Shadow & Claw, by Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe's award winning 4 book series The Book of the New Sun has recently been reprinted in two volumes, each containing 2 novels. Shadow & Claw includes the first two novels – Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator. Wolfe presents this sci-fantasy story as a translation of a document written in a "language that does not exist yet." The dense prose is full of archaic words, which Wolfe explains a part of the challenge of a translation and transliteration. With a feeling of historical novels and hero quest fantasy, Wolfe is giving the reader a vision of distant future. Urth and her people are dessicated and dim, and the sun is cooling in her last days. Dripping in adventure, sex, sword fights, coming-of-age, and destiny, Shadow & Claw is swimming in religious parable, symbolism, and hero mythology.
Told as a flash back by the elderly Severian, he is in no hurry to tell his story, and explains to the reader on more than one occasion that he won't be offended if the reader is bored, or chooses not to continue reading his history. Severian, now residing in the royal residence (but as royalty or prisoner, or both, we're not sure) has lived a long life, and knows that although his time may be short, time itself will be around for a long time. The pace of the book is rather slow, but the slow pace allows the reader to become fully absorbed in what is going on, without the distraction of looking for the next action scene. It took me quite a while to get used to the slow pace and the archaic language style, but in the end it was worth it.
Severian's story begins when he is a child, a lowly apprentice in the guild of torturers. Before you start thinking this is one of those horror books full of blood and screaming, it's not. In this world, torture is not only a method of justice, but nearly an art form, and takes years of training and discipline. Some readers have proposed Wolfe used the idea of a professional torturer as shock value to pull readers in, and maybe he did, but any readers looking for shock value will be disapointed.
After being promoted to guild journeyman, one day Severian does the unthinkable – he assists a political prisoner in committing suicide. The punishment for this is death. As a favored student, he is offered exile instead, and given a letter of introduction and a sword, he is sent to the far reaches of the empire, to a small village in need of an executioner. Reminds me of the popular historical novel plot line of the young monk sent away from the monastery to bring the word to a small rural village, and along the way the young monk discovers the world is much larger than he expected. I'm also feeling the need to read back up on Joesph Campbell, as Severian follows his classic hero's journey.
The majority of the novel is Severian's adventures in leaving his home metropolis of Nessus on his way out to the rural country side. And they are exactly that – character building adventures involving a chance encounter with a rebel leader, beautiful women, the accidental acquiring of a magical religious relic, duels, executions (at which Severian performs admirably), a traveling acting troupe, and possible treason. At this rate, he'll never make it to his rural career. His adventures are the best written parts of the book, but not as important as the person they force him to become and the destiny he is unequivocally drawn toward. While reading this I was reminded of Robert Silverberg's Valentine series – the young man who knows he has a powerful destiny, and knows that every step of every day takes him closer, but knows there is no point in rushing things, as his life is predestined, and he will arrive at the proper place at the proper time.
The general plot sound may simple, but it is peppered with Severian's thoughts on the politics and religion of his country, his childhood, his regrets, and his successes, and lush descriptions of the alien wonders of his world. We know "Urth" is a post apocalyptic far future Earth, but will Severian ever figure it out? Will he ever bring his people back to the stars? How did things change so drastically that the citizens of Urth have no idea of their history?
I highly recommend Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series to readers who enjoy epic fantasy, and post apocalyptic tales of the earth of a far future.