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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.

And Then I Read: THE WRIGHT 3 by Blue Balliett

Cover illustration by Brett Helquist

This is the second in a series of mysteries for young readers that revolve around famous artists and their work, it’s a sequel to her Chasing Vermeer. In that book, residents of Hyde Park, Chicago and classmates Calder Pillay and Petra Andalee solve the mystery of a missing painting by Vermeer and become friends in the process.

In this book, Calder and Petra are joined by Tommy Segovia, another friend of Calder who has been away from Hyde Park for a while, and is now back. The three are told by their teacher, Mrs. Hussey about plans to demolish a famous architectural landmark in their neighborhood, the Robie House, one of designer Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite projects, now in financial trouble. A plan has been made to divide up the house into sections and ship them to museums around the world that can exhibit them, but Mrs. Hussey, and soon her students, find this a horrible idea. The class is soon on a visit to the house, and while there, strange things began happening to the three protagonists. It almost seems as if the house itself is asking them for help.

Part of the fun of this book is the exploration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work on the house and in general, part is the strange and sometime dangerous adventures the three children have trying to save the Robie House from destruction and from art thieves, and part is the dynamics of their friendship. Tommy and Petra do not like each other, though they both like Calder, who is caught in the middle trying to please both. Each of the children has flaws, but each also has special talents and insights useful for their investigation. Mrs. Hussey plays a role, as does their elderly friend Mrs. Sharpe, their parents, and even Tommy’s pet goldfish whose bowl is used to hide an important artifact. Before the end, the children are trapped inside the Robie House with men who want to kill them, leading to a suspenseful pursuit.

Recommended. More of these to come.

Ira Schnapp in OUR FIGHTING FORCES

Images © DC Comics

Having had success with three war titles that launched in 1952, in 1954 DC began another one also edited by Robert Kanigher. I’ve looked but haven’t found out anything about Kanigher’s wartime service in the U.S. Army, but he certainly had a way with war stories, both as writer and editor. DC relied on him for many years in those roles, and readers seemed to love his comics. This title ran to issue #181 in 1978. In the 1970s it featured “The Losers” by Jack Kirby, but that’s beyond the time period I’ll discuss here.

The logo is by Ira Schnapp. The rounded letters are a surprising choice for a war comic, though they do set this one apart from the earlier ones. A telescoping drop shadow on FIGHTING FORCES added depth and made room for more than one color, and the script OUR is a nice contrast and similar to what Ira did on the other war logos. Despite the roundness, there’s a monumental elegance to this logo that seems appropriate to the subject. Ira also did the caption lettering, and would letter nearly all the covers until issue #111 in 1968, but he only lettered one story inside the book.

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Ira Schnapp in HOWIE and HARVEY

Images © DC Comics

This post looks at two short-lived teen humor titles from DC published in the early 1950s. They were already publishing A DATE WITH JUDY, BUZZY, and LEAVE IT TO BINKY in this genre, and these were attempts to expand in that area that did not sell well enough to last long. HOWIE was drawn in California by animator Owen Fitzgerald, who was already doing THE ADVENTURES OF BOB HOPE and other DC humor work. HARVEY was probably handled completely in New York. Whitney Ellsworth is the editor of record on both, as on all DC titles at the time, but the actual editing was probably handled by Jack Schiff or Larry Nadle. HOWIE ran 18 issues, HARVEY only seven.

Ira Schnapp was the the main and almost the only letterer on both titles’ covers and stories. I don’t think he designed the logo for HOWIE, though, as it doesn’t look like his work, so perhaps that was done by artist Owen Fitzgerald or someone else in California. HERE’S HOWIE COMICS ran from Jan/Feb 1952 to Nov/Dec 1954. COMICS was added to the logo and indicia with issue #2.

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Incoming: BATMAN, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS Deluxe Hardcover

Image © DC Comics

Just arrived is the hardcover collection featuring The Joker in the title story as well as BATMAN: GOTHAM NOIR and DETECTIVE COMICS #784-786 from 2001 to 2005. All are written by Ed Brubaker. Artists are Doug Mahnke, Sean Phillips, Patch Zirchewr, Aaron Sowd and Steve Bird. Colorists are David Baron, Dave Stewart and Jason Wright. Letterers are Rob Leigh, Bill Oakley and myself on the Detective issues. Seems like a nice package, with a retail price of $34.99, and scheduled for release on Oct. 27th, 2020. An Amazon preorder link is below, or check with your comics retailer.