The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Outside the walls of his home city for the first time, a young executioner on a mission finds himself amongst strange locations and stranger people. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe is the second volume of The Book of the New Sun tetralogy continuing the journey of Severian, an exiled torturer figuring out the world.
Picking up shortly after the last volume, Severian is in the mining village of Saltus with a new travelling companion Jonas after being separated from Dorcas and the theater company at the gate of Nessus. Severian believes he sees Agia, but after searching for her returns to his inn to take his mask and cape to execute an accused witch. Later that night he travels to an old mine, fights off man-apes, and comes face-to-face with Agia but doesn’t kill her even though he tricked him to get him there so see could have revenge and get possession of the titular Claw that she put on Severian’s person during the events of Shadow and Severian used during his fight with the man-apes. Severian and Jonas are then taken by associates of Vodalus, who they kill as they get to the revolutionary’s hide out in the forest. Severian and Jonas join Vodalus after taking part in a cannibalistic ritual, before heading off to the House Absolute on a mission from Vodalus. The two are captured by the guards and in a holding room are attacked, which results in Severian learning that Jonas is a robot with human skin. Using the knowledge acquired from the memories of the person they ate, Severian finds a way out of the holding room and Jonas leaves to find a way to get repaired. Severian wanders around the grounds, finding his sword, coming across the Autarch, and then is reunited with theater group and Dorcas. The five perform a play during which Baldanders turns and attacks the crowd resulting in the group running for it. Severian meets with them again on the road heading north, he and Dorcas head to Thrax while Dr. Talos attacks the other member the troupe resulting in her joining them and is attacked by a poisonous bat which results in her death in the ruins of a city while meeting with associates of Vodalus who perform a mystic ceremony.
This story was all over the place and it felt like the quality of everything connected with it was the same. There was significant worldbuilding with Severian getting out into the wider world as the previous fantasy feel was joined by sci-fi elements to create this unique landscape of future Earth. However while Wolfe created this interested background, the plot and the first-person narration were all over the place and whatever elements that were good were very much outweighed by the bad, in particular the nonsensical play that added nothing for approximately 15 pages and was just to set up Baldanders’ attack in the next very short chapter. And frankly every time Severian seems to become interesting, though by his own account, he does a 180 by disclaiming his own “perfect” memory or puts himself down.
The Claw of the Conciliator is a mishmash of good, bad, and frustration. A lot of this comes down to the writing of Gene Wolfe and primarily from the first-person point-of-view that creates most of the issues. Maybe after finishing the tetralogy I might get a better view of things, but frankly if this “classic” continues to be frustrating it’ll be a big disappointment.