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Shadow and Claw (Fantasy Masterworks 1) by Gene Wolfe
(Orion Millennium, £7.99, 603 pages, B-format paperback; this edition published 23 March 2000.)

Millennium has opted to commence its "Fantasy Masterworks" series with this omnibus of the first two volumes of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun; and the choice can't be faulted. It could be objected that The Book is in fact Science Fiction, that its purported miracles and atmosphere of the Fantastic are simply an overlay for events and phenomena scientifically rationalised; but underlying all such rationalisations is Wolfe's Catholic faith, the implied presence of God and His Servants (known in the text as the Increate and the Hierodules), so that the supernatural is still invoked at some ultimate level. Call this work Science Fantasy; the important fact is the renewed availability in Britain of this seminal epic, in a handsome and very readable edition. The remainder of The Book follows from Millennium in December, under the title Sword and Citadel.

Shadow and Claw contains The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) and The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), which between them won several awards, including a Nebula; they are the first half of the autobiography of the last true Autarch of the Commonwealth of Urth, Severian, variously nicknamed the Great, the Lame, and the Torturer. In superb introspective prose Severian tells of his early life as an apprentice and then journeyman Torturer in the Citadel of the vast metropolis of Nessus, the Commonwealth's ancient, seething, polluted capital. The Autarch now rules only some sections of South America; his domains are threatened on land by the totalitarian Ascians (read Americans) and from the sea by the monstrous beings loyal to the Other lords, Erebus and Abaia; above, the Sun is red and wan, steadily losing light and heat. Salvation must be found; Severian has been chosen by higher powers to succeed to the Autarchy, repel the Ascians, and bring a New Sun that will renew the habitability of Urth. How this translation occurs, despite and because of Severian's nature as a Torturer, is the paradoxical, labyrinthine, allegorical, and numinous burden of The Book of the New Sun.

Severian has more or less perfect recall; by the time of his assumption of the throne he has assimilated the experiences and wisdom of his predecessors; his narration is thus complexly memorious, circling constantly back to earlier events, and filled with meditative digressions reflecting the content of many lives. On his quest across the diverse landscapes of the Commonwealth, he carries a brown book, tales from which he quotes from time to time, relating in miniature the essence of his own career; and the stories of others, companions and enemies, are interwoven with his at many points. Severian becomes by degrees, through his intense telling of himself and those he encounters, the Epitome of Urth, a summary of her peoples and potentials, fit to carry his world's petition for a New Sun to cosmic courts of appeal. The texture this process lends The Book of the New Sun is astonishingly rich, a poetic intricacy surpassing that of Wolfe's more obvious models, Robert Graves' I, Claudius and Jack Vance's The Dying Earth. Meaning wells up miraculously at the text's every turn; rereadings are intensely rewarding; The Book is a splendid triumph of the novelist's craft, perhaps the greatest SF and Fantasy have produced.

The gist of the narrative of Shadow and Claw is thus: in the impenetrable urban maze of Nessus, the young Severian, learning and then practicing the macabre craft of his ancient guild, is subject to significant encounters, incidents, and visions. He is saved from death by an undine; he in turn saves the rebel leader, Vodalus; he falls in love with an aristocratic prisoner, Thecla, one of Vodalus' allies; he spares her torment by permitting her suicide; he is exiled; he wanders Nessus, acquiring and losing companions, all of whom are not what they seem; he visits the Lake of the Dead; he fights a duel requiring venomous alien flowers as weapons; he leaves Nessus on a mission to become Lictor of the provincial town of Thrax. Thus the content of The Shadow of the Torturer: picaresque, seemingly disjointed, but with mythic and sacred echoes abounding, and the incessant intimation of connections between events superficially quite unrelated. And beyond the city gates, this continues.

At the start of The Claw of the Conciliator, Severian remembers the conclusion of the previous volume as a dream; and this sets the tone for his travels through the countryside, which involve: a venture into realms subterranean, where Morlocks lurk; an audience with Vodalus in his full regalia as Liege of Leaves, a counterfeit Robin Hood; a visit to the Autarch's Palace, which is ingeniously invisible; a second audience, with the deceptive Autarch himself; the performance of a play that eerily prophesies Severian's and the Commonwealth's future course; another encounter with the undine; and a séance in a ruined town that summons forth Severian's own spirit. The unifying understructure of the rambling epic becomes slowly clearer; momentous developments offstage are subtly implied; initial assumptions are deftly inverted. As The Claw ends, the sense is stronger than ever that Severian is far more than he himself can ever know.

While all of this has been going on, Urth herself has emerged with consummate vividness, one of speculative fiction's most complete and resonant locales. Antiquity is everywhere, in the archaic tinge of Wolfe's prose, in his magnificent descriptions of cyclopean ruins and maze-like environments, in his evocation of institutions and customs ossified into unquestioning ritual. For Urth is not simply a world of the far future, and The Book of the New Sun is not merely the record of an adventure in that world; rather, they are fantastically intricate summations of all the worlds and books that have preceded them, all the imaginary milieux and heroic narratives that SF and Fantasy produced before them. As Severian Epitomises Urth, his Book epitomises the genres it combines and celebrates. It is a Masterwork indeed.


Review by Nick Gevers.
Nick also writes about Wolfe in Ultan’s Library: an online journal for Gene Wolfe Studies, and more of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 29 April 2000