Claw of the Conciliator continues The Book of the New Sun. Most of what I said about the series last Monday still applies. It’s a very well-written work with an intriguing narrator and a rich and fascinating world. Though Wolfe’s Urth owes a lot to the whole body of post-apocalyptic literature, there’s a level of detail here rivaled by few outside of Tolkein.
The novel, somewhat disconcertingly, picks up a few months after the abrupt end of the previous book. Severian the torturer is still on a slow journey to a distant posting. He’s been temporarily separated from his companions, and has a new friend Jonas. Following plotlines set up in the first book, he is torn between fulfilling his duty as a loyal member of the torturer’s guild and an old attraction to a group of revolutionaries under a nobleman named Vodalus. Severian has also picked up a magical gem called the Claw of the Conciliator, which figures heavily in the plot at several instances. Severian is drawn to the gem’s power, but he also considers returning it one of his paramount goals. At one point, Jonas mocks Severian’s contradictory goals, and I took this as Wolfe acknowledging his own schizophrenic plotting.
Jonas, and the eventual reveal of his place in this world, is actually a fascinating and worthwhile addition that adds a new layer to Wolfe’s Urth. But, what really makes Claw superior to its predecessor are the new layers that Wolfe adds to the overall narrative. It’s increasingly clear that nothing on Wolfe’s Urth is as it appears, and Wolfe does a great job playing with questions of reality, metaphor and legend. These ideas are developed wonderfully in various plot twists and some very evocative and beautifully written symbolic passages, especially in the latter half of the novel. At the end of Shadow, I was worried that this series had been over-hyped and that I was bound for disappointment. By the end of this novel, Wolfe’s storytelling had really flourished, I had gotten accustomed to it, and it was clear that this series really is something special.
It’s certainly not conventional sci-fi/fantasy, but it’s not really conventional literary fiction either. It’s an odd but fascinating hybrid of gritty pulp adventure and postmodern fiction. And I like it.