In book two of the Short Sun – or book six of the Long and Short Suns? – some of the tantalizing mysteries from the very fine On Blue's Waters (1999) are unveiled while others become more mysterious.
For example, the puzzle of narrator Horn's hinted physical and mental changes since his quest began is now quietly clarified, incidentally adding irony to his insistence that the mission (to bring back the great leader Silk from the Book of the Long Sun) failed, and leaving the question of why he seems to be in denial about one of his identities.
Despite the title the main setting is planet Blue, where Horn has returned after visits to the sister planet Green and the orbiting starcrosser Whorl. Wolfe's love of multi-levelled narrative emerges early, with a storytelling contest whose participants have agendas going beyond the game. Horn, for instance, relates a harrowing episode from Green, home of the bloodsucking, shapeshifting alien 'inhumi'. Casting this as fiction allows the reporting of events too horror-filled for Horn to record as autobiography, and discussing the inhumi conveys a message to the storytelling competitor who is merely passing as human.
It's easy to misrepresent Wolfe by over-condensed summary. Bloodsucking shapeshifters: oh, how very sci-fi. The artfully fragmented text expends much effort, indirection and implication to suggest the nature of the inhumi (still partly enigmatic; they have a deep racial secret which Horn knows but has promised not to reveal), and although they are indeed bloodsucking shapeshifters they're also thinking, suffering beings who constitute a subtle and complex moral problem. Even Blue's superhuman "Neighbours", vanished folk whose ghosts or avatars have considerable traffic with Horn, failed to solve the Inhumi Question despite knowing the secret. Just as Silk's real task proved very different from his original aim of redeeming church property, so the reluctant, self-deprecating Horn is emerging as the person best equipped to tackle the intractable issue of human/inhumi coexistence.
Another label which Horn keeps repudiating is "sorcerer". Earnestly he explains that the alleged spells he cast to win a small war in the previous book were mere tricks, side-effects of deals done with inhumi – yet no one else seems able or willing to make such bargains. Now a new and again seemingly inhumi-mediated power has come upon Horn: the ability to take others into his lucid, solid dreams of far-off places. These include the hated cellar where he was imprisoned on Green, and even the dim 'Red Sun Whorl' – Earth/Urth itself – visiting the fog-wreathed necropolis gate where Severian's journey began in The Shadow of the Torturer. Meanwhile another petty war looms, and Horn, though almost no one else, still hears the far-off singing of the siren Seawrack from book one....
This is wonderful, richly crafted storytelling. Now I need to read On Blue's Waters again, and maybe the whole Book of the Long Sun. It'll be a pleasure.