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|Claw of the Conciliator
by Gene Wolfe
Published by Simon & Schuster, 1981
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Highly recommended by: Elliot Hanowski
This is the second volume of Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. When we rejoin the protagonist, Severian, he has left the sprawling metropolis of Nessus and is traveling north, headed for his assigned post as executioner in the mountain city of Thrax. Some time has elapsed since we saw him last, and the reader must be careful to pick up clues of how and why he was separated from his fellow travelers of the previous volume.
Severian's world becomes ever more rich and vivid, as we see a rustic festival in the village of Saltus; the magnificent but dangerous haunts of the outlaw "Liege of Leaves" and the elaborate ceremonies and environs of The House Absolute, the home of the ruling Autarch. Severian's gift of perfect memory begins to play a larger role in the story. As in the first volume, nothing is as it seems, and no detail in this byzantine mosaic is insignificant. Just what is the Claw? Who is Jolenta? Why does Jonas have a mechanical hand? What is the true political situation? Who keeps trying to kill Severian? Why is he sometimes two people? What is the meaning of the signs and miracles that have begun to proliferate around him? It may seem that Wolfe is tossing in strange happenings at random, but the persistent reader discovers that the unfolding plot is in fact meticulously constructed.
This is not to say that the story is boring or difficult Wolfe includes lots of top-notch action and excitement. Severian finds himself in a terrifying underground battle, fights his way through several attempts on his life by assassins and alien creatures, and gets caught up in various quests, kidnappings, escapes and other hair-raising adventures. Wolfe's prose continues to be excellent, so even descriptions of sedate landscapes or meandering conversations are a delight.
Some readers, though, may be put off by Wolfe's penchant for putting stories within stories. Claw includes at least two examples of this one chapter is devoted to a story that may be a future version of the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur; another is given over to a play in which Severian is a performer. Some readers will find these diversions absorbing, while others will want to get back to the main plot.
The spiritual element of the work continues to deepen. C.S. Lewis said that certain stories can become part of our personal iconography. Wolfe's images are uniquely suited to this, ranging as they do from walking statues and an otherworldly prophetess to a time-displaced Green Man hailing from some future Peaceable Kingdom. In particular, Dr. Talos' play, described in the chapter entitled Eschatology and Genesis, contains much food for thought. It deals with the destruction of an old, exhausted world, and the creation of a new one, under a New Sun. Or is it instead about the redemption of both? Miracles, oblique and hidden in the first volume, become more noticeable now, though no less mysterious. Wolfe's Catholic vision of suffering and mercy, of sign and sacrament, gradually emerges from this remarkable story. (July, 2006)
This four book series, Shadow of the Torturer, Sword of the Lictor, Claw of the Conciliator, and Citadel of the Autarch are extremely complex but delightful renderings of a world so far in the future that it is hard to recognize as our own. Yet Severian, the torturer who shows mercy, becomes a strange Everyman, who shows us decency and wonder in a strange, but absorbing place. Christians will not find an obvious tract here: this is a dense literary journey, but it will bless you. Diane Joy Baker
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