And Then I Read: SHADOW & CLAW by Gene Wolfe

“The Book of the New Sun” was originally published in four parts from 1980-1983, this is the first two, “Shadow of the Torturer” and “Claw of the Conciliator.” It has been called a tetralogy, but seems to really be one long story. It won many awards, and was on a list of Neil Gaiman’s favorite sf/fantasy books.

Severian, the narrator is an orphan taken in by the Guild of Torturers in the massive ancient city of Nissus, and trained in the skills and duties of that guild. The world of Nissus is known as Urth, and gradually through the book we come to understand it’s our own Earth far in the future when the sun has cooled and many civilizations and empires have come and gone. The one Severian finds himself in has many medieval overtones, but there are always bits of ancient technology and lost knowledge coming to light in the margins. For instance, the tower that’s home to the Guild is made of metal, and is recognizable as a former space ship. Inhabitants of Urth include some familiar plants, but also unfamiliar ones, the same with animals, and among the people are those who seem to be from other planets, though they are uncommon. Nissus is a place of ancient traditions and rituals in a crumbling infrastructure that no one seems to be completely in charge of, though the nominal ruler is an unseen Autarch. Many guilds are present, each with duties and territory, and they are sometimes rivals and sometimes partners in the events of the day. Above them is a ruling class who are mostly absent from Nissus, many live in another huge dwelling to the north, and below them are the common folk who get by as best they can with what little resources they have.

Severian is smart and brave, learning well the skills of his guild and loyal to it until a chance encounter with a revolutionary aristocrat named Vodalus sets his mind on a different course. Later, a beautiful young woman, Thecla, also an aristocrat, is brought to the dungeons and torture chambers of the guild for punishment. She and Severian are attracted to each other, and the Guild assigns him to be her companion. All goes well as Severian rises in the guild until the time for Thecla’s torture arrives, and Severian must take part. His soul secretly rebels, and he finds a way to give Thecla a release.

Severian expects this to lead to his own torture and death by the guild, but instead they send him away to work as an executioner in the far north. Severian’s journey there is difficult and complex. He finds new companions who wish him well and ill, and goes through a fascinating series of adventures that not only inform his own life but fill in many details about the world of the New Sun. At the end of the first book he is just about to exit the massive city of Nissus through a gate in its mile-high wall. In the second book, he takes on his first work as an executioner, but still far from the city of his goal, and in his possession is the Claw of the Conciliator, which seems to have amazing healing powers at times. Severian has come by it accidentally, and one of his aims is to return it to the religious sect which worships it. Severian and some of his companions eventually reach the House Absolute, home of the Autarch and the ruling classes, where more adventures happen, and by the end of the second book they have traveled further north, as Severian is still heading toward his assignment in Thrax.

There’s too much here to really summarize it well, but I enjoyed reading this, and am now working through the second half of the epic. To say Severian is a complex character would be to oversimplify, and having him as narrator is sometimes difficult, as he tends to leave things out and only gradually reveal what really happened at critical moments. Many other characters are equally complex and interesting, and the plot is constantly inventive and surprising. This is a book I find myself thinking about when I’m not reading it.

Highly recommended.

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