The Claw of the Conciliator is the second entry in Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece series, The Book of the New Sun. Like the preceding volume, The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator was critically acclaimed, receiving the Nebula Award for best novel in 1981 and the Locus Award in 1982.
Narrator and protagonist Severian continues his meandering journey towards Thrax. Time skips ahead from the conclusion of The Shadow of the Torturer and Severian finds himself in the town of Saltus, performing the execution of a servant of Vodalus (the revolutionary leader glimpsed in the first book). Severian’s duties bring him into contact with Agia, whose brother he killed in The Shadow of the Torturer. Agia uses the memory of Thecla (the prisoner Severian fell for) to manipulate him into a trap. After escaping and witnessing the healing power of the titular Claw, Severian is captured by Vodalus and his loyalties are powerfully tested.
The meandering continues
Suffice it to say that this doesn’t begin to capture the twists of Wolfe’s unfocused plot. Attempting to write a meaningful plot summary was the most challenging element of this review, and I don’t know that I succeeded. I’m also not sure that it matters. In The Claw of the Conciliator the plot certainly progresses, with meetings and events of apparent significance taking place. However, it is difficult for a first time reader to recognize why they are important. There is no sense of a goal that Severian is working towards; hence there is no clear measure of success or failure. It is hard to shake the feeling that characters and conversations that appear to be significant may mean nothing.
It is equally hard to shake the feeling that you are reading something special.
Putting yourself in the author’s hands
There were several points in The Shadow of the Torturer at which I felt like a trick was being played on me. Reading The Claw of the Conciliator I began to understand why this is such a highly lauded series. There is a lot of subtlety in Wolfe’s writing, some of which plays off the expectations of fantasy readers. In the mind of the reader it seems obvious that Severian is to become a man of tremendous importance (possibly of religious significance, considering Wolfe’s imagery), but as the narrator he gives nothing away in that regard. The fact that there is no prophecy to fulfill or evil force to overthrow conceals any likely future (or plot direction) from the reader. Severian seems much more fascinated by the minutiae of his existence than driven by deep conviction or carried along by a very tightly constructed plot. He seems painfully real.
Style and substance
It is in getting inside Severian’s head that Wolfe displays his genius. By the time you’ve made it into The Claw of the Conciliator, if not before, it is abundantly clear that Severian is an extremely unreliable narrator—his claim of a perfect memory is simply unbelievable. It is not clear whether Severian is deliberately lying to his audience, and what motivation he might have for doing so, or his recollection is simply clouded. This ambiguity makes Severian an intriguingly frustrating protagonist. Wolfe delivers a first-person narrative that makes expert use of all of the strengths of the structure.
Why should you read this book?
The short answer is because you read The Shadow of the Torturer and you are intrigued or at the very least willing to trust that the author is trying for something brilliant. I certainly plan to follow through and finish The Book of the New Sun and, after The Claw of the Conciliator, I am confident that I will be rewarded.