The Claw of the Conciliator is the second book in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun quartet. If you read The Shadow of the Torturer and felt like you were lost (or drunk), and weren’t sure whether things would get clearer in the second book, I have to tell you that no, they don’t. But if you, like me, enjoy that dreamy I’m-not-sure-where-I-am-or-how-I-got-here-or-where-I’m-going-but-everything-sure-feels-fine literary experience, then read on, because Severian’s head is a strange and fascinating place to be.
The Book of the New Sun is one of those works that some people think is ingenious and others suspect is just drivel. This is not the series for a reader who wants a quick-paced action-filled story with a concrete beginning, middle and end. This is for someone who’s in the mood to be open-minded and has the time and patience for some experimentation with character, setting, and theme. (And, perhaps, some mind-altering drugs might help.)
You don’t need to worry about all of the religious imagery to enjoy these novels, but it’s there if you want to look for it. Most obvious are the themes of healing and resurrection and the allusions to the Second Coming, and it’s clear that Severian has some sort of role in that (though he may be completely oblivious). There is also the fascinating issue of Severian being an unreliable narrator. I’m not prepared to call him a “liar” (as some readers have done) because I can’t find much evidence that he purposely lies to us. I think, rather, that his perceptions and memory are faulty. His claim that his memory is perfect may not be a lie, but rather his own misperception.
Gene Wolfe doesn’t much care for a traditional fantasy setting and he also doesn’t respect the traditional mechanics of storytelling. Tight plot? Why bother? This story wanders — seemingly aimlessly — all across the country (or maybe not, because we may have ended up where we started, but who knows?). Characters, conversations, and events that appear to be significant may mean nothing. There are hints of lost races, species, technologies, knowledge, and allegorical meaning that may never be explained and connected for us at the end. There is plenty of bizarreness (even an Ames Room!), which is what I enjoy most.
Wolfe’s world is rich, most of what happens is unexpected, and the reader feels completely helpless to predict anything or even to be assured that things that will work out as they’re “supposed to” in a fantasy novel. Imagine that you’re reading one of those epics where you’ve cleverly figured out that the orphan boy hero is really the long-lost son of the king, but… the author won’t acknowledge this. That would be weird and somewhat disconcerting. That’s how it feels to read The Book of the New Sun. How strange and refreshing!
At the end of The Claw of the Conciliator, Severian says (just as he did at the end of The Shadow of the Torturer) that he doesn’t blame us if we don’t want to continue walking with him (“it is no easy road”). But we’re in Gene Wolfe’s creative hands, so it’s not the destination; it’s the journey that’s paramount. If you’re ready to embark on this strange trip, I recommend Audible Frontiers’ audio version. Jonathan Davis is a favorite of mine and he does an amazing job with this difficult piece.