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The Book of the New Sun Volume I:
Shadow and Claw

Gene Wolfe
Millennium, 606 pages

The Book of the New Sun Volume I: Shadow and Claw
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: In Green's Jungles
SF Site Review: Free Live Free
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by A.L. Sirois

This volume consists of the first two books in the 4-book The Book of the New Sun series, The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator. It's a hefty work, but aside from an extended passage detailing a play that the characters participate in at one point, there's precious little padding. Anyone familiar with Gene Wolfe's work knows what to expect -- strange doings, complex and troubled characters, no guarantees of happy endings for anyone, images and events that stick in the mind long after the book is put down, and a command of the language beyond the ability of 90% of writers working today in or out of the SF field.

The setting is Earth, or Urth, far, far in the future. Wolfe himself is at pains in afterwords to explain a bit of the social trappings of the period, although the trusting reader may not need much hand-holding. Best simply to put one's faith in Mr. Wolfe's peculiar genius and stay buckled in for the ride.

Like much SF set in the distant future, Wolfe's work here concerns peculiar characters, odd and colorful settings, and events at once bizarre yet somehow familiar, all couched in a version of the somewhat mannered and lapidary prose style commonly adopted by those who explore those distant eons (and those whose happy task it is to review such works). Clearly, a million years hence homo sapiens will have evolved into something else, but for dramatic purposes most of Wolfe's characters seem to be purely human. There is the odd time-traveler (or madman -- in either case he is bright green) and the odd cyborged astronaut returned to Earth after millennia in space, but these characters, though presented seriousl,y are clearly meant as a bit of a joke. Wolfe doesn't dwell on them; in lesser hands, these characters would be closer to the focus. Wolfe, however, has bigger fish to fry.

Severian is a torturer, born to the guild. He has no reason to think that his life will be anything other than ordinary, but he makes the cardinal mistake of falling in love with one of his "clients," a beautiful young noblewoman. Her excruciations are delayed for some months, and in that time Severian not only grows close to her, but he also provides her with the means to commit suicide and thus escape her fate. This is highly illegal, and, among torturers, highly immoral. As punishment, he is exiled from the immense and decaying metropolis of Nessus, where he has lived all his life, to the distant city of Thrax. Despite his transgression, his superiors seem oddly understanding: up until now Severian has seemed destined for a successful career. He is presented with Terminus Est, a fabled sword. With this weapon, Severian embarks on a journey both physical and mental, struggling to regain his sense of self-worth and to survive away from the guild that has fed, clothed and educated him for his entire life.

Severian has a lot to learn. His cloistered life among the guild members has not prepared him for the difficulties of life in Nessus. His friendship with the doomed girl has automatically gained him some friends among the upper classes, but just as automatically he has also made enemies, enemies who are in pursuit of him for the strange gem -- the Conciliator's Claw -- that has (accidentally?) fallen into his hands. He takes up with a band of itinerant actors led by a mountebank named Dr. Talos. But the doctor and his strange, giant assistant, Baldanders, though sympathetic and helpful to Severian, may not be what they seem....

Well, this is a Gene Wolfe book, so of course they are not what they seem. Wolfe slowly builds a convincing and intricate picture of the distant future, not unlike Mervyn Peake's celebrated (well, celebrated by some of us) Gormenghast Trilogy (and aren't those books due for a revival?). For the patient reader, there is a great deal of rewarding material here. The Book of the New Sun is not exactly a light read, but in the hands of Gene Wolfe the material is masterfully presented and, dare I say it, haunting. Well worth your while.

Copyright © 2001 A.L. Sirois

A.L. Sirois walks the walk, too. He's a longtime member of SFWA and currently serves the organization as webmaster for the SFWA BULLETIN. His personal site is at

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