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Shadow & Claw: The First Half of 'The Book of the New Sun' Paperback – October 15, 1994
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
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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Sword and Citadel follows Severian as he continues on his travels, finally arriving at his designated position as town executioner before once again failing due to an act of undeserved mercy. From there, he wanders the countryside, drifting through a series of encounters ranging from a talking, intelligent beast to a being that might just be a ruler, or even a god, before becoming involved in the war that’s constantly been lurking outside of the boundaries of the series. That’s about all of the story I can really tell you, if we’re being honest; this is not a book whose plot is easy, or maybe even relevant. Rather, it’s about the world being explored, and about how Severian sees and interacts with that world – interactions that are often spiked with cruelty, violence, and judgment.
What’s more compelling – and more frustrating – at times is how unreliably Severian narrates his tale. It becomes clear early on that Severian isn’t telling us enough information, through no fault of his own – it’s just that his descriptions don’t account for the fact that we know more information than he does. The description of a knight with a golden visor holding a flag aloft, for instance, is presented as simple fact; nonetheless, as we learn more, it becomes evident that this is no knight, but perhaps an astronaut, holding aloft an American flag. The castles and metal buildings we so often see? Those may be rockets and ships…or perhaps not. But then, as if Severian’s limited perspective isn’t enough, there’s the gradual realization that our narrator quite simply isn’t being straight with us – he withholds, he obfuscates, he distorts, and quite possibly, he lies.
All of this comes together in a literary tour-de-force that’s undeniably an intelligent, incredibly-crafted novel. What Wolfe has done boggles the mind; he’s created a world, then filtered that world through an inhabitant trying to describe it, then given that world a spin and perspective that makes it even more unreliable, and then gives this to us in the form of a picaresque journey without clear form and fashion, despite the sense that every single sentence and scene matters. It’s remarkable, brilliant, thoughtful work. And it’s also incredibly difficult, dense, and often frustrating, as you sense that to truly understand this work is going to mean diving deep within its waters, questioning every sentence and every word, and constructing something new from the clues and hints along the way.
So do I recommend the series? Yes…and no. To no small degree, what you think of The Book of the New Sun will depend on what you expect out of it. If you expect a straightforward narrative, or a traditional anti-hero, or an epic in the style of Lord of the Rings or Dune, you’ll be frustrated at what you find. This is something wholly else. But if you want something truly – and I hate to use this term, but it’s the only thing that fits – literary, something that displays an astonishing gift of prose and craft, and that you’re willing to work with, you’ll be rewarded for your time and then some.
As for myself, I can’t deny that I’m dazzled by the construction and world of New Sun. I’m floored by the scope, and the imagination, and the characters, and the way Wolfe works between layers and layers and layers of artifice. And yet, even now, I’m not sure I truly understand or even come close to getting this book, and that’s frustrating. It’s a series I feel like I need to read a second time, or even a third, to truly get, and I’d be lying if I said that was something I was truly excited about. It’s a series that felt challenging, and it’s all the more so for how deceptively simple it all seems. Is it a remarkable accomplishment, something truly incredible to behold? Undoubtedly. But that doesn’t necessarily make it fun in any sense of the word, or something you’re going to jump into without some thought. Take that as you will.
This is an extremely challenging read. It rivals "Moby Dick" in linguistic complexity. Frankly, my Kindle worked overtime using fast Wikipedia and Dictionary look-ups features for the vocabulary used. Often, multiple times on a single page! The challenge is two fold: 1) the archaic terms used: 40% are in the dictionary, 40% are in Wikipedia, and 20% are in neither (the author simply creates). I really do not know how the book could have been accurately read at the time it was written because the Internet (and its associated speed) did not yet exist & 2) many sentences are constructed in an archaic way as well. I am telling you, the vocabulary used would have driven William F. Buckley Jr. (well known for his expansive vocabulary, FYI) running to the dictionary routinely.
I read a lot and have a Master's...this is a challenging read up with the most complex I have every read or heard about. I am 59 and have a gracious amount of books under my proverbial "belt".
It is written in the first person in the very distant future as a memoir of sorts. The original writer from the future has a sort of photographic memory which is used to add credibility to the detail of the story. The actual author (I.e., Wolfe) has an appendix stating that it was translate into our current English (Circa 1983). So, the actual author is merely a translator. He states that there are numerous word substitutions for various reasons as it is set in the future.
The terminology used spans from the Classic Greek era of time (~500 BC or so) of time to ~1983. It spans European and Arab cultural references and terminology references.
The work is impressive and very much worth the read. It is in the top handful of Scyfy reads every written IMHO. I caution anyone who attempts to read this to use a reader. The fast look-up capability is essential to appreciating the work. Reading a hard copy would be an effort in frustration unless you have a Masters or PhD in literature along with advanced degrees in ancient history.
I love this book. I suppose I love for the piece as a work of literature, but I think I love even more because it made me work so hard to read the work in a way needed to appreciate it.
Postscript: I have read several other reviews that give a poor rating. This novel is set on Earth with the sun dying. Far into the future. Society has de-evolved into many roles and practices more common a Medeival/Roman/Greek blend. High tech and interstelller space travel are ancient memories. It is male dominated but with several strong females. I feel many of the poor reviews were by readers who gave up and did not finish this challenging read. The Appendix mentioned above covers terminology used; the accuracy of the story is covered multiple times discussing the author's photographic memory.
Bottom line: the reader has to work while reading this book. It is not a "sit on the beach and read a page an hour" type book. You are working with the author with every sentence. Most people are not use to or prepared for this level of effort. When you finish this book you are rewarded handsomely with a sense of true accomplishment. This book is the equivalent to a large portion (40% or so) of a single college class in literature. 1.5 credits or so. IMHO.