Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is one of the most revered severed series of all time. Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, GRRM and goodness knows what other celebs swear by them, not to mention armies of fans among sf readers everywhere. With this kind of adulation writing a review for the books is a risky undertaking. I mean you are fine if you love the books unconditionally and happy to declare yourself a convert, but what if you don't?
Fortunately for me I like the book (part 1 & 2) well enough to be able to show some appreciation of its merit, less fortunate is the fact that I don't actually love it.
"Shadow & Claw" is an omnibus volume comprised of the first two books of the 'The Book of the New Sun': Volume 1: The Shadow of the Torturer and Volume 2: The Claw of the Conciliator. The series is often described as “a novel in four parts” so having read just parts 1 & 2 so far I can not claim to have read the entire book. In fact my attempt to review The Shadow of the Torturer after I finished it was a miserable failure because 25% of a book is too little to write about. Worse still, I first read “The Shadow of the Torturer” on audiobook and in that format most of it was incomprehensible for me, these books need to be read attentively and I can not do that while jogging. I always find printed books to be more intimate and easier to follow any way.
The first thing I noticed about Wolfe’s writing is the prose, it is florid, literate and complex, I often had to read sentences or whole passages twice to decipher their meaning. His writing is also often highly evocative, for example this particular sentence is till rattling around in my head:
“The hope in her voice now made me think of a flower growing in shadow.”
I have never seen a flower growing in shadow but the sentence conjured up a feeling of hopelessness very clearly for me.
Many reviews of this book mention that it demands multiple reading for full comprehension. Personally there is at least 15% of the book that I do not quite understand, perhaps after a few days of digesting it more details will fall into place. The author has a habit of suddenly going off on tangents that leave me floundering. There is a whole chapter describing a play put on by the characters that at the time of writing makes no sense to me.
The protagonist and narrator of the story Severian is not exactly likable as he seldom shows any emotion, even though his actions are often driven by his feelings. The female characters are all very well developed and I really feel for their plights, including the more villainous ones.
OK, that is the best I can do at this point (pathetic, I know), once I finish the remaining volumes I will try to add more substance to this review. This brings me to this passage from the end of the first and second volumes:
“Here I pause. If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road.”
Definitely no easy road, but I’m game!