The Claw of the Conciliator
by Gene Wolfe
1981 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
Let me start off by saying that whoever purchased Gene Wolfe that word a day calendar back in 1979 is going to feel my wrath. I can count on my fingers the number of times that I've run across the word "gnomon" in my life (though I suppose with this review that moves me on to toes) and Wolfe's prose is packed with those archaic words that I only know because of my taste for pre-twentieth century literature. And how he could use "gnomon" but not toss in what would be the fourth legitamate use of "wabe" I would have encountered I don't know (look them up if you don't know; use the unabridged OED).
Severian is a torturer who the reader knows is destined to rule since the book is told as his memoirs after gaining the throne. His duty is to deal out punishments that are handed down by lawful authorities regardless of his own feelings or opinions on the victim. In the first book of the series immediately after completing his training and being admitted to the guild of torturers he gave mercy to a victim that he had been allowed to grow close to. For this crime he was exiled from his guild to a distant post. Before leaving the city he became entangled in petty conspiracies, had a relic with mystical powers hidden on him, found love, and briefly joined a theater troop. That first book, The Shadow of the Torturer which itself won the World Fantasy Award, ends on a cliffhanger as a riot breaks out while Severian and his travelling companions try to leave the city.
The Claw of the Conciliator abandons that cliffhanger picking up months later with the companions vanished (what exactly happened is never adequately explained) and Severian working his way north by executing the criminals in the towns he journies through. On his way he encounters the man leading a rebelion against the Emperor and the Emperor himself. He becomes more entangled in the schemes of those with power while the nature and the goals of those plots becomes more murkey.
This is not a complete novel; Wolfe's story goes on for two more books. In fact I'd say that the novel is relatively light on plot; Severian wanders, runs into people, and then moves on and very little really gets resolved. On the other hand Wolfe keeps things moving very quickly so that while in the final analysis very little has actually occurred it doesn't feel like that while you're reading it.
I can see why this book got the attention of the authors in the SFWA over the previous one in the series. Besides putting a massive vocabulary on display Wolfe drops both an alegorical play and "folklore" in the story. While placing the retelling of a "legend" in the middle of a novel is a narrative device that has been worn thin at the time it was distinctive. These distractions are not as well integrated as they could have been but Wolfe did a fine job of providing a distinctive structure to his book.
What really worked for me in The Claw of the Conciliator was the exploration of the moral issues in crime and punishment. Severian holds himself seperate from the people; he thinks of himself as a tool not a person as he enacts his duties. Is the executionor free of responsibility, though? Where does justice lay? And how far should punishment extend. Wolfe gives no answers but offers plenty of arguments.
I have to give the measure of a series like this on if I'm willing to read the next book and in this case I definitely am. Wolfe has left me curious to where he's going with his story. And if that isn't enough the worst thing that I can say about Wolfe's writing is that his archiac vocabular makes for dense reading. He's crafted engaging characters, placed them in a complex plot, and is telling a deeper story than it appears at first touch. It's a supurb work and well worth reading.