Book of the New Sun: Shadow and Claw (Book Review)

Title: The Book of the New Sun: Shadow and Claw
Authors: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Bantam
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary in a Sentence: Masterfully crafted, eloquent, and original first two novels following Severian, Journeyman of the Torturer's Guild, but not for the faint of heart due to adult content and "heavy" language.

Shadow and Claw is a compilation of the first two novels of The Book of the New Sun, a fantasy/sci-fi quadrology set in a far-future and post-apocalyptic earth (called "Urth" by the inhabitants). It is a very unique novel, so unique that I'd urge caution upon anyone approaching it because it will be unlike anything you've read before. Therefore, one must set aside any preconceived notions about fantasy or expectations when picking up the novel.

The novel is told from the first-person perspective of Severian, initially a novice and then a journeyman of the "Torturers' Guild". In this far-future setting this guild carries out the punishments ordered by the mysterious and remote emperor. This in itself makes the novel unique and the main character an interesting one, who has a certain personal code of honour but has been raised from birth among a group of men who carry out brutal acts with a certain professional pride. He falls in love with one of the "clients" which leads to his fall from grace with the guild and is sent out to travel to a remote town to act as executioner as a punishment that will save the honour of the guild. Many strange and interesting episodes ensue. A very original and fully developed/realised future earth serves as a fantastic setting.

The writing is fairly dense, but extremely eloquent. Award-winning science fiction author Michael Swanwick has said: "Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today! I mean it ... among living writers, there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning." I am inclined to agree and the rich prose is a big part of the enjoyment to be had in reading this series. Many wonderful arcane words are used to add to the feel of a foreign world, but it is not a particularly easy read as a result.

I do have some difficulties with the amount of adult content in the novels and certainly they should not be read by anyone other than a mature adult. There are a few fairly graphic sex scenes that made me uncomfortable, although I think they were realistic to the circumstances. Although one must comment that Severian is a bit too "irresistible" to women and my ability to suspend disbelief was taking a bit of a beating with the frequency at which women who've only just met him throw themselves at him. Yet on the other hand I think it offers a brutally honest portrayal of human nature -- and I say this not solely in reference to the "naughty bits" but to the behaviour of characters in general.

I have found over time that this is a novel that has really "stuck" with me and I find myself thinking about it over time leading me to re-read it at intervals. It is not for everyone, but certainly worth a try. I've not yet read Sword and Citadel, the final two installments of the novel.

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