Friday, August 06, 2010

Book Review: The Claw of the Conciliator

Gene Wolfe
Awards: Nebula, Locus
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

The Claw of the Conciliator is the second book in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun quadrilogy. It takes place on Earth (“Urth”) a very, very long time in the future. It is one of these futures in which everything is in decline; the sun is dying, the world is getting colder, and humans have forgotten how to use most of their technology and have regressed into a middle-ages-type society full of magic and lore and superstition.

In this society, most professions are organized into guilds, where young boys are taken in as apprentices and work their way up to be journeymen and then – if they’re lucky enough and good enough – masters. The four books of the New Sun series follow the life of Severian, who, as a child, was adopted into the guild of the Torturers.

The Torturers are a sort of necessary evil. They are feared and reviled by most people but they’re the only ones who are willing to do the punishing and executing of criminals. They maintain a professional, emotionally-detached front but their medieval methods for the “excruciation” of their “clients” are brutal and disgusting (and entertaining, for those of us who enjoy bloodcurdling tales of horror and the macabre).

I figured that for me to evaluate The Claw of the Conciliator accurately I should first read the first book in the trilogy, The Shadow of the Torturer. I really liked Shadow but did not feel the same way about Claw.

The first half of Shadow tells the best part of the story, when Severian is a boy apprentice living in the dorms in the Torturer’s Citadel. Things go well for him until, right after he graduates to journeyman, he makes the mistake of showing mercy to one of his “clients.” His masters show leniency on him by not killing him for this infraction but they do have to cast him out. They get him a job as a local executioner in a hick town way up north called Thrax. The second half of Shadow describes the first leg of his journey on foot to Thrax, in which he runs into strange characters and is challenged to a duel fought with carnivorous flowers and has to learn how to do freelance executions to make money.

The entire book of Claw (and, I assume, the third and fourth books in the series) describe more of Severian’s adventures on the way to Thrax. Unfortunately, the book gets increasingly magic-based and riddle-filled as it goes on, and the things that happen in it aren’t very interesting. Yes, he stumbles into an underground cave filled with hundreds of man-beasts that he has to tame with the light of a magical gem. And he does take part in a weird ceremony in which he eats the flesh of a dead person and afterwards has that person’s memories as well as his own. But he also falls in with an unappealing group of itinerant actors and hefty chunks of the book are taken up with descriptions of the incredibly boring plays he performs with them as they all travel northward together.

It was a real struggle to keep reading to the end of Claw. This was too bad because I liked Severian and the way he had to be in a certain amount of denial about the profession he was trained in from childhood. The third and fourth books might make for a fabulous recovery to the story but I don’t have the energy to find out.

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