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Shadow & Claw: The First Half of 'The Book of the New Sun' Paperback – October 15, 1994
Attention Science Fiction Fans
Man vs. machine, humans vs. aliens, paranormal activities – discover the best of science fiction with these collectible books. Learn More.
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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
If, reading this review, you think the book sounds like your cup of tea, then great! I'm glad to have helped you in that regard. If you already read it and dislike my disparaging of it, surely you'll at least admit my descriptions are factually accurate.
There are no spoilers below.
According to the appendix of the first book, the author considers this book a translation of a manuscript written in a language that will not exist until far in the future. As such, the author had to make "translation decisions" about certain words used in the "original manuscript" that do not exist in English; for many of these, he chose to use archaic and latinate words that are not in common use. Due to this, most reviewers describe the language as rich and florid, or heavy-handed and pretentious; really, it's fairly formal standard American English, at about what you'd find in a textbook, but with occasional vocabulary words from Shakespeare thrown in. I actually really enjoyed the prose, and gave it an extra star for the quality of it. If you know what these words mean, or -what is more likely- if you look them up, then it's not that difficult to read. At least, not in a mechanical sense.
However, this book is hard to read in several other senses.
The book is supposed to be a sort of memoir written by the main character, Severian, in first person. Part of the appeal of the book is supposed to be that Severian is an unreliable narrator, and yet he insists, over and over, that he has an eidetic memory. There are flat-out contradictions in the text, and this can lead to confusion and re-reads. Further, this book is not supposed to be a story, but something like a journal.
Because of this convention, the storytelling is disjointed, chaotic, and confusing. It reads a though you were listening to someone describe a dream, as they leave parts out or suddenly shove parts in. The narrator goes from crazy scene to crazy scene with almost no motivation, and recalls detailed events that have no apparent significance in the plot (or whatever passes for one in the series) while skipping over details that are essential but are assumed to be understood by a reader of the far future (but definitely not by present readers). It is obviously not a result of "bad" writing but of "good writing (i.e. Wolfe did this on purpose and did it well), but for many it may make for "bad" reading. You will have to read a given chapter several times to figure out what is going on, and sometimes, upon understanding, you'll realize that actually the whole chapter was meaningless and only included because Severian wanted to tell you about it.
Also, characters seem to merge and switch at times, because Severian recalls things improperly. Further, the personalities of characters are merely the narrator's emotional projection of them. Many negative reviewers complain of the "flat" characters; this is true. It's true "on purpose" because A) the main character is telling this as a later reflection and thus does not grow through the story and B) the supporting characters are only elements of Severian's memories... but it's still true that the characters are flat. They're *interesting* characters, but given no depth besides how they interact with Severian.
As many have said, the story is mostly plotless. Or, really, there is a very simple plot ("man leaves home") and then reams of description are glommed on to it. If anything, the plot is an excuse to cause the narrator to view the various things in Urth that the author wants to showcase. I really can't pretend that there's anything more to it than that. You will find yourself, midway through the first book, realizing that you have no idea why Severian is doing any of the things that he's doing. Why is he in this building? Why is he talking to these people? Why are these people even here? Why is he describing all of this scenery? Why is he recalling this memory?
I don't know how to put this tersely, besides to reiterate the dream-like quality of it. Nothing in the books is solid or well-placed. Nothing is real, nor has it any quality of realness. People, places, and memories are essentially floating about in a narrative aether. The narrator points to one of these denizens of the dreamworld, seemingly at random, and describes it in colorful prose before turning his attention to some other element drifting in this noetic sea. Experiences wash over the reader, the sights and sounds and smells, and then more and different experiences, then still more, unconnected and unexplained, right to the last sentence of the book.
Other negative reviewers have mentioned the chauvinism of the story. As with a lot of the other negative comments, it makes sense for this to be present, as the narrator is a man from far in the future and not from modern Western society, therefore he has different cultural and social norms from us; after all why wouldn't he? But, still, women in the story are treated pretty terribly, and seem perfectly content with this terrible treatment. Women tend to respond to their ill-handling by offering their assailant sex. I think it makes sense strictly speaking for what the book is, and I don't think it says anything about the author so much as it does the narrator, but it may be particularly infuriating for some readers.
There are a lot of fantastical elements in the story, that sadly are never explained, while mundane details are given pages of description. The world of the book is complicated and detailed and very intriguing, but the narrator tends to assume a knowledge of its workings on the part of the reader; you have to figure it out as it goes on. This is pretty common in fantasy actually, and wouldn't be so bad, except for the other problems with the narration makes it nearly impossible to really piece things together correctly. This was kind of frustrating; Wolfe clearly devoted a lot of mental energy to thinking out the world of Urth, and it is a fascinating place, but sadly does not come together in a satisfactory way.
After finishing both books in this volume, I have come to the conclusion that I don't care about the characters. I can't sympathize with Severian at all, because Severian has no emotional depth; he's a distant voice relating events. After finishing both books, I have also come to the conclusion that I have no idea what this book is about. I could relate the events to you, but the central fault of this book is that the events lack motivation. I would almost like to keep reading in order to understand what the heck was going on for the past 400 pages, but I've also come to the conclusion that nothing was going on besides sloppy narration (not necessarily sloppy writing).
In short, the author went with an inventive approach; he claims to merely be the "translator" of the work and that Severian is the "real" author, transcribing his memoirs of how he came to where he is by the end of the series. This necessarily lead to a lot of errors in continuity, plot, description, motivation, etc. I think those elements have a reason for existing that is not bad writing, and are rather a sign of good wriitng. It's "supposed" to be that way. However, those elements make this very difficult to follow, and while they may be suggestive of deeper brilliance of the author, do not necessarily make for an interesting or enjoyable read.
If you can accept this story-telling convention for what it is and read the book through that lens, then you may enjoy this series. Otherwise, this may not be the book for you.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is an extremely challenging read. It rivals "Moby Dick" in linguistic complexity.Read more