Shadow and Claw is the first half of the Book of the New Sun series, featuring the books Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator. On the world of Urth, the boy Severian is raised in the ways of the Guild of Torturers. One day he makes the cardinal sin of his order by showing mercy to his victim. Severian is cast out into a fantastic world to discover his own destiny in a struggle as old as the world itself.
The Book of the New Sun was written in the early 1980s but it’s managed to age pretty well. Part of that is due to the fact that the series has elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Wolfe takes the old saying, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” to heart and creates a “science fantasy” consisting of a society largely at the medieval level but with many of the trappings of technology. You get the impression that this world is extremely old. There are even hints in the world’s name.
The world building is quite impressive. Obviously, Wolfe has put a lot of thought into the culture, history, and technology. The first book was a little slow in places because he was exploring some aspects of his world at the expense of the plot, although the book is short enough that it wasn’t too much of a problem. Wolfe uses a lot of unique words, names, and phrases in the series that give it an interesting flavor even if it does make things a little confusing.
Fair warning: the names are not the only thing confusing about the books. My main complaint was the confusion surrounding the main character. Most of the time you get a fair idea of his thoughts and motivations, but other times he does things that make no sense because he doesn’t explain. Since the story is “written” by the character in the future it stands to reason that there is something of unreliability to the narrative. It doesn’t happen often enough that it’s annoying but I hope there’s a reason behind it. I don’t mind if there is some confusion or that not all questions are answered, however confusion for it’s own sake is not exactly my cup of tea. There’s certainly enough to keep me interested.
Recommended for fans in speculative fiction although may not be for everyone. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books.