The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
The Claw of the Conciliator is the second book in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun quartet. If you read The Shadow of the Torturer and felt like you were lost (or drunk), and weren’t sure whether things would get clearer in the second book, I have to tell you that no, they don’t. But if you, like me, enjoy that dreamy I’m-not-sure-where-I-am-or-how-I-got-here-or-where-I’m-going-but-everything-sure-feels-fine literary experience, then read on, because Severian’s head is a strange and fascinating place to be.
The Book of the New Sun is one of those works that some people think is ingenious and others suspect is just drivel. This is not the series for a reader who wants a quick-paced action-filled story with a concrete beginning, middle and end. This is for someone who’s in the mood to be open-minded and has the time and patience for some experimentation with character, setting, and theme. (And, perhaps, some mind-altering drugs might help.)
You don’t need to worry about all of the religious imagery to enjoy these novels, but it’s there if you want to look for it. Most obvious are the themes of healing and resurrection and the allusions to the Second Coming, and it’s clear that Severian has some sort of role in that (though he may be completely oblivious). There is also the fascinating issue of Severian being an unreliable narrator. I’m not prepared to call him a “liar” (as some readers have done) because I can’t find much evidence that he purposely lies to us. I think, rather, that his perceptions and memory are faulty. His claim that his memory is perfect may not be a lie, but rather his own misperception.
Gene Wolfe doesn’t much care for a traditional fantasy setting and he also doesn’t respect the traditional mechanics of storytelling. Tight plot? Why bother? This story wanders — seemingly aimlessly — all across the country (or maybe not, because we may have ended up where we started, but who knows?). Characters, conversations, and events that appear to be significant may mean nothing. There are hints of lost races, species, technologies, knowledge, and allegorical meaning that may never be explained and connected for us at the end. There is plenty of bizarreness (even an Ames Room!), which is what I enjoy most.
Wolfe’s world is rich, most of what happens is unexpected, and the reader feels completely helpless to predict anything or even to be assured that things that will work out as they’re “supposed to” in a fantasy novel. Imagine that you’re reading one of those epics where you’ve cleverly figured out that the orphan boy hero is really the long-lost son of the king, but… the author won’t acknowledge this. That would be weird and somewhat disconcerting. That’s how it feels to read The Book of the New Sun. How strange and refreshing!
At the end of The Claw of the Conciliator, Severian says (just as he did at the end of The Shadow of the Torturer) that he doesn’t blame us if we don’t want to continue walking with him (“it is no easy road”). But we’re in Gene Wolfe’s creative hands, so it’s not the destination; it’s the journey that’s paramount. If you’re ready to embark on this strange trip, I recommend Audible Frontiers’ audio version. Jonathan Davis is a favorite of mine and he does an amazing job with this difficult piece.
THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is considered by many SFF readers as the greatest, most challenging, and most rewarding SF-fantasy epic ever written in the genre. At the same time, its baroque language, ambiguous plot, unreliable narrator, and depth of symbolism are likely to discourage most casual readers. Therefore, new readers need to dedicate themselves to unraveling the many layers of plot, religious symbolism, literary references, and narrative sleight-of-hand. They also need to understand that it is essentially a single integrated work, so reading individual volumes is not enough to render judgement. You need to read all four volumes to appreciate what Gene Wolfe has painstakingly crafted. If you do so, you will be rewarded richly indeed.
I’ve actually read the entire series twice in the past two decades, and decided that I would listen to the audiobook editions narrated by the excellent Jonathan Davis to give me a new perspective on the whole creation. He is the ideal narrator for a work this ambitious, as he tackles the baroque story with gravitas, confidence, and enthusiasm. I can’t imagine a narrator better suited to the task.
THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is that type of work, one that rewards multiple readings and reflection and still retains many of its mysteries tantalizingly out of reach. If you are someone comfortable with complexity, mysteries, and a lack of explanations, you should be able to enjoy Wolfe’s elusive style.
This time I also prepared myself by reading Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, an 826-page analysis covering Wolfe’s output through 1986, including all of his short stories and his novels The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, Free Live Free, and THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. Aramini’s analysis sheds much light on the key underlying themes of the story, namely the death and resurrection of the Urth via the coming of the New Sun, the ambiguous messianic nature of the protagonist Severian, the healing power of the Claw of the Conciliator, and Severian’s duty to undergo testing by alien powers to determine if humanity is indeed worthy of this rebirth.
There are so many themes and ideas in Wolfe’s epic that it has spawned an informal school of analysis, including books such as Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus, Robert Borki’s Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” and Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader. Therefore, it would be presumptuous of me to try to analyze his magnum opus in a brief review such as this. Rather, I will just touch on the most important themes of the book and dispense with a discussion of plot details, which you can discover on your own.
To drastically simplify things, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is the story of the young apprentice Severian raised in the guild of torturers called the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. He recalls to the reader his complex path from lowly apprentice to the Autarch of the Commonwealth, the most powerful ruler on far-future Urth. This world lies millions of years in the future, to the point that our own world is no longer even a memory. It is a baroque fantasy world filled with mysterious terms such as archon, carnifex, cataphract, chalcedony, fuligin, hipparch, lazaret, monomachy, optimate, pelerine, psychopomp, quaesitor, thaumaturge, and uhlan. None of these terms are coined by Wolfe, but rather reflect his erudite love of obscure and archaic terms. They lend an air of incredible antiquity to the world of Urth, and the story takes direct inspiration from THE DYING EARTH of Jack Vance.
Severian encounters all manner of friends & foes, allies and enemies, lovers, thieves, soldiers, actors, priests, witches, commoners, malevolent creatures, inscrutable aliens, and other powerful beings whose intentions are unclear. What they all share is an interest in the fate of Severian, for though he does understand this himself for much of his journey, he is destined to not only become Autarch but to serve as the representative to the stars to determine if the dying red sun of Urth is worthy of being renewed in both a symbolic and literal sense, ushering in a New Sun and renewed era of humanity. It is an outcome that is constantly alluded to but never fully explained, though Wolfe later explored this is more detail (while still retaining much mystery) in a companion coda called The Urth of the New Sun (1987).
The religious symbolism of the story is both explicit and complicated. Severian is positioned as the obvious messiah, the living embodiment of the New Sun, and as he wields the cross-shaped executioners’ sword Terminus Est, the Christ-like imagery is plain for any reader to see. And yet throughout the story, Severian himself is a naive and conflicted character, one who struggles first to set aside his training as a torturer and executioner, and later as a man fighting to understand his role as a possible bringer of redemption and resurrection to a corrupt and dying world. This goes far beyond a Christian allegory such as C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, for instance. Of equal importance is the religious talisman that comes into Severian’s hands by accent, the Claw of the Conciliator. This object seems capable of bringing the dead back to life and healing fatal wounds when Severian wields it, and is associated with the Conciliator, a figure of the ancient past who is both Christ-like and may also have extra-terrestrial origins.
THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN also incorporates a number of stories-within-stories, told by various characters and also in the form of stage plays performed by the characters (echoing the story itself from the author’s perspective) during key moments in the narrative. One could write a dissertation on interpreting the meanings of these stories as they relate to the overall themes of the book, and this effort is far beyond me, but Marc Aramini does discuss the implications of a number these stories in his book Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, including Dr. Talos’ play “Eschatology and Genesis”, “The Tale of the Student and His Son”, “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog”, “The Cock, the Angel, and the Eagle”, “The Armiger’s Daughter”, as well as some extremely vivid dreams of Severian. This literary device is equally vital to understanding the layers of meaning in his book Peace.
The story is further complicated by the roles of Abaia, Erebus, and their servants the undines, underwater beings of great power that seem intent on conquering humanity, but at the same time provide aid to Severian at times and may even benefit from the inundation of Urth if Severian is to succeed in bringing the New Sun. They are constantly observing Severians’ progress, but it is unclear whether they seek to aid or prevent his quest.
We also have the even more inscrutable role of the Hierodules, alien beings from other worlds that reside on Urth and also take a keen interest in Severian and his path to becoming the Autarch. Despite their implied powers, they sometimes seem to indicate that they serve him, but this in never made entirely clear. They appear to have a connection with the current Autarch, but it is not apparent whether they favor Severian over his rule.
Finally, there is the ambiguous role of the reigning Autarch himself, and his mysterious advisor Father Inire. They obviously wield great power, and if they were to decide Severian were a threat to them they could easily have him killed. Yet they instead appear in various guises in his adventures, never clearly his ally or enemy, always with opaque intentions and tantalizing comments. Father Inire in particular seems to control the power to travel between the stars via the sinister power of mirrors and labyrinths (an obvious nod to Jorge Luis Borges), but does not demonstrate to what end he might use them.
In the end, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN does not easily yield up its secrets to interpretation or analysis, but this is most certainly the source of its lasting appeal to discerning literary SFF readers over the last 35 years. There are layers of meaning that remain obscure even after multiple readings, but it is clear that Wolfe has crafted a masterpiece that is worth the attempts to conquer it, a literary Mt. Everest that every serious reader in the genre will be drawn to again and again, and there is much to be gained in each attempt, whether the peak is attained or not.
THE SOLAR CYCLE — (1980-2001) Contains the original series, The Book of the New Sun, and two sequel series: The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun.
The Book of the New Sun — (1980-1987) Omnibus editions available. Publisher: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun is an extraordinary epic, set a million years in the future, on an Earth transformed in mysterious and wondrous ways, in a time when our present culture is no longer even a memory. Severian, the central character, is a torturer, exiled from his guild after falling in love with one of his victims, and journeying to the distant city of Thrax, armed with his ancient executioner’s sword, Terminus Est.
The Book of the Long Sun — (1993-1996) Publisher: In a decrepit school, children are taught to be soothsayers by Patera Silk, an innocent hero. Silk’s school is sold by his superiors to the crude businessman, Blood. Silk finds that he is a powerful sorcerer, and magic is in the air.
The Book of the Short Sun — (1999-2001) Publisher: ON BLUE’S WATERS is the start of a major new work by Gene Wolfe, the first of three volumes that comprise The Book of the Short Sun, which takes place in the years after Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun. Horn, the narrator of the earlier work, now tells his own story. Though life is hard on the newly settled planet of Blue, Horn and his family have made a decent life for themselves. But Horn is the only one who can locate the great leader Silk, and convince him to return to Blue and lead them all to prosperity. Horn sets sail, in a small boat, on a long and difficult quest across the planet Blue in search of the now legendary Patera Silk.
I sooo got to read this series.