I always have a bunch of books on the go (four at present). One of those, apropos of @Pathfinder 's post, is From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 by James E. Fraser, which is a history of Scotland more or less from the earliest record c.61 AD to 795 AD. This book, at least in the first third, covers the Roman hinterland between the walls and also Bernicia, which would become the kingdom of Northumberland. It's not the most accessible book, but quite nice if you've ready widely on the period, and presents things from a new perspective (very post-modern in that way). There are better books for first-timers, though.
The book I really wanted to talk about, though, is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which is considered a classic of SF/Fantasy (it straddles that line).
We're reading this with my book club, and doing what we call a 'slow read', which means reading about 20-30 pages a week, then pausing to reflect and discuss the section each week. We're nearly a quarter of the way through, and will continue until Christmas. The entire work is actually composed of 4 sequential novels.
The Book of the New Sun is incredibly rich in a number of ways. For one, it's exceedingly well written. Wolfe was highly admired by his peers, including Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Leguin, who once referred to him and the Herman Melville of SF. It;s also very rich in vocabulary, which many archaic and unusual words - English words - use to lend the setting both an antique feel and an exotic feel. It's very rich in its setting, which is a city called Nessus, located somewhere in the southern hemisphere, in the far distant future under a dying red sun. It's rich in meaning, with several allusions to the story of Christ, and hidden meanings arising from the unusual vocabulary. And the story itself is one of depth, following a man of questionable circumstances (he's a member of the guild of torturers as the story begins) through to eventual self redemption.
Wolfe died just a few weeks ago and there were a number of good obits. The best piece I've seen it writing, though, is this 2016 bio from The New Yorker by Peter Bebergal, of which an excerpt below:
For science-fiction readers, “The Book of the New Sun” is roughly what “Ulysses” is to fans of the modern novel: far more people own a copy than have read it all the way through. A surreal bildungsroman, the book centers on a character named Severian. Trained as a torturer on the planet Urth, where torturers are a feared and powerful guild, Severian betrays his order by showing mercy, allowing a prisoner to kill herself rather than be subjected to his terrible ministrations. He then wanders the land encountering giants, anarchists, and members of religious cults. He eventually meets and supplants the ruler of Urth, the Autarch.
The four books that make up the series are sometimes vexing. A wise reader will keep a dictionary nearby, but it won’t always prove useful. Though Wolfe relies merely on the strangeness of English—rather than creating a new language, like Elven or Klingon—he nonetheless dredges up some truly obscure words: cataphract, fuligin, metamynodon, cacogens. The setting appears medieval, but slowly we tease out that what is ancient to these characters was once our own possible future. A desert’s sands are the glass of a great city, and the creaking steel walls that make up Severian’s cell in the guild dormitory is likely an ancient spaceship. Reading “The Book of the New Sun” is dizzying; at times, you become convinced that you have cracked a riddle, and yet the answer fails to illuminate the rest of the story. Wolfe doesn’t reveal the truth behind any of the central mysteries explicitly, but lets them carry the narrative along. At first, one hopes that they will eventually be resolved. Ultimately, they become less important than Severian’s quest for his own truth.
Unlike Latro, Severian remembers everything. But this does not make him a more reliable narrator. “The fact that he remembers everything doesn’t mean he won’t color the events through his own preconceptions and preferences,” Wolfe told me. Severian is free to pick and choose what he wants the reader to know—there are times when he loses trust in his own judgment, and at one point he even admits that he might be insane. In the early part of the first novel, “The Shadow of the Torturer,” Severian is given more responsibility in the guild and finds himself in chambers he was once denied access to. In one, he sees a dusty and faded picture he describes as “an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.” Careful readers will realize this as a photograph of the first moon landing, but to Severian it merely evokes a deep nostalgia, as well as a desire to steal the picture and bring it outside, away from the stifling interior of the guild’s Citadel.
Moments like this have turned many of Wolfe’s fans into something like Biblical exegetes, who dig deep into his texts in the hope of finding clues not only to the plots and the characters but to Wolfe’s larger intentions. Partly what readers are excavating is Wolfe’s Catholicism, which he is quick to say figures into his writing. “What is impossible is to keep it out,” he told me. “The author cannot prevent the work being his or hers.” Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” cautions novelists to use religious concerns in ways that do not alienate the reader, to render encounters with the ineffable so that even those who might not understand or care for a particular metaphor—Aslan the Lion as Christ, for example—can still be moved by it. Many critics have speculated that Severian is a Christ figure: he brings the New Sun and puts an end to the cruelty of torture. But Wolfe wraps his Catholicism in strange language and cryptic images. Truth of any kind, no matter how closely you read, is hard to come by in Wolfe’s books. And yet, over time, it does seem to emerge.