As part of my efforts to remain free from Star Wars spoilers today, I thought I’d get a jump on my Book of the Week post. Last time, I talked about the brilliant Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, and this week I’ll be delving further into the series with the second installment, The Claw of the Conciliator. This one is going to feature specific plot points; it’s simply unavoidable.
Where Shadow of the Torturer was a convoluted but deliberate story, Claw of the Conciliator begins to tighten up in some ways—despite the fact that it is perhaps the most meandering of all the books in the series. It begins (in what is typical fashion for this series) significantly ahead of where Shadow leaves off. A disastrous event occurred off-screen between the two books, leaving Severian separated from his previous companions and making some money as a torturer in a village north of the great city of Nessus. He has gained new companions, but he still intends to find his way to Thrax and become Lictor there, as he was ordered.
Events proceed rapidly, with reunions and separations happening, as Wolfe expands the world greatly. We see the legendary House Absolute, which is one of the most enchanting ideas I think I’ve ever read about. The sequence in the mines, where Severian uses the Claw against the man-apes, was very well done, and Agia continues to be a wonderful antagonist.
Two specific sequences must be singled out in the discussion of this book, however. The first is Severian’s time in Vodalus’ forest domain. The political struggles laid out in the Book of the New Sun are explicated most plainly here: Vodalus wishes to enact a return to the previous glory of humanity on Earth (Urth), overthrowing the Autarch in the process and regaining the lost technological wonders and knowledge that enabled humanity to travel among the stars. His rebellion comes at an inopportune time for the Commonwealth, since the great war against the Ascians still rages far to the north.
Most importantly in this segment of the book, though, is the ritual of the alzabo and the eating of Thecla’s flesh. This scene is described so vividly, and is so horrific both for the reader and for Severian as he recalls the slow dawning of what he was eating first, and then his half-unwilling acceptance of eating Thecla’s flesh in a ritual that recalls a twisted version of the Eucharist. Indeed, the visceral and very much sexual memories Severian has of Thecla are reminiscent of aspects of a black mass.
The fantastical effect of the alzabo mixture is described here as a drug-like consequence, but the merging of Thecla’s memories with Severian not only provides a tremendous source of conflict going forward but also serves to give the reader further insight into Severian’s personality. He is, in certain ways, insane at this point.
The second sequence is the very end, with the Cumaen and the raising of the dead city. Here again we get the supernatural seemingly creeping into the book, with necromancy taking center stage this time. So much of this series is predicated on the past of Urth, and this ties together both the distant past and the recent past, with the return of Hildegrin the Badger.
While the ending is jarringly abrupt, it leaves the reader with much more of an urge to continue than did Shadow of the Torturer. At this point, the plot has narrowed enough that Severian has more specific goals (getting to Thrax, dealing with the Claw), and the world has been built enough that new information isn’t as confusing as it was when presented in Shadow. Wolfe delivered with this second book, and perfectly set up the supremely excellent Sword of the Lictor, which I will cover next week.
Essentially, Claw of the Conciliator continues what Shadow of the Torturer began, but clears the muddy waters and tightens the story at the same time. I give it four stars out of five, and think it’s a must-read, simply to get to the next book.
Stay tuned next week, when we finally get to Thrax, and talk about some of the major themes in the series (some obvious, some not as much)!