The Shadow of the Torturer:
Apprentice torturer Severian shows mercy for an imprisoned woman and helps her commit suicide rather than endure weeks of torture. For his crimes, Severian is sentenced to travel too the village of Thrax and take up the post of carnifex. Will Severian make it to Thrax alive?
The Shadow of the Torturer isn't your grandmother's fantasy. The tale of Severian isn't the hopeful quest story that's been written and re-written umpteen times in the past fifty years. The setting reminds me of Jack Vance's Dying Earth but much more developed and with the specter of space opera hanging in the background. Gene Wolfe takes the bare bones of the standard quest story and clothes it with literary merit, from the unreliable narrator, Severian, to references to classic works. The scene in the necropolis near the beginning is straight out of Great Expectations. Or straight out of Great Expectations if Pip was an apprentice torturer and helped Magwitch in a fight rather than fetch him a file...
Wolfe's writing is baroque and reminds me of the New Weird authors like China Mieville. The Book of the New Sun definitely isn't a beach read. Be prepared to divine the meaning of words from the context.
Apart from Severian, the cast isn't all that developed, but then, the unreliable narrator should probably be the center of attention. Dr. Talos and Baldanders steal the show with what little screen time they're given.
That's about all I can say without giving too much away. The world Wolfe has built is full of fresh ideas. How many other books do you know that feature two men fighting with flowers with razor sharp leaves?The Claw of the Conciliator:
Severian's journey to Thrax continues and his path brings him into contact with both friend and foe. Will he ever make it to Thrax?
Claw of the Conciliator continues Severian's rise from apprentice torturer to eventual Autarch. Wolfe's inventiveness grows as Severian encounters man-apes, a giantess, witches, an androgyne who might be The Autarch, a giantess, and many other interesting characters, including Dr. Talos and company. More is revealed about the Claw of the Conciliator, though much mystery remains. I get the feeling a lot of secrets are still lurking in the background.
One aspect of The Book of the New Sun I really enjoy is how Gene Wolfe has a lot of sci-fi elements lurking in the background, like aliens, wormholes and the true nature of Jonas, and the casual mention of what might in fact be laser guns. Wolfe's a sly one.
My favorite part, by far, is the bit with the alzabo and Severian injesting a piece of Thecla's flesh and experiencing her memories. I suspect this will continue to reverberate through the next two books.
I don't want to spoil too much but I enjoyed Claw more than Shadow, possibly because I was used to Wolfe's style. While I felt like I was still in the dark, Wolfe knows how to reveal just enough to keep you firmly ensnared. Like Severian says, it's a hard road. I can't wait to see where it finally leads.2012 Note:
I went ahead and bumped this up to a 5. I'm not sure if it deserves it but I still catch myself thinking about this book almost a year after I finished it.