Review of Shadow and Claw by Gene Wolfe

I was aware before starting Shadow and Claw that it was not pedestrian fiction. It is not something to plow through, or relax with. It is an allegory-heavy, literary, fantastic tale. Having said that, it’s about a torturer who is exiled from his guild, ends up with a mysterious and powerful relic, and then sleeps with a lot of women and compares them. He also oils and brandishes his sword a lot.

I’m kidding. But really, that summary is as useful as any other.

The writing is outstanding. Some of the descriptions are so incredibly vivid that I remember them like I was there. And yet, often times I found myself fighting the urge to skim. Whenever I think about the pejorative use of ‘literary’, I think of works like this. If you don’t enjoy Ursula LeGuin, you won’t enjoy this.

The author invents his own vocabulary — for example, a custom unit of distance measurement — because the story is told under the auspice that it’s been translated from a very old, foreign source. This is part of reading a classic. People of the time perhaps thought, “Oh, this is novel!” and suffered through, then the next writer who tried it learned that it was a once-only gimmick. The art of writing has already moved on from that idea, or figured out how to do it better. The custom vocabulary grated on me, and strangely I felt far more so after the end of the book. On the last page, the author translates and explains the custom vocabulary of the book you just read, which is just what I was hoping the last page of a 400 page book would be. I wish the translator had that page available at the beginning of the book.

Sevarian, the main character, reflects at length about all the women he’s slept with. I’m not making value judgments about this — I mean, it is not bad writing, it’s just not delivered in an interesting enough way to justify the amount of time spent on it. But then, it’s one of the few concrete things we have to hold on to the character about, which brings me to the biggest problem in the book.

While reading this, I was easily interrupted and then didn’t look forward to starting again once I put it down. There’s nothing driving the story forward except the most perfunctory plot. Why does Sevarian care about going to a certain city? He doesn’t. I feel the same way about this book as I did about the earlier works of Neil Gaiman, like Neverwhere — a main character who is not emotionally invested in anything is difficult to invest in as a reader. I never understood in the least what drove Sevarian, and hence the story. It was just drifting about in set pieces and disconnected ideas.

There’s grisly torture, then dueling with toxic plant lances, then there’s a play performed with full dialogue, then trapped in a timeless dream prison with a robotman, and then an ocean monster talking to him, and more! Much more. It’s all beautiful and ethereal and I really don’t see the thread that unified all the ideas. Just floating about.

Wonderful writing. Wonderful scenes. Obviously layered very thickly in the telling of the story. I’m glad I read it, but more because it’s a classic. Still, I’ll pass on the second volume.

Amazon link: Shadow & Claw: The First Half of ‘The Book of the New Sun’