Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1-2 ) by Gene Wolfe

At the end, I put down the book and said aloud, “That was a goddamn waste of time.”

I get that this is just the first two books in a four (or five, if you’re a completist) book series, but damn, how can you reasonably argue that a reader has to slog through 400+ pages of pretentious bullshit before finding even the prospect of intellectual satisfaction, much less entertainment? There was promise in the first two hundred pages, but at no point did either book feel like a complete story, much less one worthy of awards. I am honestly mystified by people who think this was well-written. Gene Wolfe’s impressively vast vocabulary is no substitute for actually being able to string words together in a way that conveys both meaning and style. His constructions are unnecessarily elaborate while also somehow being unevocative: a feat of the most groundless pretension I have ever seen. I get that there are some people who fall for this bullshit (I’ve railed against other books written in this irritating manner) but this is the first time I’ve seen that pool of people drawn from hardcore genre fans, who usually see through literary pretensions and shy away.

That aside, the story is garbage. Again, I’m willing to concede that Mr Wolfe may well pull a narrative feat out of his ass some 400+ pages from now, but these first 400+ pages were about dull, unlikeable people thrown into increasingly unbelievable and uninteresting circumstances. This felt less like a story + plot and more like a fever dream I was expected to scry meaning from. And I certainly don’t mind putting in the intellectual work if there’s anything of actual interest to go through! This, however, was all scenes plucked from better, more entertaining fiction, inelegantly cobbled together with words words words and I couldn’t for the life of me care about any of it (a variation on the Eight Deadly Words, yes. Hi, Doug!)

And I was willing to give Mr Wolfe’s personal peccadilloes the benefit of the doubt till I read that extremely stomach-turning discussion of rape as part of torture. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a realist and understand that rape is an instrument of humiliation, so have no objections to that as part of a discussion of torture. What made me go full-on pearl-clutching was Severian’s reaction to his master’s showing him the drugs and instruments of rape: Severian’s contempt of his master felt very “you’re not a real man if you can’t rape with your penis at will.” This is toxic masculinity at its most unapologetic, tho Severian does chase his contempt with pity, so at least he can condescend to other men? Coupled with the way the women in the book are continuously represented, it’s hard not to believe that this disgusting, rampaging misogyny is not Mr Wolfe’s actual worldview. I, who love Nabokov and indulgently view GRRM’s writing as the stuff written by a person who’s still surprised and proud that he’s finally having consistently loving heterosexual sex, find myself viewing Mr Wolfe’s character extremely dimly. I will never be in a room with him willingly, much less alone. I don’t think I’ve ever said that of an author from his or her books alone. Congratulations are in order, I suppose.

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