Originally published October 21st, 2015
This book was both better and worse than the first one. There were almost no female characters in it, and few of the ones who were in it had any purpose other than to be attractive to, and threatened by, Severian. (If I have to read him waxing lustful over rounded thighs one more time…) He seems to have a few issues interacting with women, and viewing them as autonomous human beings. As an example, at various points in both books one of Severian’s companions decides to part ways with Severian, usually to seek answers to the mysteries of his or her past. Severian is always willing to let them go freely, as much as he misses their company once they are gone. However, while he never questions the male characters’ decision to follow his own road, the females’ decisions are framed – multiple times – as a betrayal. But they are leaving him for exactly the same reason as the male character! For all his introspection on his flaws and the nature of humanity and the universe, he never notices this double standard. His personal musings also frequently include pointless asides on womankind’s inherent inferiority to men. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for including these dismissive and sexist thoughts, so I’m not sure why the author added them. It certainly doesn’t add anything to the story.
However, that complaint aside, Wolfe includes a passage in the last book which filled me with such joy I have to include it here. It’s a bit of a plot twist for some side character development, and so does contain some spoilers, but nothing that interferes with the main story line. Severian has been staying for a period of time in a camp where volunteers care for the wounded from the front lines of the nearby war, and he has befriended a few of the patients: a woman named Foila; and three men: Hallvard, Melito, and one known only as the Ascian. She has asked Severian to judge a story-telling contest and so help her select a winning suitor. We’ve heard the men’s stories and she has asked Severian to delay judgment for one more night, but without giving a reason. The next day she reveals the reason:
Hallvard and Melito and even the Ascian have had their chances. Don’t you think I’m entitled to one too? Even a man who courts a maid thinking he has no rivals has one, and that one is herself. She may give herself to him, but she may also choose to keep herself for herself. He has to convince her that she will be happier with him than by herself, and though men convince maids of that often, it isn’t often true. In this competition I will make my own entry, and win myself for myself if I can. If I marry for tales, should I marry someone who’s a worse teller of them than I am myself?
She then proceeds to tell a brilliant tale which is one of my favourite sections of the whole tetralogy. The fact that Wolfe believed that Foila’s argument was even an option, let alone a valid one, melted my heart completely. It’s one of the brightest patches in a book where the main character regularly takes his frustrations out on women. As impressed as I am with Wolfe’s achievement in writing this series, it would be nice to see more “award-winning,” “magnificent” fantasy or sci-fi books without the ubiquitous toxic attitudes towards women.