After leaving us with a bit of a cliffhanger in the chaos at the Gate of Nessus at the end of Shadow of the Torturer, Gene Wolfe engages in a bit of torturing of his own now by starting us off with a scene involving someone named Morwenna, which who the Snape is this and why do we care? What happened at the Gate, dammit!
We get bits and pieces but Severian is grudging with this information and insists on mixing it in with his dreams and his "perfect" memories, claiming that sometimes he just trips out on those memories like when someone says the name Vodalus. And someone said Vodalus to him on his arrival, post Gate Chaos, in the town of Saltus, where we're taking up his story, so as far as he's concerned, his perfect memory is crowded by... his perfect memory of his cemetery encounter with Vodalus at the beginning of the first book?
But soon Wolfe is making it up to us, because Saltus is serving up a variety of delights, partly just because Severian is there. The aforementioned Morwenna needs killing, for one thing, and so does another guy, who everyone has decided is a dirty spy for Vodalus (hence the Memory Lane), and so does yet another guy, a cattle thief. And if there's gonna be an execution, there needs to be a fair! And if there are gonna be three executions, it needs to be a really great fair!
And the first attraction is, a very special attraction! Saltus, it seems, has a tradition of sealing up malefactors in their houses (after removing all of the food and valuables) to starve in the dark! And then, when said malefactor is good and dead, they break open the house and remove the corpse (or thing the malefactor has, uh, become*) and sell the house off! And Severian and Jonas (the only member of the Gate Gang who managed to stick with Severian) are just in time to watch the fun! And so, onward, the battering ram, let's get this guy Barnoch out.** Barnoch being, of course, the aforementioned dirty spy. Who might not be dead yet because hey, if they'd have known Severian was coming, they would have baked a cake. Or at least not tried baking a Barnoch?***
And of course Severian, who still considers himself a follower of Vodalus, starts fretting about having to kill one of his fellows. This doesn't stop him from following the battering ram into the foul-smelling house once they break through, though! And yes, what they find is kind of a tall Gollum, except instead of muttering about The Precious he insists that "I will be free... Vodalus will come!"
Oh, and in the resulting hullabulloo, whom does Severian glimpse in the crowd but Agia? Man, that chick is a bit of a stalker, no? But then Severian can't locate her! But soon something more important happens because GREEN MAN.
He was apparently captured a little while ago, and is going to be exhibited at the fair. He might even grant you three... oh wait, wrong green man. Or is it?
And also, Severian learns, someone brought a cathedral to the fair! And yes, it's that cathedral! Well, a replacement for that cathedral because of course the one Severian accidentally pillaged burned down! And supposedly rose up into the air on the updrafts it created because the cathedral is a big tent! Maybe that's what Severian and Dorcas saw! But, you know, only on the most pathetic level of reality.
But then, monomaniac that Severian sometimes is, he gets the idea that the Green Man might know where Agia is, since green men know everything and all. And so soon Severian is alone with said green man, whom he finds a prisoner and possibly a slave, which is contrary to his ethics. But he is also quite a fascinating specimen who claims to be from the far future, his green hue being due to his people's having established a symbiotic relationship with some algae so that the green man can basically keep himself going via photosynthesis instead of food, as long as his captors don't get mad at him and cut off his sunlight. Finally, though the green man can only tell Severian that Agia is "above ground" Severian hands him half of his whetstone -- in other words, giving the green man the means to free himself from the chain that binds him to this place and time. This act of kindness will resonate very subtly through the rest of the Book of the New Sun, and possibly through the entire rest of the Solar Cycle, but Severian pretends to be unaware of this at this point in his narrative and just mentions watching comprehension dawn on the Green Man's face as he realizes he's being freed.
Then comes the time for Severian to do his job again, this time with Jonas as a sort of assistant. This turns out to be even more of a production than when he executed Agilus near the end of Shadow of the Torturer. This is not only because there are three victims, but also because the alcade of Saltus is a bit of a showman, though a nervous one. First he leads everyone in a prayer to the Increate/Conciliator/God that is pretty amusing considering that Severian is standing right next to him as he intones:
"You, the hero who will destroy the black worm that devours the sun; you for whom the sky parts as a curtain; you whose breath shall whither vast Erebus, Abaia and Scylla who wallow beneath the wave; you that equally live in the shell of the smallest seed in the farthest forest, the seed that hath rolled into the dark that no one sees."I've always paid more attention to the first part of this prayer than the second, but since I've come to align myself with those who argue that the Whorl system in which Book of the Short Sun takes place and that of Urth (which is our own good old familiar system in the unbelievably distant past or future, depending on how you choose to look at this whole Cycle) are one and the same, I find myself entertaining thoughts of Severian somehow carrying on through Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, perhaps via the Green Man, who might be himself in a later state of being just as some suggest that Severian himself might be Typhon in a new guise/incarnation; perhaps in some more mundane form in the person of Patera Silk, or something? I need to think longer on this. My brain is wanting to make a logical narrative connection in which Severian winds up in Green's jungles, wherever they "really" turn out to be, but I'll confess to feeling a little defeated in this, just now.
At any rate, it's killing time. First up is Morwenna, accused of poisoning her husband and child, chiefly on the word of one Eusebia, who we learn was in love with said husband and considered Morwenna a hussy who stole him away. Eusebia's successful prosecution/persecution of the beautiful Morwenna is her revenge, but Morwenna manages to avenge herself before she dies by poisoning a bouquet of purple roses Eusebia brought to taunt her with ("die before these fade") on her way up to the scaffold. As Severian ends Morwenna's life, he tries to comfort her with another unintentionally amusing observation "Try to remember that almost everyone who has ever lived has died, even the Conciliator, who will rise as the New Sun."****
From here we move briskly along to the aftermath in which Severian and Jonas enjoy a brief spell of being treated like rock stars. We don't get any description of the man's execution, because Severian tells us he doesn't really feel like talking about every single one he performed on his way to his post at Thrax. "When I describe my travels, you are to understand that I practiced the mystery of our guild where it was profitable to do so, though I do not mention the specific occasions."
Over dinner, Severian finds himself the recipient of a note! And what a note it is, for it is purportedly from none other than his beloved Thecla, who claims that Father Inire interceded on her behalf and she just faked her suicide. "Did you look? I lay as still as death... I seemed to feel your pain when you saw me there." And Severian is given instructions to proceed to a rendezvous with her that she might impart to him "a grave secret." Snickerhoot.
Not one to wait around when a girl calls for him, Severian asks to borrow Jonas' horse-thing but winds up stealing a destrier (some kind of alien-horse hybrid that serves as the mount of the very important) and following a brook to its origin in a cliff face "flooding out like saliva from the lips of a petrified titan."****** This is how to get to the mine shaft where he is supposed to meet Thecla. Cue Admiral Ackbar? At any rate, Severian would utterly fail at text adventures, for he never bothered to Get Lamp.
And thus, in the dark, we leave him for now.
*As the alcalde (the mayor, more or less) tells Severian: "A woman sealed in the dark long enough can become something very strange, just like the strange things you find in rotten wood, back among the big trees. We're miners, mostly, here in Saltus, and used to things found underground, but we took to our heels and came back with torches. It didn't like the light, or the fire, either." Heh heh. Sounds like at some point they accidentally cooked themselves a Gollum, eh? But of course, what they sealed in the house might have only appeared human to start with. This is Urth, not Middle Earth, after all.
**When people fret that Gene Wolfe doesn't seem to have a sense of humor, I always want to trot out Barnoch. As far as I can tell, and I'm no hagiographer, not even Catholic, but as far as I can tell, this guy's namesake saint is Barrog, who is famous for being... hee hee hee... a hermit. A hermit whose chapel became a famous pilgrimage site. Come on. That's funny!
******Our first hint that all of these mountains have been turned into a giant Mount Rushmore, really, no? Or at least a foreshadowing of same.