The Color That Is Darker Than BlackGene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is the best thing I've read in ten years, since the first time I read The Lord of the Rings. In fact, professional critics have placed it right alongside that work. If that doesn't grab your attention enough, let me also state that it's the most metal book I've ever read.
The most key point to explain what makes this book so great is captured in a cover quote from the third volume: "The most extraordinary hero in the history of the heroic epic" (Washington Post Book World). Roger Ebert famously stated that only good villains separate good stories from bad, because heroes are all the same, but that is definitely not the case here. Severian begins as an apprentice in the Seekers for Truth and Penitence, the guild of the torturers. They carry out judicial punishments ranging from all manner of torture to execution. He, like most members of his guild, has no family. He has a strong sense of justice, like all heroes, and the torturers' philosophy to justify their actions is well-considered. But he also does some rather unsavory things along his journey. He is prone to mercy, but can also be quite ruthless. Peculiarly, he often repeats that he remembers everything, and doesn't know what it's like to forget.
Sidebar: It's actually four books, The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982), and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). It was later released as two volumes, Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, but I read from an earlier edition.
After being exiled from his guild for a serious breach of duty--giving a prisoner the means of suicide to avoid excruciation--he sets out on his journey. And it does conform to the heroic epic template, Along the way, he becomes a sort of Christ character in many respects. He clearly has a grand destiny. He has a mysterious healing ability. Many parables are told through him. He is often identified as Severian of Nessus, much like Jesus of Nazareth. But the most striking of these is his temptation, which is so very like Christ's temptation in the desert. But as you might guess, it ends quite differently.
Many other characters are also quite fully developed by the end of the story, and each of them is at least as enigmatic as the main character. Complete characters are the mark of any good story. But I can't overstate it. Even Severian's sword, Terminus Est, became like a character, and I felt genuine affection for it.
But in a work of speculative fiction, world-building is often regarded with equal importance with character development. And the world of Urth is wonderfully complex. The story is set in the far distant future, after humanity has explored the stars, but the sun is dying out and the world's resources are depleted. Thus, mysterious technology and (often horrifying) creatures figure largely in the story, but for the most part the real fighting is done with medieval weaponry. The slow death of the planet, I should note, fits perfectly with the mood the hero-narrator brings to the tale.
Urth is fully realized in terms of society and culture as well. There are not only the dregs of society and the nobility, but also urban and rural folk, hermits, foreigners, pure savages, aliens, and Lovecraftian beings in the deep. There are also the religious, irreligious, and mystics. When I lay all of these things out in list form it may give the impression the author set out to cover every base and did so with a checklist, but each part fits naturally into the story.
One final point I will touch on is the style. It is unique in all of my reading. The words used to describe things are often archaic, giving it a grand feeling. The narrator is prone to digressions which illuminate the story and his thoughts. And though the events are often quite grand or brutal, and the images painted quite dramatic (the entrance to a rebel encampment is one especially notable), he delivers it with an almost deadpan evenness. This is unexpectedly powerful, and lends an air of credibility. As an example, Severian is asked to prove to a peltast (a kind of soldier) that he is a member of the torturers' guild:
The peltast was relaxed, so there was no great difficulty. I knocked his shield aside with my right arm, putting my left foot on his right to pin him while I crushed that nerve in the neck that induces convulsions.The chapter abruptly ends there.
Needless to say, at this point, I give The Book of the New Sun 5 out of 5 stars.