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Gene Wolfe is widely considered to be one of the best living science fiction writers, and many consider him to be the best writer period. Award winning author Michael Swanwick certainly thinks so: "Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today."
He is perhaps best known for his universe The Solar Cycle, and the expansive novels that take place within it. Wolfe has been highly prolific over the years, and he is best known for his opus The Book of the New Sun, as well as the strong influence his Catholic faith has on his work.
Over the years, Wolfe has won many awards in the sci-fi and fantasy field, including multiple Nebula and Locus awards. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007, and was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the World Fantasy Convention. Although he isn't a best-selling author, Wolfe is highly regarded by critics and diehard fans.
So, where do you start? It could take a while — the man has wrote a lifetime worth of books. This list of the best Gene Wolfe books is a great place to start, and, if you become a true fan, build on.
The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories
For one of the best Gene Wolfe books, this is a terrific collection of science fiction and fantasy stories, and features his 1974 Nebula award-winning story, The Death of Doctor Island. These human stories defy genre, and helped solidify Wolfe as a giant of American fiction.
This book is one of Wolfe's best collections of short fiction, if not the best. It contains mostly classics and is a great place for those new to Wolfe to begin. These stories were written mostly in the 70s, and their relevance only increases with time.
The Shadow of the Torturer
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in The Book of the New Sun, widely considered Wolfe's best work, and one of the most important fantasy novels of all time. As far as best Gene Wolfe books go, it's an easy choice.
It tells the story of Severian, an apprentice Seeker for Truth and Penitence in the guild of torturers, from his youth through his expulsion from the guild, and his subsequent journey out of his home city of Nessus. It's a great stage setter in what ended up being an epic, four volume novel.
The Claw of the Conciliator
The second book continues shortly after the previous installment left off, continuing the story of Severian — a journeyman in the Seekers for Truth and Penitence in the guild of torturers, describing his travels north to the city of Thrax. Severian's journey really hits high gear here, and the book won the Nebula award in 1982.
The writing is excellent, and religious imagery is persistent throughout the work. We follow Severian further on his journey, but much like the first book, we are left with more questions than answers. This is one of the best Gene Wolfe books, but be sure to read volume three in the series to tie up all the loose ends.
Free Live Free
Free Live Free is one of the best Gene Wolfe books because of its sheer genre-bending inventiveness. The protagonist, Mr. Free, has a house which is slated for demolition. He puts an ad in a newspaper advertising free living quarters to anyone who helps him find a mysterious lost object hidden in the house. Four strangers — a mystic, a private eye, a prostitute, and a salesman arrive.
But when Free himself disappears, the other four continue the search and make a pact to find Free and the mysterious lost object. This is character-driven science fiction at its best, by a writer whose mastery of his craft knows no limits.
A Borrowed Man
The newest release on this list of the best Gene Wolfe books is A Borrowed Man, which came out in 2015. One hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place of it in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, robots, and even clones.
The narrator, E. A. Smithe, is a borrowed person, and most of his personality is uploaded from people that have previously lived — making him property. The plot revolves around Smithe accessing the past life of one of his uploaded personalities to hopefully save humanity from the bleakness of current life. It gets even more complicated, but Wolfe will guide you through it.
The Citadel of the Autarch
The Citadel of the Autarch brings The Book of the New Sun to its harrowing conclusion, as Severian clashes in a final reckoning with the dreaded Autarch, fulfilling an ancient prophecy that will forever change the realm known as Urth.
The final volume of the series has to be one of the best Gene Wolfe books, as the questions readers have been asking across the four books get answers. The novel was nominated for numerous science fiction and fantasy awards.
The Urth of the New Sun
The Urth of the New Sun serves as a coda to Wolfe's four volume Book of the New Sun series. Wolfe can't seem to leave his favorite character, Severian, alone for more than a few years, and he had to revisit the long sun universe.
It picks up the tale years after the previous work's end. Severian leaves his role as Autarch of Urth to seek a new sun for Urth. He travels beyond the boundaries of time and space aboard the Ship of Tzadkiel — on a mission to bring the new source of life to his dying planet. It's one of the best Gene Wolfe books because it's his favorite subject, and the writing shows.
Peace is a fantasy/ghost story hybrid novel written in 1975. It describes the melancholy memoir of Alden Dennis Weer, a bitter old man living out his final days in a small midwestern town. Unlike a lot of Wolfe's work, Peace is a standalone novel set in a contemporary time and place — not a fictional universe.
That doesn't mean it's not a challenging read though, and many critics consider it to be one of the most difficult of his works. It's one of the best Gene Wolfe books, and a story that should probably be read more than once to truly understand.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus
The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a collection of three novellas by a universally acknowledged master of science fiction: Gene Wolfe. One of the field's most brilliant writers hits a home run with this one, as the work was nominated for a host of fantasy awards.
The Three tales are somehow connected, and Wolfe has created a pattern that permeates each work. The titles of the other two novellas are "A Story: by John V. Marsh" and "V.R.T." It's one of the best Gene Wolfe books, and one that showcases his abundant talents before (published in 1975) he was hailed as one of the most important sci-fi and fantasy writers of his generation.