Book of the New Sun: The Claw of the Conciliator

Novel * Gene Wolfe * Post-Everything * 1981

Synopsis

Well that was certainly a book. It had words and sentences and paragraphs and everything. As for a story, that I’m less sure about. There are characters, most of whom have goofy names, and these characters do things. They go places and talk and stuff. Much of the time the narrative is fairly clear, even. So why do I still feel like Wolfe is having me on? This series is clearly an example of quality writing. The world-building is great, a prime example of letting the environment and the characters do the explaining. Despite this, I still feel like I’m missing something. Like there’s this obvious thing I’m just not getting and am therefore not understanding some vital aspect of the story. This is a frustrating sensation, especially since there’s nothing concrete I can point to and go: here, this is why I’m unsatisfied about this whole thing.

Okay, let’s back up a little bit. The Claw of the Conciliator is the second of four novels that comprises The Book of the New Sun. The first novel, The Shadow of the Torturer, introduces us to Urth, which is a corrupted version of Earth set millions of years in the future. That story is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a young torturer named Severian who is exiled from his home and is making his way north to lands unknown to him. He has some odd dealings with some other characters, but ends up at the edge of the massive city-state Nessus. Book two picks up some time after the chaos that erupts at the Wall at the end of that first book. Severian is holed up in a small village in the vast forest that surrounds the city. He’s been separated from his party, including his kinda-girlfriend.

Severian never seems particularly bothered by any of this. Severian never seems particularly bothered by anything. The way in which he tells his story is in the same detached, dreamy manner of the first book. Again, part of this is because what we’re reading is essentially a memoir. Time has removed some elements of danger and intensity because we know Severian’s still alive to tell his story. This is a story we’re catching up to. Not quite an in media res situation, because we’re at the middle of the story and have still not caught up to the present of Severian writing, but close.

Ostensibly, the purpose of Severian moving north is to take up a position of his guild in an outpost town called Thrax. He’s essentially authorized to perform executions as required by the town’s government. On the way, Severian earns money by acting in this role in various villages. The entire first part of this book takes place in one of these villages before the setting shifts northward to the House Absolute. This is where the Autarch’s seat of power is, and it is where the woman he showed mercy to (Thecla) in the first book was from. Then shit gets weird.

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Discussion

Okay, weirder. Nothing about this series is standard fantasy and/or sci-fi. It’s a strange amalgam of genres, but that’s all fine. No, Severian is the heart of this series. That’s kind of obvious, he’s the narrator. But for lack of a more graceful term, he’s a fucked-up narrator. It’s not that he’s unreliable, that’s unknown. He’s probably not playing a straight game, but so far no motive for being evasive has really shown itself. It’s that he has such potential for turning out to be the bad guy, I think. As we’ve seen, Wolfe plays everything incredibly close to the vest. Yet unless I’m missing something, I don’t think we’ve caught Severian in a straight up lie yet. What we have seen in this second book is the omission of certain details.

One of the assumptions that the reader makes is that Severian has the power of total recall. This assumption is based upon Severian telling us so. I may be forgetting something, but I’m pretty sure this doesn’t come up within the narrative itself, among the characters. It’s just a thing that Severian repeats time and time again, told directly to the reader. So until we’re told otherwise, okay. This second novel brings back a pervious character, previously thought to be dead. This is, of course, Severian’s first great love, Thecla. In that first book, his relationship with her was constructed to be a strictly one-way love affair. It all seemed very innocent. He’d bring food and books, and they’d chat. She was lady-on-a-pedestal, and he was just happy to bask in her glow or whatever.

Except nope, they were totally banging. Which, whatever! Who cares? Why obscure this aspect of the relationship? And yet this part of the truth emerges as an aside for seemingly no other reason than to alert the reader. Like, “yo, this cat be gettin up to some shit you don’t even know about.” This incidental inclusion of additional details only sows distrust in the narrator, and therefore the narration. Then, as if to capitalize on this feeling of unease, Thecla reappears in the narrative, and Severian continues his obscenely intimate relationship with her.

By eating her corpse. Now see, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Details matter! The Book of the New Sun is filled with details, but it’s entirely up to the reader to filter out the important details from the superfluous ones. This scene, midway through the novel, is some creepy ritual that involves like bio-engineered drugs or something (distilled from aliens? Man, I don’t even know) which allows a person to obtain the… essence of the deceased by devouring their physical body. Which is super gross. But Severian gets right in there and as a result he now has an echo of Thecla’s memories at his disposal, which can get confusing when they’re combined with his perfect recall.

Aside from eating his old lover, Severian also meets his childhood hero, Vodalus, who is a sexy rebel. By the end of this book, I cannot tell if Severian is still on board with his cause or not. In addition to the muddying of these waters, we also learn a few things about Severian’s travelling companions. In the beginning of this second book, Severian is palling around with a dude named Jonas. Well, turns out he’s a cyborg (or rather, a robot who had to repair himself with biological material) from outer space. I guess? Meanwhile, the theatre troop from the first book reappears, and Severian is reunited with his cute girlfriend, Dorcas.

This is the part of the narrative that pushed Severian away from me a little bit, and I’m sure that’s intentional. So far, Dorcas has been portrayed as an innocent. This is easy to do, as she’s child-like in stature, although she is a grown woman, and is also suffering from an amnesia-ish situation which makes her more dependent than usual upon her friends. She is particularly attached to Severian. There are some hints in the text, mostly from Dorcas herself, that she is more than she seems. Dangerous, perhaps. Severian, for his part, doesn’t seem to think she’s much of a threat, because one of the first things he does upon reuniting with his old friends is to immediately sneak off with another woman for an afternoon of hot hot boat-sex. Then, upon returning back to camp where everyone obviously knows what just happened, Dorcas runs off crying. Severian’s response to this is basically: “she took that well, what a trooper.” Man, fuck this guy sometimes.

This book, like the first, also ends on a scene of chaos. I’m not sure what happened, but hopefully the third entry will elucidate some things further. I don’t really expect this to be the case, but one never knows. The state of the world is clearly that of a society in the late stages of decay and collapse. As the story moves from place to place, we get a little more information about this “New Sun,” and what is presumably a renewal of life and purpose to this world devolving in the throes of entropy. Yet I don’t really know much about that either. There’s a lot of mystery here, and I’m not entirely confident that much is going to be explained without a good deal effort on my part. That’s fine, but also kind of exhausting. I guess we shall see.

Jump to the rest of the series: The Shadow of the Torturer; The Sword of the Lictor; The Citadel of the Autarch

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