Update 5 26 finally finished Man, this is an intense book I was tempted to give up on it at various points because it s so thoroughly dick lit I mean, the hero carries around a sword that he unsheathes, oils, and re sheaths routinely throughout his travels, and he sleeps with nearly every woman he encounters, but usually in the most patronizing way imaginable there s actually an extremely painful, cringeworthy attempt at some sort of epiphanic look into the male psyche, wherein it is brought to the reader s attention that men don t only want the hot chicks They don t discriminate They want the not so hot chicks, too Preferably simultaneously all of which would be fine, if the whole thing weren t trying desperately to be something much less transparent than that Parts of this were delightfully magical actually, most of it was, imagery wise It s definitely a pleasure to feel like you ve tapped into the mind of someone on a really good, permanent acid trip But I think I need to go build back up my estrogen reserves before continuing on to the second half I ll have whatever drugs this author is on Kthxbai. Gene Wolfe is not a misgynist Before all the sensitive types start in on Gene Wolfe s treatment of women in Shadow and Claw, I thought I would head off such criticisms by exploring women s freedom in Wolfe s Urth.On Urth, women are 1 Permitted to learn to read There are actually a number of women in the narrative that not only can read but also can read and understand something akin to Latin But, don t you dare call it Latin, because it s not Gene Wolfe said so.2 Free to wear clothes or not as they see fit Much care is taken that women should be offered to wear clothes and even clean clothes when their pathetic nature raises our empathy and pity Yet, a woman is also apparently free to disrobe and thrown herself naked and pleading to exchange sex for the life of a loved one.3 Free to sell her body for money legally Money Good Sex Very good Sex for money Men have money a woman, her sex How can that be wrong 4 Free to be beaten That a woman should be suffered to live for giving offense to a man is a blessing onto her She may be beaten and pushed down and she is not hurt much.5 Free to be imprisoned unjustly In this enlightened age of the far future Urth, women are suffered to live despite they give offense to men and the law of Men The expense and time to imprison and persecuteerrprosecute a woman in light of her actual value to society is a charity granted to her and her sex.6 Free to be tortured That the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence should seek to imprison and torture women clearly indicates that women are thought to be capable of speaking truth or even knowing truth Similarly, this would also suppose that a woman has a soul capable of penitence or that a woman possesses a soul at all.7 Free to be publicly maimed and executed The branding and public execution of a woman suggests the physical vessel of the woman s body contains a space for moral instruction through ritualized excruciation and killing A woman is no mere animal that can be killed or beaten without conscience Her body and her life are valued enough to bring forth a physical and moral revulsion to a public branding and execution that is not only a moment of moral teaching but also Thanatonic catharsis.8 Free to be raped in prison Make no mistake In past ages a woman in captivity was the rape toy of every guard and low level official in the prison system Under the care of the Order, a woman may only be raped as a form of torture by the head inquisitor or his designee She may be bartered amongst the inquisitor and his inferiors, but she shall not be abused by any other men.These are only some of the many freedoms that women enjoy in the world of Urth so lovingly and intellectually crafted by Gene Wolfe I for one salute his feminist spirit and his magnanimity to grant women a dignified and full existence in the world of his own creation And in case my sarcasm isn t clear, F you, Gene Wolfe The Shadow of the Torturer Apprentice torturer Severian shows mercy for an imprisoned woman and helps her commit suicide rather than endure weeks of torture For his crimes, Severian is sentenced to travel too the village of Thrax and take up the post of carnifex Will Severian make it to Thrax alive The Shadow of the Torturer isn t your grandmother s fantasy The tale of Severian isn t the hopeful quest story that s been written and re written umpteen times in the past fifty years The setting reminds me of Jack Vance s Dying Earth but much developed and with the specter of space opera hanging in the background Gene Wolfe takes the bare bones of the standard quest story and clothes it with literary merit, from the unreliable narrator, Severian, to references to classic works The scene in the necropolis near the beginning is straight out of Great Expectations Or straight out of Great Expectations if Pip was an apprentice torturer and helped Magwitch in a fight rather than fetch him a fileWolfe s writing is baroque and reminds me of the New Weird authors like China Mieville The Book of the New Sun definitely isn t a beach read Be prepared to divine the meaning of words from the context.Apart from Severian, the cast isn t all that developed, but then, the unreliable narrator should probably be the center of attention Dr Talos and Baldanders steal the show with what little screen time they re given.That s about all I can say without giving too much away The world Wolfe has built is full of fresh ideas How many other books do you know that feature two men fighting with flowers with razor sharp leaves The Claw of the Conciliator Severian s journey to Thrax continues and his path brings him into contact with both friend and foe Will he ever make it to Thrax Claw of the Conciliator continues Severian s rise from apprentice torturer to eventual Autarch Wolfe s inventiveness grows as Severian encounters man apes, a giantess, witches, an androgyne who might be The Autarch, a giantess, and many other interesting characters, including Dr Talos and company More is revealed about the Claw of the Conciliator, though much mystery remains I get the feeling a lot of secrets are still lurking in the background.One aspect of The Book of the New Sun I really enjoy is how Gene Wolfe has a lot of sci fi elements lurking in the background, like aliens, wormholes and the true nature of Jonas, and the casual mention of what might in fact be laser guns Wolfe s a sly one view spoiler My favorite part, by far, is the bit with the alzabo and Severian injesting a piece of Thecla s flesh and experiencing her memories I suspect this will continue to reverberate through the next two books hide spoiler Fantastic ConjunctivitisWolfe is most often compared to Tolkien and Lewis However this is regurgitation of marketing hype There is little in terms of style or symbology to link Wolfe with either Aside from the genre of fantasy and a clear talent for creative world building, Wolfe dwells in a very different universe, a universe not all that dissimilar from Mervyn Peake s Gormenghast trilogy The physical environment of Wolfe s city of Nessus could easily fit into Peake s Gormenghast Castle and vice versa A vast, half ruined, place, unknown except locally to its inhabitants A gothic labyrinth that harbours all manner of surprises and threats.Both sets of works play off a background of ancient but incomprehensible tradition that establishes the rigid conditions from which the protagonist must escape Unlike Severian, Titus knows his forebears, but this difference makes no difference to the comprehensive social discipline and constraint applied to both of them.Both Titus in Peake and Severian in Wolfe are sympathetic characters who struggle against the bonds of convention to capture some sort of independent identity Both have only a vague notion of what lies outside the boundaries of the city castle but they yearn toward it with a clearly erotic drive.Many of the other characters also are inter changeable The Chief Archivist and his assistant in Wolfe could be copies of Peake s Barquentine and the villainous Steerpike Bellgrove in Peake could be one of Wolfe s Masters Peake wrote Gormenghast between 1946 and 1959 It inspired several other works, most notably China Mieville s 2000 steampunk fantasy Perdido Street Station Wolfe s three or four books were written between 1980 and 1983 I have been unable to find any mention of Peake who died in 1968 by Wolfe or in critical analyses of his work In a 2014 interview with Wolfe specifically about writers who had influenced him, he makes no mention of Peake So an interesting case of parallel inspiration or a demonstration of the anxiety of influence Any views are welcome. update 12 2 2015 On this, my first re reading, I m stopping with Shadow of the Torturer in a for now kind of moment There are some other things I d like to read as 2015 winds down Not sure if I enjoyed the story or about the same this time around Certainly not less original review My first pass through Gene Wolfe s Shadow of the Torturer Claw of the Conciliator was summed up with a status update I made about two thirds of the way through Flashes of brilliance between swaths of tedium.I did not dislike the book, and I expect to re read it and enjoy it even some day but it did not strike me thus Not on this first reading.Aerin said it well Reading these books is like trying to watch a foreign movie without subtitles from two miles away with a crappy set of binoculars, and the audio coming over a fuzzy radio frequency, mixed with three other simultaneous broadcasts most of the time you re just watching incomprehensible things happening, thinking if you could only see things a little clearly and understand what the hell people were saying, this might be a really interesting story.And and Aerin hints at this, as well there is this tendency to wink and nudge your way through a book like this There s some High Vocabulary, and there is an Intricate Plot, and recognizably Epic Characters And you know for a fact that Gene Wolfe is no dummy he is a talented storyteller and a gifted author And who wants to be left behind Wolfe is gifted and talented and this is a great and convoluted and complex but epic story and so it must be brilliant Who wants to admit that they re left behind that they didn t get it that they were frustrated by it, even as they enjoyed it Or at least wanted to enjoy it And that s where I landed with this one I wanted to enjoy it, and I believe that there is an enjoyable novel in there but unless you re going to give it the extra effort on the first pass or unless you re a preternaturally brilliant ascetic , expect to be a little frustrated on that first pass. My three favorite novels in the world are Dune by Frank Herbert, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe I bet that many of you have read, and many have heard of, the first two, but I wonder how many have read the last The Book of the New Sun is less accessible than The Name of the Rose and weirder than Dune The mind bending future world, where the sun is so close to dead that you can see the stars in the daytime, is on par with Dune in its richness and complexity The mostly religious philosophy, which the characters often discuss in casual conversation without it seeming contrived, is on par with The Name of the Rose or better But the characterization is better than either Although the main character is male, the female characters are far real, vivid, and varied than almost anything I ve encountered in fiction, and particularly science fiction.The book is full of hints and allusions and puzzles Despite what some readers may say, all the pieces are there and it s quite possible to put them together, though it might take a second read through and some thought I think many readers come away frustrated because they read the first volume alone and find that they have questions than answers There s also Gene Wolfe s love of obscure vocabulary he doesn t make up words, he just resurrects them I liked learning that an epopt is the opposite of a neophyte and that a carnifex is another word for executioner You can get by with context, but if you re a word nerd the OED will beckon you Every now and again the narrative pauses while the characters read a story from a book of tales or have a story telling contest The narrator main character tries to fool you into thinking that it s just an interlude included for his sense of completeness, but like many of things he says, it s just a subtle lie or perhaps self deception.It s one of those books that I wish fervently my friends would all read, because it s such a pleasure to discuss I m not sure I ve done a good job of convincing anyone, but if you re a fan of difficult pleasures, this is a book for you. I stopped after 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 This Edition Contains The First Two Volumes Of This Four Volume Novel, The Shadow Of The Torturer And The Claw Of The Conciliator MUST read at first available opportunity, b c Servo is an ode to one of Pierce Brown s favorite characters in literature, The book s cover offers a blurb from Neil Gaiman The best SF novel of the last century Yeah, okay Neil, I thought to myself I bet you say that to all the pretty books.Then I read the book And he was right At least, right if you define best as none better rather than better than all Book of the New Sun belongs in a class of its own If there s anything to compare it with, I haven t read it.With this quartet, Gene Wolfe did for speculative literature what Raymond Chandler did to detective fiction back in the 50s He raised it above its humble genre trappings Chandler opened my eyes to a new type of writing Prior to cracking open the pages of The Long Goodbye, I perceived literature as a dichotomy entertaining genre trash and high falutin Literary tomes The former focuses on the what while the latter focuses on the how but both possess merit Chandler s fiction blurs that line His plots are as entertaining as they come, yet much of a reader s delight arises from the sharp style and tremendous wit with which he wrote.So it is with The Book of the New Sun, though Wolfe s style could not be different than Chandler s While Chandler s Marlowe narrates with sharp, forceful prose, Wolfe s Severian an apprentice torturer narrates this old earth science fantasy blend with meandering complexity and guile, unreliable even in his claim that he s a liar Does he lie Yes but not in the manner you might think He lies not by shape, but by weight, giving you the facts plainly enough but hiding their import.Such subversion exists throughout the quartet It is entirely readable as a straight forward hero s journey of the Campbellian variety It s an adventure in the same way Chandler s novels are mysteries They entertain at the surface level But they are also so much than that In Chandler s case, his novels are a how to manual for dealing with a world that is, our world so reliant on manipulation that we take for granted the deception we encounter, and might even feel lost without our daily dosage of bullshit advertising, politicking, journalism, and TV drama In the Book of the New Sun, the adventure masks an allusive labyrinthe, a riddle of time and meaning, that must be traversed by careful reading.Which, if we re being honest, is problematic these days Most people are not careful readers and don t want to be That is their prerogative, though as a writer myself, I find it frustrating The defining trait of modern entertainment is its ease of consumption Book of the New Sun is not easily consumed With long, tortured sentences, complex diction, discursive asides, and than a few instances of elision, even a superficial reading requires work To attain any sort of depth requires even.But this work does not go unrewarded The complexity doesn t exist for the sake of complexity, but rather to ambush the reader with a delightfully refreshing subversion and to present a complete picture of a character s mind and life I even found the book rewarding on a sentence by sentence level It is peppered throughout with insight and interesting prose.In short, Book of the New Sun is very much like a trek through a hilly country More difficult than taking a car to be sure, but not all that challenging, and I never knew what new beauty I d find over the next hill.To be shorter still, I loved this book I absolutely loved it It changed me the way a good love affair changes you It taught me to expect from my literature.