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Wanda's Book Reviews

I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).

Shadow and Claw / Gene Wolfe

Shadow and Claw - Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer is the tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession -- showing mercy toward his victim.

The Claw of the Conciliator continues the saga of Severian, banished from his home, as he undertakes a mythic quest to discover the awesome power of an ancient relic, and learn the truth about his hidden destiny.


I started into this series with trepidation—I wasn’t sure exactly how I would feel about a torturer as a main character. But Severian (get it, severe, sever) turns out to be charming in his own way—he is intelligent, empathetic, and friendly. Most of all, torture is just a job. He does it because it is he is a member of the guild, not because he has some psychopathic joy in the process. He does what needs to be done, follows the rules of his guild (except that one time that gets him into trouble), and generally just tries to do a good job. His one characteristic that annoys me is his tendency to “love” which ever woman is closest to him—and they change over fairly regularly and then change back. So far (end of book 2), he hasn’t found a woman that he isn’t interested in nor has he found one who rivets his attention.


In some ways he reminds me of the Knight, Sir Percival. There are repeated mentions of his “noble looks,” suggesting that he may be the illegitimate son of someone of importance. Just as Percival spent his childhood in the forests, “ignorant of the ways of men,” so Severian spends his youth confined to a small part of the Citadel, learning his trade as torturer and very little else. Around the age of 15, when Sir Percival had his life-changing encounter with King Arthur’s knights in the forest, Severian has his life-changing evening in the necropolis where he encounters and assists the outlaw Vodalus. Like Percival, his ignorance of the ways of the world outside the Citadel often place him in perilous situations, which he comes through due to his basic honesty and ability to make friends who have the needed skills.


Urth is an interesting world too—a very old Earth, apparently formerly space-faring and technological, very much reduced to the rather Medieval state that Severian inhabits. There are occasional bits of technology that still work, continuously reminding the reader that this is in the far future, when the sun has dimmed just as the civilization has.

Wolfe’s conceit in these novels is that they are translations from a future language, hence the plethora of words that sound like we ought to know the meanings, but it takes a little bit of thought to figure out exactly where they come from. I’m always interested in linguistics and I like it when an author is too.


I’ll definitely be reading the third book in the very near future.


Since this volume is actually two books, it counts as 159 & 160 for me from the NPR list of classic science fiction and fantasy.