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Shadow & Claw: The First Half of 'The Book of the New Sun' Paperback – October 15, 1994
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One of the most acclaimed "science fantasies" ever, Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is a long, magical novel in four volumes. Shadow & Claw contains the first two: The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, which respectively won the World Fantasy and Nebula Awards.
This is the first-person narrative of Severian, a lowly apprentice torturer blessed and cursed with a photographic memory, whose travels lead him through the marvels of far-future Urth, and who--as revealed near the beginning--eventually becomes his land's sole ruler or Autarch. On the surface it's a colorful story with all the classic ingredients: growing up, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved. (Only well into book 2 do we realize what saved Severian's life in chapter 1.) For lovers of literary allusions, they are plenty here: a Dickensian cemetery scene, a torture-engine from Kafka, a wonderful library out of Borges, and familiar fables changed by eons of retelling. Wolfe evokes a chilly sense of time's vastness, with an age-old, much-restored painting of a golden-visored "knight," really an astronaut standing on the moon, and an ancient citadel of metal towers, actually grounded spacecraft. Even the sun is senile and dying, and so Urth needs a new sun.
The Book of the New Sun is almost heartbreakingly good, full of riches and subtleties that improve with each rereading. It is Gene Wolfe's masterpiece. --David Langford, Amazon.co.uk
“The Book of the New Sun establishes [Wolfe's] pre-eminence, pure and simple....The Book of the New Sun contains elements of Spenserian allegory, Swiftian satire, Dickensian social consciousness and Wagnerian mythology. Wolfe creates a truly alien social order that the reader comes to experience from within...once into it, there is no stopping.” ―The New York Times Book Review
“Magic stuff...a masterpiece...the best science fiction I've read in years!” ―Ursula K. Le Guin
“Arguably the best piece of literature American science fiction has yet produced.” ―Chicago Sun-Times
Top customer reviews
Wolfe's style isn't for everyone and clearly wasn't for me, but it is going to appeal to quite a few people.
I've seen reviews comparing this to Tolkein, but I don't see that at all. Yes, Tolkein invented languages and corrupted words to make them feel exotic, but he documented what he did (and he was a linguist to boot). Wolfe doesn't really do that. There is an author's note after the first novel that attempts to excuse (rather than explain) what was done, but even this is written from the point of view of the fictional chronicler of the story, not Wolfe himself.
No, this is more like a love-child between Samuel R. Delaney and Ursula LeGuin. It's essentially a stream-of-consciousness narration. There are places where the narration moves along quite briskly, but the story hardly moves at all (the "Delaney" portions). There is a huge amount of world-making going on that we only see through that narration (the "LeGuin") part.
Quite a bit of it left me not really knowing what I had just read. This isn't about not understanding the words themselves, but about long stretches describing things in levels of detail that would indicate that there was importance in what I was reading, but then never actually getting to what made the section important (sometimes chapters long, these are).
The story itself is almost irrelevant. That's my real beef with it. As far as story goes, I'm far more about substance than style. I think, if you were writing a movie treatment for this wouldn't amount to more than about five sentences of plot with notes that the screenwriter needed to work under the influence of LSD and the costume and set-direction budgets would be about 80% of the total project budget.
Since my first review, I have read the rest of this series, the Long sun and Short sun series, and much of the author's other published works. When I first read this I had just read the first 2 Latro books, and was very irked with the incomprehensible ending to A Soldier of Arete (I still am relying on internet postings to sort it out). The transition from Torture to Conciliator was similarly disorienting. Now, with 20+ wolfe books under my belt, it seems pretty tame.
More notably, I have just re-read this book ~6 months after first reading it. I have no memory of re-reading a book within less than 2 or 3 years in my adult life, but I have actively wanted to re-read this one - I knew I had missed much the first time.
It is one of the best series I have read. I encourage anyone reading it to take my revised view after 6 months into consideration when experiencing their own frustrations.
original review, feb 27th 2016 follows
This book is definitely a mixed bag.
My first book by this author was Soldier in the MIst/of Arete, and while Latro's amnesia made a lot of plot confusion at least acceptable, I will note (without spoilers) that having a book end in a way you have to go online to figure out what actually (likely) happened is a questionable writing device, to be sure. I have no idea how I would have managed if I had read this book in the pre-internet era, because I would never have figured out the 'likely' range of meanings in the various pieces at work in the last dozen pages or so.. At any rate, I like those books enough to move on to this one...
The protagonist has no memory issues of great significance (it is suggested he has normal memory issues while not realizing it, as he narrates long after the fact). The story takes unexpected gaps in time, often leaving some real questions about 'what happened.' the first book (torturer) ends in a confusing scene which not only is not explained (at least to my feeble brain) in the 2nd book (conciliator), the story starts well after the ending of torturer. At other points the author drops an active plot event and the protagonist sort-of runs off (literally once) and before you know it you are somewhere reasonably far away with a new near-term plot goal. The ending location/scene of conciliator is confusing enough also. If you are seeing a pattern between the latro books and these of this author not liking readily understood endings, you are on the right track.
Some readers will not even tolerate/finish a book with some of these issues. The author weaves a fascinating world together and I feel overall the very disjointed (intentionally) narrative structure, along with what I am beginning to think of as an intentional effort by the author to makes his stories end in a way that the reader may not be able to interpret or understand with any real assurance, takes a lot away from it.
This book is worth reading as a speculative risk. I suggest not buying the sequel or other works by the author until you get a taste of this narrative structure, with the joy of the ending of book 1 contrasted with early book 2.
It's not always an easy read - at times I had to let it rest because the prose is so rich it gets almost overwhelming - but it's also a book that crept beneath my skin, into my thoughts, and into my dreams. Haunting, would be the word I'd pick if I only picked one to describe 'Shadow & Claw'.
I can't wait to read the rest of the books in this series.
The Kindle edition helps untangle some of the puzzle, by allowing full-text search, for example--great for reminding yourself of characters and events that are referenced after not being mentioned for hundreds of pages. It also has some typos, some inherited from the print edition, some that appear to be OCR errors introduced in the kindle edition. That problem is more than just cosmetic: the text uses a lot of archaic and invented vocabulary, so the resolution of a particular typo isn't always obvious, and it makes the search function a little less trustworthy (a search for all references to "Thecla" will miss the one place where the character's name is mispelled).