Pit Stop: The Claw of the Conciliator

No spoilers.

I'm now halfway through Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. The Claw of the Conciliator skips ahead a little after the abrupt ending of The Shadow of the Torturer, and that gap is filled in much later in Claw. I suppose feeling disoriented is par for the course when reading Wolfe.

Despite this slight jump ahead in time, I found myself fully immersed during the first half of Claw. Wolfe has created an eerie and beautiful world, and we finally venture outside the Wall of Nessus, as Severian continues his slow and detour-filled journey to Thrax. The genre borders are blurrier than ever. I've learned to appreciate Wolfe's use of archaic words, and I'm no longer as resistant to looking them up as I go. As before, the prose is simultaneously elegant and lush, and it's a remarkable experience once you settle into its rhythm.

I frequently see complaints that the side characters of the Book of the New Sun lack personality and depth, constituting nothing more than ciphers. I've found them to be quite the opposite, and I hope some of their tantalising backstories are revealed eventually, or at least hinted at in greater detail. Sure, they verge on being caricatures, but they're still thematically consistent. In a world that's so similar to ours yet starkly different, I wouldn't expect the characters to behave entirely like normal humans.

Shadow was a challenging but enjoyable read, and I have to say Claw was less enjoyable and more challenging. Shadow has many slow moments—and I understand this whole series is a slow burn—but there are perhaps (and hopefully) none as infuriatingly jarring as the book-within-a-book chapter midway through Claw. There's also a protracted chapter slightly further on that's the script of a stage play, but at least that felt more directly related to the main story. This book-within-a-book chapter is a sly distortion of a myth, however, it just felt so incongruous that it hit me like a brick wall and left me feeling less charitable towards Wolfe's obscurant style. Thankfully, the pace picks up after that, and there are some interesting callbacks to the first book along with one pretty shocking bombshell, culminating in a thrilling final stretch.

Regarding my comment on Severian's dodgy attitudes to women in an earlier post, someone mentioned that it gets worse in the other books. Unfortunately, they were absolutely right. There were many moments when I couldn't help feeling enraged at Severian, and perhaps that's the point, but damn it gets old when he describes feeling "a desire like never before" every time he ogles the female characters. Severian recounts and commits some heinous deeds in Claw, and the unreliable narration leads me to strongly suspect he outright omits a similar scene earlier in the book. If I'm not mistaken, at this halfway point in the series, women have always been the victims in the torture scenes, which really doesn't help shake the strong misogynistic undertones.

While I heartily recommend that everyone should give Shadow a try, if only to see what all the fuss is, I can't say the same for Claw. This feels like a watershed moment for readers, and many will drop the series for some reason or another. Frankly, this book felt exhausting, but I'm still dying to see the rest of the story play out and try to figure at least some of the weird puzzles, and so I must carry on.

Day 18 of #100DaysToOffload

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