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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
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Top customer reviews
Book Of The New Sun concerns the rise of Severian, the author and narrator, from apprentice torturer to lord of all he surveys - and then beyond that (in the fifth book, which is somewhat outside the series). Severian is unable to see through the culture in which he was raised and easily manipulated (especially by women). Severian is a fan of fantasy stories that exist in his culture and, perhaps unconsciously, bases his life story on them, unaware of how different his life is from them. I encourage the reader to read carefully to try to spot the threads, but - again - a second reading is probably necessary.
Game Of Thrones fans will be interested in seeing one of that series most obvious inspirations. The basic themes of Game Of Thrones: first person limited narration unable to question society's laws, violent society to concerned with internal problems to notice the factors that will make all of it pointless, etc. are very inspired by this series. Highly recommended for all.
It’s also derided in some circles as unnecessarily difficult, dense and that it denies the reader an understanding of the story.
It’s been difficult to formulate a review, but it’s been difficult for me. On the one hand, I loved the books. On the other, I really, truly understand the critics’ points.
What I have to say is: if you love Tolkien’s Middle Earth, I mean utterly, utterly love it, if you want to walk through the halls of Erebor or see the works of the Noldor in their glory and pored over maps of Middle Earth, you’ll love the Book of the New Sun. It’s an experience. An experience of entering a new and strange world that, in many ways, overshadows the story itself, so enraptured was I in seeing and learning all about this strange, far-future place. So much so that I was willing to forgive the decidedly non-standard format.
Readers will find themselves treated to subtle gems of prose in dialogue and description, from the Gormanghast-like squalor of Nessus, to Severian’s ascent up the Matachin Tower, to the majesty and horror of Mount Typhon. The visit to the House Absolute in Claw of the Conciliator, for example, I would rank alongside the description of Tolkien’s Rivendel.
And I admit, I cheated: I read the books with Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus near at hand and referenced every strange word and new character, and I have an even greater appreciation for Wolfe’s genius and for Driussi’s work in cataloguing the meanings and implications that I never would have gotten.
Still, readers intending to tackle these books are advised to put other stories aside and give them your full attention.
Even now I find myself going back and re-reading chapters (er, re-listening to chapters), and the encounters take on new light now that I know more of the story’s secrets. The first encounter with the master of the House Azure, for example, and the conversation with the prostitute, who is I now know is really a khaibit, about the difference between real people and the impressions of them in our minds is all the more thought provoking. I also can’t help but compare her description of what an Autarch is to the insanity of Typhon encountered later.
I could call the story a masterpiece of baroque atmosphere and Lovecraftian wonders and horrors that raise as many questions as it answers, but even that is too trite. The epic segues into side stories and quests that seem unrelated to the main tale, such as the many ‘stories’ that characters relate to Severian, but that always include hints as to the nature of the overarching narrative.
And yes, there were things that irritated me. I wish a few more things had been made explicit. I wish we had seen more of Baldanders in direct opposition to Severian as well as more of the giant’s own, parallel journey. I found it frustrating that throughout the narrative Severian never has an inkling that he is a significant player or has a quest, or that he’s in any way related to bringing the New Sun. And I was frustrated that it ended with essentially alien angels giving a giant info-dump.
This refusal to pay off some of the expectations or to address them in unexpected ways only to be explained later may well be the culprit. It’s also maddening for Wolfe fans. A casual search of the Internet has yielded dozens of theories, some very elaborate, about what is really going on.
These books invite theories. Wolfe leaves clues and loose threads that the characters don’t put together, but allows the reader to instead. I might say: what if so-and-so was Severian’s real sister? Well, for that to happen, innumerable other factors in the story would have to come together. It’s a rare story that invites this kind of speculation and allows so many different readers to cast so many different impressions over the text.
A final shout-out goes to Jonathan Davis, who narrates the audiobooks. His performance gave this strange world the atmosphere it deserved. A particular success was his portrayal of Severian and the subtle shades of emotion that he gave to this wandering torturer, Autarch and once and future Conciliator.
And yet, that basic premise is more of the starting point for The Book of the New Sun, rather than its hook. Yes, Severian is a fascinating anti-hero, a man who is capable of brutal torture and yet whose principal crime is one of kindness; a man who is both selfish and oddly kind; a man who is both interested in the honor of his guild and in overthrowing the society around him. But none of that really seems to touch on the heart of Shadow & Claw (which is comprised of the first two books of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator), which is as interested in its strange, undefinable world as it is in its characters.
And what a unique world it is. It’s easy to make the assumption that Shadow & Claw is fantasy; there’s an undeniably medieval feel to the setup, to the massive castles and shadowy guilds and deadly swords. But before long, you realize that this is not an ancient world, but an impossibly distant one, and that what we are seeing is not primitive settlements but devastated ruins. What we see is not a mankind learning to connect and build a society, but one that may be dying out, as the universe itself dies out around it. That uneasy blend of past and future, of science-fiction and Arthurian myth, is one of the features of The Book of the New Sun that’s so fascinating, so compelling.
For all of that, though, it has to be said that The Book of the New Sun doesn’t read like anything else, either. Even now that I’m halfway through the series, I’m not sure I could tell you what it’s truly about; yes, Severian is on a journey, but to what end? To what are we building? What, if anything, does it all mean? I don’t have any answers to that, and to be honest, I’m not even sure that there will be answers to it. Part of that comes from Wolfe’s conceit (the series is written as Severian’s memoirs, written much later in his life, and for an audience presumably of the world around him), which results in a book that’s meandering at times, philosophical in others, and more subjective than we often realize. But much of it comes from the plotting, or lack thereof; the book often feels like a mosaic, a collection of incidents that are coming together to create something larger that we can’t see until we step back a bit and take it all in.
It’s why I've been struggling to rate this book. On one level, it’s a masterful piece of writing – wholly unique, thought-provoking, endlessly fascinating. On another, it’s frustrating, wandering, unfocused, and sometimes bewildering. Its scope and imagination are impossible not to admire, even while you sometimes wonder what it all means – or if it means anything at all. And perhaps that will change as I finish the series and I get a sense of Wolfe’s larger goals, his bigger pictures. Whatever the case, it’s a series that I’m fascinated by and compelled to keep reading, and one that I’m glad I came back to after all these years. I don’t know how far I made it when I read it all those years ago, but reading it now, it’s a book that I feel I’m far more likely to appreciate now that I’m (slightly) more mature.
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