Shadow and Claw
There is no magic. There is only knowledge, more or less hidden.
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Shadow and Claw is the first half of Gene Wolfe’s extraordinarily acclaimed Book of the New Sun. Actually two books (Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Concilliator) it is set far in the future when the Earth’s (Urth’s) sun is a dying red giant, and the remaining peoples of the planet anxiously await the rebirth of the “New Sun”, which will supposedly herald the dawn of a new age. The novel chronicles Severian, a member of the guild of torturers, as he is exiled from his federation and embarks on an epic journey.
I have been unsuccessfully attempting to read this book for well over a decade. Each time I made any amount of progress, I would lose interest and wander away to other pursuits. Finally, last September I forced myself to sit down and read the whole thing. Even so, it took me until early January to actually complete the book. For whatever reason, it fails to grab me the way that other works LESBIAN NECROMANCERS EXPLORE A HAUNTED GOTHIC PALACE IN SPACE! are able to.
I persisted though, because of the truly incredible amount of praise this book has received. Over and over I have seen it catalogued in the same echelon as Dune (one of my favorite books!) and other foundational pillars of science fiction.
I…don’t see it though. I’m not sure why, but the book does not resonate with me at all. If I had to guess, I’d say it has to do the way the protagonist is carried by the plot, pulled this way and that by the currents they seem to have no control over or even interest in. Severian is swept along, moving from place to place, encountering new characters and events and doesn’t seem to have any concern or even understanding of what is happening to and around him.
I have been told that this story is one of the great examples of an unreliable narrator, but I feel that he’s most of a clueless narrator, requiring the others in the story to explain events to him (and thus the reader). I’ve spent much of my time reading this book asking myself “Is this character dumb? Is this book a fantastical version of Forrest Gump?” I really don’t know, and I hope that the second half of the tetralogy will be more illuminating than the first.
This is similar to how I feel when I read Neil Gaiman’s works (perhaps it’s not surprising that he loves the story). I finish most of his stories feeling vaguely confused, asking myself “so…what actually happened in this book? What was the point of any of that?”
The blurb on the back of the books says that “Claw of the Concilliator continues the saga of Severian, banished from his home, as he undertakes a mythic quest to discover the awesome power of an ancient relic, and learn the truth about his hidden destiny.” And…I guess that’s sorta true? Those are kinda events that happen, but I would hardly describe his “quest” as even the primary focus of the story - it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s Severian’s goal most of the time. Nor does he seem to care or even be aware of any hidden destiny. There’s vague hints here and there, but Severian himself seems mostly oblivious and uncaring of any of it.
It could be that all the praise and adulation I’ve seem for the story is tainting my approach to it. I am warily vigilant for clues and hidden messages, second guessing so much of what I read, when maybe I should be simply enjoying the narrative. I’m going to take a break before I start the second half of the series, perhaps I will come back with renewed focus and energy.