The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe
Published: Timescape Books, 1981
Series: Book 3 of the Book of the New Sun
Awards Won: BFS and Locus F Awards
Awards Nominated: BSFA, Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy Awards
Warning: This is the third book of a series, so there are some spoilers of the first two books in the following text.
“The exiled torturer Severian has finally reached his post at the city of Thrax, where it appears he will be able to settle into a regular career and position in society. However, when Severian finds that he is unable to carry out a sentence without question, he must flee Thrax and head into the wilderness.
Severian follows the trail of the Pelerines, the religious order from whom he accidentally received the Claw of the Conciliator, while he was in Nessus. Along his path lie many familiar and unfamiliar dangers, and he will face many experiences that are both wondrous and horrifying.” ~Allie
For the third book of the series, I listened to the novel on audiobook during my daily commute. I plan to also listen to the final installment of the series through audiobook, after I finish my ongoing listen of Greg Egan’s Permutation City.
After three books, I think that this series is starting to grow on me. I was a little frustrated that the first half of the series finished without Severian ever reaching Thrax, since his inability to reach his destination left me with the sense that he was wandering around with no purpose. I was delighted to see that this novel opened with him already settled in Thrax, even though he didn’t stay there for long. The format of this installment of Severian’s memoir was similar to the previous ones; he spent most of the book wandering around having adventures and occasionally recounting in-universe stories. Even so, I felt that his journey was a little more focused on his eventual goal than it was before, and I appreciated that small sense of forward momentum.
The highlights of previous books have been, for me, the creative details of Severian’s various encounters. The Sword of the Lictor is no different in this respect, and I especially enjoyed the creepy and oppressive atmosphere of several of his more horror-themed experiences. For instance, one scene takes place in the traditional horror locale of an isolated cabin, and involves a very creative kind of monster. Another takes place up in the mountains, and involves a monster of the human variety. In addition to enjoying the stories on their own merit, I was also pleased to see some of the mysteries from previous novels finally explained. I enjoyed seeing more of the dying ‘Urth’, and hearing more about how various people lived on it.
One of my largest complaints about the earlier books was the character of Severian, and I felt like this was the first book that took steps towards making him a little sympathetic. Several acts that contributed to this involved him caring for children in need, with no expectation of repayment. The act that caused him to flee Thrax also helped me see him in a slightly kinder light. I think it also helped that a long stretch of this novel did not involve Severian sleeping with women, since his perspective on women is problematic at best. I appreciated seeing a bit more about the rationalizations he had been given as a child for his career as a torturer, since this made it a little easier to see where he was coming from. I still wouldn’t say Severian is a good person-- not by a long shot-- but I am starting to see him as a person that is perhaps in transition into becoming someone better. I’m looking forward to seeing how he might grow in the final fourth of the story!
My Rating: 3.5/5
I’ve been having a hard time getting into this classic of science fiction, but The Sword of the Lictor is my favorite of the series so far. Though it still features Severian wandering around and encountering various situations, the overall story felt a little bit more focused. Some of the individual encounters are especially chilling, and I was happy to see some long-standing questions answered at last. I’ve never been particularly fond of the main character, the torturer Severian, but I felt like he took some steps toward becoming a better person in this fourth of the story. I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen next!