Monday, January 31, 2005

Shadow & Claw: The First Half of 'The Book of the New Sun' by Gene Wolfe

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 416 pages
# Publisher: Orb Books, 1994
# ISBN: 0312890176
# $14.95

Science fiction and fantasy are literary genres that I doubt will ever rank among my favorites. However, I am always open to a stretch from my usual reading fare, so when a bookish colleague stated with impassioned conviction - "this is the best book I've ever read!" - I had to peer inside the covers of "Shadow & Claw".

Gene Wolfe is inarguably a highly skilled and richly talented author. I had already read Wolfe's "There Are Doors" and was decidedly underwhelmed. But this first half of a tetralogy was entirely on a different level of polish. Wolfe is a prolific writer, and when one produces as many books as he does, some are bound to be less, some more. I was willing to give him another look. I'm very pleased that I did. No, this is not my favorite book ever. Nor will it make the top ten on my top bookshelf. But it enthralled me instantly, pulled me in to its lush and intricate language, clouded my mind's eye to the reality around me to be reopened into the fantasy world of Severian the Torturer, and brought to life a brilliant array of characters, creatures, and settings. Wolfe has taken on an intriguing challenge in developing a central character, Severian, who tortures and kills for a living. How does one feel empathy for such a vile man? Ah, but one does. Wolfe succeeds, at least initially. Brought into the guild of Torturers as a child, Severian does what he has been taught to do, and, in spite of his gruesome work, he has a core spirit that has its sharper edges softened by compassion and tempered by a sense of honor. As the story weaves its highly imaginative path, however, my empathy for Severian does, admittedly, wane to some degree. As his understanding and, mostly, his free choice of occupation increase, he becomes less sympathetic. It's hard to feel for a man who takes such precise pleasure in his work of torment and death. His intelligence and his ability to discriminate also come under question as he falls in and out of love in the blink of a wandering eye with every female - prostitute, damsel in distress, prisoner, actress, or wandering waif - who crosses his path. Honestly, Sev. Tone down the testosterone, will you?

Yet I read this book to the end, and I read quickly. Whatever genre, Wolfe is a rare talent. I do understand why my bookish colleague so adores his work. I've already begun reading the second half of this tetralogy, "Sword & Citadel". Severian falls far short of being my hero, but the otherworldly world he inhabits will have my attention a while longer.

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