in Front of the Man: Dr. Talos and Baldanders. Talos, who clearly seems to be the leader, is a clever, glib conman with fox-like features. Baldanders clearly comes off as the subordinate, and appears to be a Gentle Giant and rarely speaks. In actuality, Baldanders is some sort of Humanoid Abomination Mad Scientist who turns out to be a threatening villain, and Talos is an Artificial Human, who is his creation.
  • Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: Severian expresses convoluted personal theories about the nature of women. On the flip side, he also at one point encounters a woman who matter-of-factly tells him that men are motivated solely by lust for power, whether they want to admit that or not.
  • Mathematician's Answer: Severian asks the Green Man where he will find Agia, and gets told "above ground." Severian is understandably underwhelmed with that answer. He later spends some time in an underground cavern, and finds Agia waiting for him when he leaves it.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Are the seemingly miraculous events of the books actual divine intervention by the Pantocrator or simply the effects of Lost Technology and/or the machinations of Sufficiently Advanced Aliens? Does it really matter if the result is the same?
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Dr. Talos is named after a metal man from Classical Mythology, and does indeed turn out to be an Artificial Human.
    • Baldanders has the name of a shapeshifting creature in German folklore. He is not what he seems, and turns out to be subject to unnatural growth.
    • At first, the name Urth appears to be a corruption of the word Earth. But Urth is also one of the Norse Norns. The naming of Venus (Skuld) and Mars (Veroandi) follow the pattern.
  • Mechanical Evolution: In The Urth of the New Sun, the mechanical humanoid Sidero is revealed to be a robot evolved out of spacesuits with built-in artificial intelligence.
  • Medieval Stasis: The Commonwealth of Urth of Severian's time. It's unclear how long Urth has been this way.
  • Mega City: Nessus. It takes days just to travel out of the city.
  • Mind Screw: Is Severian God? Is the whole thing a complicated twisting plot through multiple timelines? Can we believe a quarter of what Severian is telling us? And many many others. Let's put it this way, there's enough Mind Screw in here to make Evangelion look like an episode of Sesame Street. Ironically, Severian writes that the purpose of his book is to avoid speculation about the events of his life. One can imagine Wolfe having tongue firmly in cheek when he wrote that.
  • More Deadly Than the Male: There are no longer women torturers, because of how often they exceeded the punishments set out by the courts. In fairness, this decision was made by a man who may have been extrapolating from one bad example.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Jolenta is a deconstruction. Her carefully (and sometimes painfully) maintained figure is a source of inconvenience, and people hate her for being so attractive even as they lust after her. Only Jonas (and, arguably, Severian, later) truly and unconditionally loves her for herself.
  • My Own Grandpa: Heavily implied that Dorcas is Severian's Grandmother, and he is My Own Grandpa
  • Named Weapons: Terminus Est. Variously translated as "This is the line of division" and "This is the place of parting" by characters in-story, all of whom overlook the more obvious translation "This is the end". However it's translated, Terminus Est is an apt name for an executioner's sword.
  • Necessarily Evil: The Autarch tells Severian that as brutal and oppressive as the Commonwealth is, it's the best society that's possible for humanity in its current state. He implies that, Urth being as ancient as it is, every other form of government has been tried and found to be worse in practice. It's implied that the coming of the New Sun will begin a new stage of humanity's evolution wherein something better might be possible.
  • Neologism: The book uses a variety of real but very obscure English words to describe concepts and entities in its far-future setting with no direct equivalents in our world. One of these repurposings that has taken off in other novels and wider society is "fuligin", originally an obscure word for soot, to mean a colour that is an ultimate black, so dark that objects of its colour reflect no detectable light at all and appear as merely featureless black splotches to the human eye. It has now been applied to recently-developed real ultra-black pigments, such as Vantablack.
  • Normally, I Would Be Dead Now: The avern plant is firmly established to be deadly to all Urth lifeforms, mammals, birds, insects and plants alike, to make it clear to the reader that Severian should absolutely not be getting back up after being cut with a leaf.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Severian inadvertently wakes up something big and scary deep beneath the cave of the man-apes. He wisely gets the hell out of there before he can see what it is, but it's large enough that its footsteps shakes the earth and it scares the man-apes so much that they run for their lives rather than continue trying to kill Severian.
  • Off with His Head!: How Severian typically performs executions, such as Agilus's.
  • Our Angels Are Different: That's if they're not Sufficiently Advanced Aliens.
  • Passing the Torch: In the Commonwealth, the Autarch is not a hereditary position (in theory at least), but one which is traditionally passed down to a member of the Commonality. The Autarch does this to Severian. It's also the reason why so many Exultants (the hereditary nobility) dislike the Autarch.
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: Frequently.
    He [Master Gurloes] mispronounced quite common words: urticate, salpinx, bordereau.
Translation: string with nettles, the fallopian or eustachian tube, a memorandum listing documents.
  • Pet the Dog: Severian is usually pragmatic and self-interested to the point of sociopathy, but every so often he'll do something that implies that he does have a heart. Examples include his Mercy Killing of Thecla that might have gotten him tortured to death in her stead (an outcome he knew was likely, but which didn't stop him from confessing his actions to the masters unprompted), his sparing of Agia even when she had tried to kill him and made it clear that she'd try again, and his setting free Cyriaca even at the cost of his profession and the need for him to flee into the mountains to avoid the archon's wrath. He also at one point finds an actual dog (or, at least an animal equivalent to a modern-day dog) nearly or possibly actually dead and nurtures it back to health.
  • Plant Hair: Severan goes to see a festival sideshow that supposedly has a future-telling plant man. Much to Severan's surprise, there is a indeed a Green Man. After a moment of silence Severan tries to get the conversation started, by mentioning he always imagined that a plant-man would have grass-like hair. The Green Man finally talks, correcting Severian that he is not a plant.
  • Public Execution: Severian is a public executioner and describes some of his jobs when he decides it's relevant to provide a setting for the story.
  • Rags to Royalty: Severian, as promised in Chapter 1.
  • Recursive Precursors: The Hierogrammates were created by humanity in an earlier cycle of the Universe. They now forge the humanity of Severian's Universe.
    Your race and ours are, perhaps, no more than each other's reproductive mechanisms.
  • Robot Buddy: Severian encounters one on his journey. It's Jonas, who is a robot that was "repaired" with organic material.
  • Scavenger World: Gene Wolfe once described Urth as "the future where we sit at home and wait for the money to run out". Humanity has exhausted all the resources of the planet and can no longer support any level of technology higher than medieval. Only the ruling class have access to higher levels of tech, which they get by trading for it with extraterrestrials. In The Claw of the Conciliator Severian runs into a village of "miners" who make a living by robbing graves. It's implied that all the resources have run out, so pillaging what we would consider archaeological ruins is the only way to gather resources.
  • Science Is Bad: Severian's rival messiah-figure, Baldanders, is contrasted against Severian's deep faith and performing miracles with a holy relic by being a scientist with advanced technology and a contempt for religion. His laboratory is accordingly filled with human experiments and other crimes against nature, not to mention how the modifications he's made to his own body will eventually force him to live in the sea (domain of the pseudo-Satanic Erebus and Abaia). Allegorically, the two represent different paths that humanity could take: Baldander's godless science, which creates only monsters, or Severian's religious renewal. Severian, of course, wins out.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: Typhon, whom Severian accidentally releases... and then kills within the next few pages.
  • Sexy Dimorphism: Abaia and Charybdis are mountain-sized, multi-headed tentacle things. Their daughter-wives, the Undine, are beautiful albino women who are indistinguishable from humans other than being 60 feet tall.
  • Show Within a Show: Dr. Talos' play Eschatology and Genesis, which is an allegory for the overarching plot of the series.
  • Space Is an Ocean: Not only are sailing metaphors used for space travelers, their crafts are actually made a lot like traditional sail boats. In fact, not only are ordinary sailors sometimes employed on starships, but thanks to the difficulty of travel, other planets may as well be other continents as far as most people are concerned.
  • Speaks in Shout-Outs: Soldiers from the Ascian empire. Any citizen of Ascian can only speak by quoting from the "Authorized Texts". It's another example of the dystopian reality of Ascia.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories. Both are set in a far future where science has decayed, and feature a dying sun.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Jolenta. She ambiguously enjoys being so beautiful that Even the Girls Want Her. She also finds her body physically uncomfortable and the process breaks down. Horribly.
  • Star Killing: What's happening to the Old Sun. Apparently a black hole was sent into the Sun, causing it to enter a dimmer, red state without expanding into a giant.
  • Stop Hitting Yourself: One of the devices the Torturer's Guild uses is the revolutionary, which implants in its victim an overpowering urge to harm themselves. If they concentrate they can temporarily resist the compulsion, but inevitably they will unconsciously bite, choke, and tear at themselves, over and over again. The "demon" inside them weakens as they do, so most last for about a month.
    • Severian mentions occasions where his hands have tried to gouge his eyes out after inheriting Thecla's memories. It isn't clear whether this is a vestige of the effects of the revolutionary, or if what appears to be Thecla's consciousness is trying to take revenge on Severian.
  • Solar CPR: What turns out to be the plot of the series.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: The Hierodules are this.
  • Surprise Incest: Severian has sex with Dorcas, who is almost certainly his grandmother. He is surprisingly okay with this.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: Subverted with Vodalus. He and his followers claim to be working to return the decaying Urth to its former past glory. It turns out Vodalus is in league with Abaia, who wants to prevent the New Sun from arriving.
  • The Stars Are Going Out: Inverted. The sun is very dimmed and fading quickly, meaning that the other stars are now visible during the day.
  • Theme Naming:
    • Siblings such as Agilus and Agia are intentionally given similar names, also apparently telling the order of their birth. Severian's name indicates he has an older sister, somewhere.
    • Vodalus and all characters from the city of Nessus, including Severian himself, are named after saints (though many of them little-known).
  • Torture Technician: The Torturer's Guild in which Severian is raised and apprenticed. As there are, by decree, no female torturers, the guild raises such male infants as fall into their hands.
  • Tracking Device: It's explicit that powers are guiding Severian's journey, so they'll need a way to keep tabs on him. Maybe through something that he will always keep with him, such as the Claw of the Conciliator?
  • Unreliable Narrator: Severian is one of the big ones, and it is sometimes lampshaded. He claims on several occasions to have an eidetic memory - but it's quite clear that he sometimes lies outright. He also omits details that he apparently considers unimportant (or has difficulty understanding) - this extends to major events that change the course of the story.
    • Furthermore, Severian's verbose (and usually [significantly] inconclusive) philosophical ramblings tend to disguise the fact that he isn't smart enough to work out what's really going on. It is an alleged trait of some real-life mnemonists - shared by Severian - that they are passive acceptors, and combine a wealth of thought with surprisingly little intellect.
    • Wolfe's Shout-Out to the author Borges (the library/Ultan the Librarian) is likely a pointer to Borges' 'Funes the Memorious' as a indicator of why Severian is unreliable; Funes is a young man who's head is so full of facts that he 'can't think any more', and is incapable of making the generalisations that Severian needs to join the dots.
    • One reader went carefully through the novels and noticed that every single time Severian mentions his "eidetic" memory he goes on to recall something that's already happened in the novel... and gets some detail wrong. Either he's lying constantly or his memory is nothing as good as he thinks it is. (Formatting on the link is pretty ugly; scroll down a page or so to get the content.)
    • Genre-wise, the book is a political autobiography. For example, Severian elaborately washes his hands of the murder of his delicious predecessor and appeals to his soldiers by claiming to be a war veteran.
  • Vestigial Empire: The Commonwealth of Urth. It's the successor of an interstellar empire. Now it barely holds onto one measly continent.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The books are peppered with a large amount of obscure terms that will look like Latin altered to fit English grammatical rules to the casual reader. As noted in the afterword of the first book, none of the words are made up, and have seen real-world usage. Their obscurity is intended to reinforce the fact that they are approximations of untranslatable concepts, nothing else. A reader with an exceptionally large vocabulary will have a much easier time with the novels.
  • Voice Changeling: The alzabo can perfectly imitate the voice of anyone that it has eaten. It naturally uses this to lure its victims' family members out of hiding.
  • Warfare Regression: Played with - frontline soldiers of the Commonwealth are armed with slings, crossbows, and lances. Traditional cavalry has returned. However, the slings and crosswbows have pyrotechnic ammo, said lances fire energy beams, and the cavalry ride creatures that can go 100 Miles per hour.
  • Weird Trade Union:
    • Other than the Torturers, there are the librarians and animal trainers, as well as one of witches, who rather than being solely magical, they appear to have a spy network.
    • Severian claims that the animal trainers are literally married to their animals. It is likely he is confused by the term "animal husbandry". (He relates this story about the guild of Animal Trainers not long after spending some time correcting misinformation about his own guild, apparently not realizing the irony.)
  • Wham Episode: Lake Diaturna. Severian fights Baldanders, Terminus Est is destroyed, and Severian meets the Hierodules.
  • Wham Line: Wolfe manages to finish chapter one with a wham line.
    It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: One of the central themes. In particular, contrast Jolenta with Jonas.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Severian, and not just professionally.
    There were two women there who had been lovers as we had been, and they stared at us and laughed; but when they saw I would not spare them because they were women, they fled shrieking.
  • You All Meet in an Inn: Played with. Severian meets Baldanders and Dr. Talos at an Inn, but despite Dr. Talos asking Severian to join his theater troupe, Severian has no intention of travelling with them. He does inadvertently end up crossing paths with them several times, though.
  • Younger Than They Look: Throughout his journey, people consistently treat Severian as a mature adult; granted his post-industrial world requires children to grow up quickly. Nevertheless it should be remembered that the journey takes place immediately after his elevation to Journeyman. He's around eighteen. It's easy for the reader to ascribe to Severian an intellectual maturity which he does not possess, which brings us back to Unreliable Narrator.

Alternative Title(s): The Book Of The New Sun