This novel opens Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Short Sun, a sequel – beginning twenty years after – to The Book of the Long Sun. That tetralogy's priest-hero Silk gradually unpeeled the complex wrappings of his world and found it to be a decaying generation spacecraft, the starcrosser Whorl, now orbiting in its destination system and faced with the choice of two planets, Green and Blue. Green is the home of vampiric alien "inhumi", who seem to want a colony of human cattle there. Most of Silk's flock – though not the priest himself – end up on Blue, where his pupil Horn (and Horn's wife Nettle) laboriously piece together Silk's convoluted story as the Book of Silk, which is also The Book of the Long Sun.
Here, with many false starts and rewrites, Horn begins again, recording his own quest to bring back the great lost leader Silk. Just as the despised torturer Severian mentions in the very first chapter of The Book of the New Sun that he has ultimately attained the Autarch's throne, so Horn lets slip almost at once that his quest is over and that it failed. This can't be taken as final, though, since we discover that Horn's own story isn't yet complete.
The narrative sequence is artfully dislocated, as Horn indulges in flashbacks, introduces comparisons based on happenings still in the narrative future, sticks in belated afterthoughts, and even has a second go at scenes that he finds unsatisfyingly or dishonestly written. To oversimplify wildly: he takes an oath to seek out Silk, sets sail for the Blue colony city of Pajarocu which claims to have a spaceworthy "lander" craft and is requesting volunteers for a trip to the Whorl (where Silk is presumed to be), has numerous encounters and adventures en route, finds the lander inhumi-controlled and headed not for the Whorl but for Green, and ... Here there's a vast gap containing only fleeting hints, to be filled out by the promised sequels In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl. A much wearied and ravaged Horn is setting all this down at some later date, back on Blue again but still far from his home town and distracted by such current events as a small war to which he's contributing some devious tactics.
Among the people and others encountered by Horn on his tangled path to Pajarocu are: the psychic woman Mucor and the robotic Maytera Marble/Rose from the Long Sun; Babbie, a many-legged animal native to Blue, who becomes Horn's watchdog and friend; the Outsider, the one god who amid the Whorl's synthetic electronic pantheon seemed to be the genuine article (though here perhaps a merely subjective theophany); an old sea-god of Blue's vanished sapients, physically manifesting as a huge female who is a mere extension of something far huger underwater – recalling the Commonwealth's titanic undersea adversaries Abaia and Erebus in the New Sun; Seawrack, a one-armed woman whom this goddess "gives" to Horn and who seems to be a literal siren; Krait, an inhumu who becomes bonded to Horn as a loved and hated surrogate son; and the indescribable, numinous Neighbours who formerly inhabited Blue and require Horn to grant a suspiciously innocent request on behalf of all humanity.
Mysteries surround most of these, not to mention Horn's sometimes extraordinary reactions to them. He's a generally likeable but often frustrating and surely unreliable narrator, repeatedly castigating himself for not living up to the high standard of truthfulness which he ascribes to Silk. Meanwhile, unknown to Horn, a few disconcerting editorial notes have been added to his text by other hands. One of these informs us that the person Horn most hopes will never see these confessions has indeed now read them. Another blandly confirms a seemingly inexplicable mix-up of names (how could Horn confuse himself, by name, with his own sons?) and reassures us that the text is accurate. This and other hints of metamorphosis – like Horn's aside that he has become much taller – make us wonder whether, as with Severian and the subjects of Long Sun theophanies, his mind too is no longer all his own. Somewhere in Illinois, Gene Wolfe is grinning broadly as his fevered admirers puzzle over what he doesn't yet choose to reveal. He's a magical storyteller as always, but sometimes makes us work hard for the deep connections within his story.
Despite all these tangles, On Blue's Waters seems a simpler and less rich text than the preceding tetralogy; however, I remember writing exactly this after book one of the Long Sun, and sense a number of unexploded narrative bombshells. Two-thirds of the tale is yet to follow. Everything we know may be wrong. Looking back at the above preliminary survey, I feel (like Horn on so many occasions) that it's hopelessly inadequate and that I need to read the whole book again, preferably in the light of its continuations. Meanwhile, new readers should definitely get up to speed on the entire Long Sun sequence before venturing into this closely linked follow-up.
Looking back again, it's clear that Wolfe buffs are all too easily ensnared in the hunt for subtleties and may fail to note the obvious. Which is: I liked it, especially the way that Wolfe makes something rich and strange of an unpromisingly "primitive" colony world, and I'm looking forward to more.