Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Published: Timescape Books, 1981
Series: Book 2 of the Book of the New Sun
Awards Won: Nebula, Locus Fantasy
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy, Hugo, Mythopoeic

Warning: This is the second book of a series, so there are some spoilers of the first book in the following text.

The Book:

“Armed with the gem known as “The Claw of the Conciliator” and the sword Terminus Est, Severian continues his journey to become the new carnifex of Thrax.  On the way, his journey is temporarily derailed by his devotion to the revolutionary Vodalus, who sends him to deliver a message to a servant in the House Absolute.  His path will cross with many former friends and acquaintances, and many strange and surreal experiences await him.”~Allie

Since this is a continuation of the story from the first novel, I would strongly recommend for prospective readers to begin the series with The Shadow of the Torturer. Also, the review of The Golem and the Jinni is coming soon; I just got a little out of order!

My Thoughts:

The Claw of the Conciliator is the second fourth of Severian’s story, and most of the things I liked and disliked from the first novel are present here, as well. I enjoyed the far future, dying earth setting, with a decayed society living alongside high technology from days gone by. I read once that high fantasy often tended to describe a world declining from past greatness, while science fiction often tended to describe a world progressing towards greatness. I enjoyed how Wolfe wrote his science fictional world with this kind of fantasy-esque atmosphere.  It was always interesting to see how the characters would interact with modern or future technology, and I felt like I was also starting to get a better sense of the myths and legends Wolfe was drawing from for particular events or characters.  I’m sure I’m still missing a lot of the allusions and references, but it’s fun to try to pick them out as I go.

However, while I enjoyed the setting, I found it much harder to drum up sympathy for the main cast of characters. I think that Severian might have been an easier character to like if I were privy to less of his thoughts. For instance, Severian carefully described the bodies of all the women he met, and pondered the subtle nuances between the different kinds of lust he felt for each of them.  I did not find these considerations as fascinating as teenage Severian must have, and I found many of his views on women and other topics to be pretty appalling.  Some of the other characters, such as Dorcas, Jolenta, Dr. Talos and Baldanders, had pretty interesting histories or circumstances, but none of them were particularly easy to like.  I was curious about the source of Dorcas's dreams, and the nature of the connection between Dr. Talos and Baldanders, but only in a detached sort of way. Of course, not all novels necessarily need to have a cast of likeable characters, but as it was, it was hard to feel emotionally invested in their personal stories.  

I was less surprised by the plot structure this time around, since the second novel is much like the first.  Severian is technically still on his way to Thrax, as ordered near the beginning of the first novel, but he is still incredibly easy to distract from that goal.  Instead of following a direct path, he wanders through a variety of surreal, improbably connected events.  His meandering experiences are also interrupted by several stories within the story: one written tale and one play that the group with Dr. Talos is performing. I suspect they contain clues for the nature of the story to come, but I admit that I am not yet clear on what many of those clues might be. I found it to be easier to appreciate the story once I let go of the expectation that the plot would proceed in any particular direction, and simply enjoyed the scenes as they passed.

My Rating: 3 /5

The Claw of the Conciliator is similar in style to The Shadow of the Torturer, with the same wandering plot structure and series of surreal experiences.  As Severian wanders, though, more of the nature of the world and of the story in which he is living is beginning to be revealed. While the second novel provided more insight into the structure of the world, it also managed to destroy most of my remaining sympathy for the characters, particularly the protagonist.  While I am still interested in considering the tetralogy as a complete work, having to experience the story from Severian's point of view can be very wearing.  I will probably finish the rest of the series, but maybe not until I've caught up with my 2014 challenges.


  1. This is as far as I ever got in this series, I keep meaning to pick the whole thing up again and start from book 1 again. I remember really liking how it was written, the imagery, but yeah, the plot was really slow and draggy.

    1. I'll probably be stuck at this point for a while, too. I've heard it's really better understood as a whole, so I'm curious to see how everything fits together (though I've also heard it takes multiple readings!). I like the imagery, too, and the sheer weirdness of many of the situations, even if he *still* hasn't gotten to Thrax :).