Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Book of the Short Sun by Gene Wolfe. There’s an omnibus Science Fiction Book Club [Amazon, Local Library] edition, but also the Book of the Short Sun [Amazon, Publisher] series.
The three component volumes of The Book of the Short Sun make up the final segment of the twelve-volume Solar Cycle, which is thus divided into New, Long, and Short. The Short Sun books are a very direct sequel to the Book of the Long Sun, mostly carrying forward the same narrative voice, but shifting from the sort of objective chronicle of Patera Silk in the Long Sun “whorl” (i.e. world) to a more nakedly subjective first-person account of Silk’s onetime student Horn, who has emigrated to the Short Sun whorl of Blue.
The three Short Sun titles are On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, and Return to the Whorl, and based on the early chapters of the first book it appears that they will have a straightforward adventure arc, in which Horn will pursue a quest for Patera Silk, leading him first across Blue, then to the neighboring whorl of Green, and finally back to the Long Sun whorl. They do sort of shake out that way, but the narrative structure is in fact considerably more complex, with the the greater portions of the second and third books being written in the form of journals and reminiscences after Horn’s return to Blue from his interplanetary excursions, and much concerned with that later time on Blue.
Two non-human races, evidently native to Green and Blue respectively, are crucial to the Short Sun arc. The vampiric inhumi of Green were introduced in the Long Sun books, and Horn develops ambivalent relationships with several of these, along with a mysterious rapport with the Neighbors or Vanished People of Blue.
Those who have read all of the foregoing series, and who have seen the transformative effects of The Urth of the New Sun on the narrative established in the earlier New Sun books, may not be surprised to find the Short Sun ringing similar changes on the Long Sun story. But it also accomplishes a circuit comprehending the entire Solar Cycle, as the benefits of Horn’s intimacy with non-human powers allow him eventually to obtain visionary contact with the “Red Sun whorl,” i.e. the Urth of the Old Sun that forms the initial setting of the larger series.
To arrive at the sense of a completed whole after twelve novels is no mean feat, but it is amply accomplished here. In Wolfe’s typical manner, many character motives only become clear in retrospect. There are strange transformations of identity and sympathy throughout the books. They are challenging texts, but very rewarding to read.