Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Shadow and Claw

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. 

Rating: 7.5/10.


realms of speculative fiction said...

Nice'n'cris, just how I like my reviews (but somehow I fail at the crisp part and write them in a bit overbloated fashin) :)

realms of speculative fiction said...

nice'n'cris= nice and crisP *typos*typos*typos*

Benjamin said...

Thanks. :-) I try my best to mention what I think is relevant while keeping it as succinct as possible. I fear I sometimes make it too short.

I don't mind the typos. :-D

varietyofwords said...

I'm one of those that this book definitely wasn't for. I was pretty disappointed with it in the end and I've never had any desire to read the second half. I can certainly appreciate its complexity however.

Benjamin said...

varietyofwords, The Book of the New Sun definitely is not for everyone. At least you tried it. :-)

RedEyedGhost said...

I think that's your longest review ever, Ben!

I wish I was a little more mature in my SF&F reading than I was when I read these. I didn't like them too much when I read them, but at that point I had really only read Martin, Tolkien, Hobb, Brooks, and Tad Williams.

If I were to read them again I think I would like them much more (at least I hope, because I do plan to reread them at some point).

Benjamin said...

REG, I'm not sure if it's the longest review or if it's only tied for longest. ;-)

You have a good point that Gene Wolfe tends to require a bit more "mature" reader level. I know that if I had it a couple of years I certainly wouldn't have liked it all. Good luck on the re-read and hopefully you'll like it more this time around. :-)