Gene Wolfe, Shadow & Claw (2021, originally published 1980/1981)

Author: Gene Wolfe

Title: Shadow & Claw (Omnibus edition containing The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator)

Format: E-book

Pages: 528

Series: The Book of the New Sun #1 – #2

I don’t think I’ll be offering any new insight in this review – Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun has already been analyzed to death since its original publication date. Hailed as a masterpiece and having won numerous awards, The Book of the New Sun remains one of the key SF works over 40 years after its conception. I’m very content that I had finally gotten the chance to acquaint myself with this series. Both The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator are indeed worth reading, and I hope to get my hands on the rest of the series sooner than later. Was it however such profoundly intellectually challenging experience I dared to hope? Alas, not entirely. And the responsibility for this turn of events lies as much in me as in the books themselves.

You see, had I read it a decade or two ago, it would’ve made a much greater impression. It would undoubtedly form my mental image of the far-future decline-of-humanity narratives reminiscent of anthropological analyses of historical cycles, and I would’ve judged all other books by Shadow & Claw’s own measure. I would revel in the intricate puzzles these books offer (though I did it anyway) and would discover many of Wolfe’s opus magnum’s secrets with a fresher eye and more inclination to unhedged awe than I possess today. As it is, however, with these decades filled by a multitude of other books, be they fiction or not, and my own life experiences, I can’t help but be less than dazzled by Wolfe’s intellectual magic and because of this – to see more clearly the imperfections of his work.

Ad rem, though. Starting off as a straight fantasy narrative, a Bildungsroman and a quest for knowledge, The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator reveal themselves to be set in a wonderfully complex, multi-layered world, where far-future Earth is still inhabited by much diminished humans, who had forgotten more than they know, as well as a scattering of both alien and heavily modified and engineered lifeforms. Earth, called now Urth, is nearing the end of its time. The Sun is old, very old, and has already darkened considerably due to the black hole at its heart – and, as a result, Urth is slowly dying from the lack of light and warmth. Humanity is grounded on Earth, even though it used to travel among the stars – like a very old person, Urth’s humans as a whole have forgotten more than they remember.

For me by far the most interesting element of The Book of the New Sun was the weight of history, both the one forgotten and the one remembered in bits and pieces, often simply garbled beyond recognition of purposefully misremembered. The world of Urth contains pockets of old technology which can be still used but not reproduced, and which is limited to the rich and powerful in a feudal world of strictly divided socio-economical classes, or strata, and nested among the prevalent, very much medieval technological and social level of awareness. The world in general is strongly reminiscent of medieval Europe – on purpose, I feel, to showcase the darkness and unthinking brutality of the slow decline. Two decades ago, I’d have devoured it all and asked for more; today, I have more doubts. The first one is obviously concerned with Wolfe’s belief in cyclical nature of social change. The spectres of the rise and fall of empires and history endlessly repeating itself until death and rebirth of a new society hang heavily over The Book of the New Sun. To be honest, I don’t consider feudal order as more or less natural than any other, and the belief that humanity will sooner or later regress to it (I use the word “regress” on purpose, because this discussion is inherently rooted in the paradigm of progress) seems to me rather contrived and false. Wolfe is certainly neither the first nor the last to adhere to this assumption, as the books on this list only in the SF genre range from Herbert’s Dune to Carey’s The Book of Koli and beyond. The recurring nature of Urth’s development is also clearly visible in the figure of the main protagonist, Severian, who was designed to resemble Jesus and repeat at least some of Jesus’s steps. Again, Christ-like Messianic figures crowd our cultural narratives and collective imagination from Matrix to Narnia, and the trope of the Chosen One must be the most overused tropes of all 😉.

To be fair to Wolfe, though, Severian seems not as much a Chosen One as a Happened One, at least for now: he himself is more someone to whom things happen, than someone who acts purposefully. Even the first fateful decision he makes is not thought-through, but rather a result of the spur of the moment – and from then on, the avalanche of events propels him on and he rides the slide, from one adventure to another, always rather clueless as to what he’s actually doing and saved from many a mishap by possessing way more luck than wisdom. On the other hand, however, the most meaningful instances of Severian’s actions always contain compassion at its root – and if compassion is too big a word here, than let’s settle on empathy, or a need for human connection and at least a modicum of understanding for the Other.

Severian is a curious protagonist: there’s been many a discussion whether he’s an unreliable narrator, purposefully lying to his audience, or whether the author simply plays a game of telephone with the readers, intentionally garbling the message through “translation.” Whatever the cause, the end result is a narrative that’s full of holes, omissions, and artful creation. We are never sure how much of what we’ve read about Severian can be taken seriously, can be even believed. In that, he reminds me of Baron Munchausen, famous for his less than credible adventures. But we also need to be mindful of Wolfe’s beloved recurring theme of misunderstanding inherent in any communication. Stepping out into the wide world Severian sees things he doesn’t understand, and so he conveys his fragmentary experience in an imperfect language, leaving us grasping at straws for the original meaning. This is the biggest delight of this book for me: the creative, misleading, garbled, and flawed narrative that’s nevertheless focused on communication, on the attempt, however futile, to convey meaning and value. The act of communication, the act of connection with another, may be in the end more important than the message itself. It’s a philosophical tenet close to my heart: phenomenology.

Wolfe clearly let rip with his personal literary favourites here: we can find everything in The Book of the New Sun, from the myth of Theseus and Odysseus to Frankenstein and Robin Hood, by way of Time Machine and apocryphal biblical texts. All those Easter Eggs are nice to find, but to me they also negatively affected the narrative as some of them seemed shoehorned and out of place – particularly Dr. Talos’s play.

Also, while I can appreciate the fact that Severian is a horny, good-looking young man freshly released from a monastery-like environment, I really don’t need to spend so much time on his sexual conquests. I mean, seriously, I hope the next books have less descriptions of both the bodies of Severian’s partners, and Severian’s carnal pleasures. I really don’t care if someone’s pubic hair resembles chicken or anything else.

I could go on and on with this rambling review, but it’s high time to end it. As most of it is highly positive and totally tangential to the books, you can see that the first two volumes of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun made a certain impression on me. It might not be the masterpiece I expected, but it is a very good book, worth reading – if not for the plot itself (some of the great twists are rather predictable in our day and age, so the suspense of these books is rather minimal, and Severian as the protagonist is also difficult to like sometimes) then at least for the intellectual inspiration. I might not agree with Wolfe, but I sure enjoyed arguing with him.

Score: 8/10

I have received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

38 thoughts on “Gene Wolfe, Shadow & Claw (2021, originally published 1980/1981)

    1. Yeah, I can imagine 😅 I didn’t torture this book(s) in my review, I decided to focus more on what I liked, but there would be a few more sticky points for me if I ever wanted to write something longer – among the things that didn’t work for me were female characters (which can be explained by Severian’s POV as a young, stupid, horny male, but still isn’t cool) and the plot in general, which is predictable and somewhat boring. But I guess you need to stick to something simple if you want to make everything else convoluted to the extreme 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great Review Ola. I still have to read my first Wolf book and I have one waiting on my shelf. This does not sound like a novel I would be interested in normally, what with all that pubic hair flying about…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Dawie! 😀

      Ah, I’d say it’s waaay better than Weeks, to be honest. There’s only one scene like this, but that incongruous comparison to a chicken just stuck in my head. What irks me more is the way Severian perceives women, as sexual objects, but at this point I’d put that at the protagonist’s feet, and not the author.

      From what I heard this is definitely the best of Wolfe’s books/series – and it’s worth reading, absolutely, just needs keeping in mind that it’s 4 decades old 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Maybe I can do without accurate descriptions of pubic hairs (and I had to go back and re-read the sentence because I was sure I have misread that bit, but sadly I read it right!) and Messianic figures are a sort of hit and miss. I am not averse to the Chosen One trope but there are some fine lines there that I prefer to not see crossed, but all things considered I think I should give this one a try! Thanks for the great review!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Approaching books that are labeled as “classics” always holds its own kind of… peril, for want of a better definition: readers’ tastes have changed over the decades, and our own tastes have been honed by the books we’ve read so far and – probably – influenced our point of view and narrative preferences. That said, I’ve often looked with keen curiosity at Wolfe’s work, but now that I’ve read your review I feel more cautious and – yes – uncertain about its effect on my tastes…
    Great review, thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀

      Yes, I can see how this would not be a universally loved dearie 😉 But still, even if the characters are difficult to love, there are some cringy parts, and the whole plot seems a bit too easy, there’s still much to admire in these books. They are definitely not easy reads, and as such, not for every mood – yet I feel they deserve a try. You may end up DNFing them or loving them, there’s no guarantee either way, but then you’ll know for sure if Wolfe’s for you or not 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I guess there won’t be that much discussion, I can perfectly understand where you are coming from, and I agree for the most part. If I had to rate 1 & 2, I think I’d also end up giving an 8 atm. But if you add 3 & 4, the sum somehow is greater than its parts, you know how that goes. Also, for me it was impossible to rate these books objectively when I reread them, as they made such an impression the first time around.

    The only thing I don’t fully agree with is the predictability of the story: I really was baffled time and time again, even during my reread. The overall story might be predictable in a way, but the details? And for me, the details are crucial to this book.

    Anyhow, great review, very glad you liked it, and I’m looking forward to your thoughts after you finished 3 & 4. My advice would be to not wait too long with reading those. Has Piotrek read them btw? Curious about his thoughts too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bart! I’m looking forward to reading 3&4. I’m currently waiting for approval on NG, but if I don’t get them there, I’ll just borrow them from a library 😉 Not sure if Piotrek’s read these or not – we only have one other Wolfe review on the blog, and it is Piotrek’s review of The Wizard Knight.

      As for the predictability, you are right about the details, of course. I’m just more of a big picture girl 😉 and the bare bones of the story, the hero’s journey, or the Chosen One path, if you will, are the same and still very similar to the structure of the Bildungsroman. Even the fact that by the end of book 1 Severian ends up with what may be defined as the symbols of ultimate, kingly power: the sceptre and the orb, is in itself a confirmation of the general structure and Wolfe’s deep inspiration/indebtedness to the mythological pattern. I’ll be interested to see what Wolfe is going to do with it next.

      Anyway, thanks for recommending this to me! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, the template is rather clear, Wolfe gives it away in the first chapter, as Severian says he will back into the throne.

        If Piotrek read The Wizard Knight, chances are he has read this, most people come to Wolfe first via BotNS. I still have to finish final book of that duology. We’ll see how things go with the other Wolfe on my TBR, I’m afraid I was too enthusiastic back in the days after I first read BotNS.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Exactly.

          Ah, well, I’m sure he’ll comment at some point – The Wizard Knight seems to have been a mixed but ultimately good bag, so indeed it’s probable he either already has read BotNS or will read it soon.

          That’s always the case with the ones which impress us for the first time, I find 😁

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Wolfe is not my cup of tea. I cut my teeth on the first book and then manfully tried him again. Both times were epic failures and I consign him to the dust bins of history and those who like sifting through said dustbins.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m happy to sift through dustbins now and then 😉 you never know what you can find! This was a nice find, though I can see why it wouldn’t resonate with you or outright bore you: it requires a lot of goodwill, that one, and is not inherently likeable 😉 It’s one of the times where I wonder how much of the author himself went into the psychological makeup of the protagonist 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Heh, thanks! I’m reading so many new books, and so many of the suck, that I’m willing to take my chance with a dustbin find 😛
          That’s fine – it is a hunch I intend to check sometime later, after I finish the remaining 2 books 😉 I remember Piotrek writing something about unreliability/unlikeability of the narrator of a different Wolfe book 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Insightful and thought-provoking review, Ola. Like you, I’ve only read the first two books. It was over ten years ago, so I’m hazy on the details. I did enjoy them and found Severian a memorable character. I would like to re-read them and complete the Book of the New Sun at some point. I’ve been slowly working my way through Wolfe’s The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (the full title!). Some of the stories really impressed me, others were a bit mixed but they all have a distinctive style. The story “Tracking Song” is one I loved and still remember. I reviewed it here:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Wakizashi! 😊

      Bart advises to read the subsequent books sooner than later – I intend to fit them into my reading schedule over the next few months. I’ll keep your review and the story you describe in mind, as I want to see how Wolfe’s protagonists are similar or different.

      Also, I forgot to comment on your review, but what an intriguing idea to chose stories based on tarot cards you pick!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, Ola. I made my own short story Tarot reading challenge, but it didn’t last very long. 😅 It was supposed to be a way for me to learn a bit about the Tarot as well as randomly choosing a story to read.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. piotrek

    I did read it, 15 years ago, and I can definitely agree with what you say – this is a book likely to influence an innocent young reader more, and in a different way, than the old cynics we all became 😉 At some point I’ll get English editions and re-read.

    From what I remember, I’m closer to what Bart says, and for the same reasons – I’m likely to start my future re-read with every intention of liking the thing again 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, we have become old cynics, or at least stoics, haven’t we? 😉

      Yes, reading it 15 years ago would have a markedly different effect on me, I imagine. Before Simmons and Cook, before Miller Jr, before Stephenson… 😀

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m quite happy with being more critical as I get older/more experienced – it’s not about being picky, but rather seeing all the hidden links, references, and similarities in thought and structure I wasn’t able to perceive before; though I do notice the decrease in awe I feel while reading, and I miss that bit a little 😉
      Yes, this is a good book; I’m glad I read it, and I’m actually glad I read it now, and not before 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  8. That remark on pubic hair really captures our imagination quickly hahah I don’t know how it’s even possible to resemble a chicken but that’s something! 😛 Beyond that, great review, Ola. It does sound like it didn’t age too well, that this would have a better effect on newcomers who are looking for a “challenging” read. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s still a good read, and there are certainly elements vastly superior to what you can find in newer literature. That said, you’re right that the age of this book is noticeable – especially in the stratum of unthinking behavior of everyday life: attitude toward sexuality and women, for example, or the character of the Chosen One who’s a loner, separated from the chaff both by destiny and his internal values. Still, I enjoyed it a lot, despite the chicken and all, and I will continue my adventure with The Book of New Sun because despite it’s deficiencies it’s still significantly better than the vast majority of the newer books 😉

      Liked by 2 people

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