J.G. Keely's Reviews > Shadow & Claw

Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe
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Oct 17, 14

bookshelves: fantasy, reviewed, america, dying-earth

Wolfe has an almost legendary status amongst fellow authors; Gaiman called him 'a ferocious intellect', Swanwick said he's "the greatest writer in the English language alive today", and Disch called this series "a tetralogy of couth, intelligence, and suavity".

You can rarely trust the popular market to single out good authors, but you'd think it might be safe to listen to the opinions of other writers (especially an assemblage of Nebula and Hugo winners in their own right). I will give his fans one concession: Wolfe is an author who defies expectations. Unfortunately, I was expecting him to be remarkable and interesting.

This book had been sitting on my shelf for months, along with other highly-praised works I've been looking forward to, but I bade my time, waiting for the mood to strike. Few live up to their reputation, but most at least deliver part of the promise.

I would expect any author mentioned in the same breath as Peake to have an original and vibrant style, but I found Wolfe's writing to be simple without being elegant. His language and structure serves its purpose, only occasionally rising above mere utilitarianism, and then he rushes to florid flourishes that fall flat as often as they succeed. Sometimes, it is downright dull. The prose of the second book is stronger than the first, but its plot and characters are more linear and predictable.

I appreciated his 'created language' more than most fantasy authors, but I didn't find it particularly mysterious or difficult, because all of his words are based on recognizable Germanic or Romantic roots. Then again, after three years of writing stories about Roman whores in Latin, I had little problem with 'meretriculous'. Even those words I wasn't familiar with seemed clear by their use.

The terms are scattered throughout the book, but rarely contribute to a more pervasive linguistic style, as might be seen in The Worm Ouroboros, The Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast, or The King of Elfland's Daughter. Wolfe's terms pepper otherwise and unremarkable modern style, which hardly helps to throw us into a strange world.

He is better than the average fantasy author, but he resembles them more than he differs from them. His protagonist started off interestingly enough: an apparently weak and intelligent man, which made it all the more disappointing when he suddenly transformed into a laconic, wench-loving buttkicker who masters sword-fighting, finds the Super Magic Thing and follows the path of his Awesome Foretold Fate. Again, I must agree with Nick Lowe: Wolfe's plot owes more to magic and convenience than good storytelling.

It relies on the same tricks over and over: any time a character is about to give important information to us, there will be a sudden attack or other interruption, as convenient and annoying as the moment when the dying man says "I was killed by . . . aargh". We also get problems solved by divine intervention whenever things start to slow, which doesn't leave the characters much room to be active.

He also seems to suffer from the same sexual discomfort that plagues so many fantasy authors. There is an undercurrent of obsession with women and their sexuality, complete with the sexualization of rape and murder. It's not so much a case of misogyny as it is an inequality in how characters behave.

The women always seem to end up as playtoys for the narrator, running around naked, desiring him, sparring with him coyly, but ultimately, conquered; and the camera pans away. They always approach him, desire him, pretending they don't want him, then give themselves up to him. It's the same old story of an awkward, emotionless male protagonist who is inexplicably followed and harangued by women who fall in love with him for no given reason, familiar to anyone who's seen a harem anime.

I will grant that the women have more character than the average fantasy heroine, but it still doesn't leave them with much. Instead of giving into love at first sight, they fight it as long as they can, making it that much sweeter when the narrator finally 'wins'. The sexuality was not new, interesting, arousing, or mutual, it was merely the old game of 'overcoming the strong woman' that is familiar to readers of the Gor books.

The sense of 'love' in The New Sun is even more unsettling. It descends on the characters suddenly and nonsensically, springing to life without build or motivation. The word never comes up in connection with any psychological development, nor does it ever seem to match the relationships as they are depicted. More often than not, it seems love is only mentioned so the narrator can coldly break his lover's trust in the next chapter.

Several times, the narrator tries to excuse himself for objectifying women by mentioning that he also objectifies ugly women. What this convolution of misogyny is supposed to represent, I couldn't say. The narrator seems very interested in this fact, and is convinced that it makes him a unique person. It made it very clear to me why the most interesting antiheroes tend to be gruff and laconic, because listening to a chauvinistic sociopath talk about himself is insufferable.

Then there is the fact that every character you meet in the story turns up again, hundreds of miles away, to reveal that they are someone else and have been secretly controlling the action of the plot. It feels like the entire world is populated by about fifteen people who follow the narrator around wherever he goes. If the next two books continue along the same lines, then the big reveal will be that the world is entirely populated by no more than three superpowered shapeshifters.

Everyone in the book has secret identities, secret connections to grand conspiracies, and important plot elements that they conveniently hide until the last minute, only doling out clues here and there. There are no normal people in this world, only double agents and kings in disguise. Every analysis I've read of this book mentions that even the narrator is unreliable.

This can be an effective technique, but in combination with a world of infinite, unpredictable intrigue, Wolfe's story begins to evoke something between a soap opera and a convoluted mystery novel, relying on impossible and contradictory scenarios to mislead the audience. Apparently, this is the thing his fans most appreciate about him--I find it to be an insulting and artificial game.

I agree with this reviewer that there is simply not enough structure to the story to make the narrator's unreliability meaningful. In order for unreliable narration to be effective, there must be some clear and evident counter-story that undermines it. Without that, it is not possible to determine meaning, because there's nowhere to start: everything is equally shaky.

At that point, it's just a trick--adding complexity to the surface of the story without actually producing any new meaning. I know most sci fi and fantasy authors seem to love complexity for its own sake, but it's a cardinal sin of storytelling: don't add something into your story unless it needs to be there. Covering the story with a lot of vagaries and noise may impress some, but won't stand up to careful reading.

Fantasy novels are often centered on masculinity, violence, and power struggles, and so by making the narrator an emotionally distant manipulator with sociopathic tendencies, Wolfe's story is certainly going to resemble other genre outings. If Severian is meant to be a subversion of the grim antihero, I would expect a lot of clever contradiction which revealed him. His unreliability would have to leave gaping holes that point to another, more likely conclusion. If the protagonist's mendacious chauvinism is not soundly contradicted, then there is really nothing separating him from what he is supposed to be mocking.

Poe's Law states that it can be difficult to tell whether something is an act of mockery or an example of genuine extremism, and perhaps that's what's going on here: Wolfe's mockery is so on-the-nose that it is indistinguishable from other cliche genre fantasy. But even if that were true, then the only thing separating Wolfe from the average author is the fact that he's doing it on purpose, which is hardly much of a distinction. If a guy punches himself in the nose and then insists "I meant to do that", I don't think that makes him any less of a dumbass.

Human psychology and politics are fraught enough without deliberately obfuscating them. Unfortunately, Wolfe does not have the mastery of psychology to make a realistically complicated text, only a cliched text that is meta-complicated.

After finishing the book, I tried to figure out why it had garnered so much praise. I stumbled across a number of articles, including this one by Gaiman and this one by an author who wrote a book of literary analysis about the New Sun series.

Both stressed that Wolfe was playing a deliberate meta-fictional game with his readers, creating mysteries and clues in his book for them to follow, so that they must reread the text over and over to try to discern what is actually happening. I won't claim this isn't a technical feat, but I would suggest that if Wolfe wanted us to read his book over and over, he might have written it with verve, style, character, and originality. As the above critic says:
"On a first, superficial reading, there is little to distinguish Wolfe’s tetralogy from many other sf and fantasy novels . . . The plot itself is apparently unremarkable."

Perhaps I'm alone in this, but I have no interest in reading your average sword-wielding badass gender-challenged fantasy book over and over in the hopes that it will get better. If Wolfe is capable of writing an original and interesting story, why cover it with a dull and occasionally insulting one?

I have enjoyed complex books before, books with hidden messages and allusions, but they were interesting both in their depths and on the surface. I didn't find the New Sun books particularly complex or difficult. His followers have said that he isn't 'concerned with being conspicuously witty', but I'd suggest he's merely incapable of being vibrant or intriguing.

There were interesting ideas and moments in the book, and I did appreciate what originality Wolfe did have, but I found it strange that such a different mind would produce such hidebound prose, tired descriptions, convenient plots, and unappealing characters. It has usually been my experience that someone who is capable of thinking remarkable things is capable of writing remarkable things.

Sure, there were some interesting Vancian moments, where you realize that some apparently magical effect is actual a piece of sci fi detritus: this character is a robot, that tower is actually a rocket, a painting of a mythical figure clearly depicts an astronaut--but this doesn't actually add anything to the story, they weren't important facts, they were just details thrown in.

It didn't matter that any of those things were revealed to be something else than they appeared, because it didn't change anything about the story, or the characters, or the themes or ideas. These weren't vital and strange ideas to be explored, like the mix of sci fi and fantasy in Vance, Le Guin, or Lovecraft, but inconsequential 'easter eggs' for obsessing fans to dig up.

As Clarke's Third Law says: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Therefore, switching back and forth between magical explanations and super-technological ones doesn't mean much, on its own. They're indistinguishable. Star Wars may use the trappings of sci fi, but it's just a fantasy story about wizards and knights in space. In order to make the distinction meaningful, you've got to put some kind of spin on it.

Overall, I found nothing unique in Wolfe. Perhaps it's because I've read quite a bit of odd fantasy; if all I read was mainstream stuff, then I'd surely find Wolfe unpredictable, since he is a step above them. But compared to Leiber, Howard, Lovecraft, Dunsany, Eddison, Kipling, Haggard, Peake, Mieville, or Moorcock, Wolfe is nothing special.

Perhaps I just got my hopes up too high. I imagined something that might evoke Peake or Leiber (at his best), perhaps with a complexity and depth gesturing toward Milton or Ariosto. I could hardly imagine a better book than that, but even a book half that good would be a delight--or a book that was nothing like that, but was unpredictable and seductive in some other way.

I kept waiting for something to happen, but it never really did. It all plods along without much rise or fall, just the constant moving action to make us think something interesting is happening. I did find some promise, some moments that I would have loved to see the author explore, particularly those odd moments where Silver Age Sci Fi crept in, but each time he touched upon these, he would return immediately to the smallness of his plot and his annoying prick of a narrator. I never found the book to be difficult or complex, merely tiring. the unusual parts were evasive and vague, and the dull parts constant and repetitive.

The whole structure (or lack of it) does leave things up to interpretation, and perhaps that's what some readers find appealing: that they can superimpose their own thoughts and values onto the narrator, and onto the plot itself. But at that point, they don't like the book Wolfe wrote, they like the book they are writing between his lines.

I'll lend the book out to some fantasy-loving friends and they'll buy the next one, which I'll then have to borrow from them so I can see if there's ever a real payoff. Then again, if Sevarian's adolescent sexuality is any evidence, the climax will be as underwhelming as the self-assured, fumbling foreplay. If I don't learn to stop giving my heart away, it's just going to get broken again.

Ah well, once more unto the breach.

My Fantasy Book Suggestions
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Comments (showing 156-205)





Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Extra points for referring to the Lowe essay. I was quite blown away by this series when I first read it, but even then the treatment of female characters seemed bad. I tried revisiting it recently but I found the prose clunky and uneven rather than the masterful narration I remembered.


message 204: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely Yeah, I admit to being surprised at how unskilled I found the prose after all I had heard about Wolfe.


Jayaprakash Satyamurthy I'll have to re-visit some of the later Wolfe that I liked a lot, such as There Are Doors and Free Live Free to see if he gets better over time. As for the misogyny, it seems pretty much bred in the bone.


message 202: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely Unfortunate; that indicates an inability to place himself in their position, which is going to be problematic in any author who intends to capture character psychology. It was convenient of him, in that case, to create a narrator who had the same limitations, but such a contrivance is too flimsy to navigate 1200 pages of plot convolutions.


message 201: by Princessjay (new)

Princessjay "It feels like the entire world is populated by about fifteen people who follow the narrator around wherever he goes" and "I kept waiting for something to happen, but it never really did."

Erhm... this won't change.

I too found Wolfe's stature inexplicable. The complete New Sun cycle read to me like a worm ouroboros, and not in a good or Eddison way, but as in, so what's the point of this whole thing again?

My mind must not be wired to appreciate meta-fiction.


message 200: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely "Erhm... this won't change."

Well, I didn't really expect it to. Authors are predictable, like most things: what you first see will probably resemble later efforts. It's always nice to be surprised and see an author imrpove, but it's more often to see their flaws grow deeper as they settle into their style.

"My mind must not be wired to appreciate meta-fiction."

I actually do enjoy metafiction, generally, in fact Wolfe's hints of meta-story were probably the most interesting parts, I was just annoyed that the vast majority of the book was made up of the predictable, uninteresting parts.


message 199: by Meggan (new) - rated it 1 star

Meggan thank you for this review. Glad to know I'm not alone in my thoughts on this book.


message 198: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely Yeah, with books like this, that have a big cult following, it starts to feel like everyone who has read it raves about it. I'm glad you found something in the review that you liked; thanks for the comment.


Traveller I found a lot more in it than when I originally read it, and I'm wondering how anybody who followed the cycle to it's conclusion can say, with a straight face, that Wolfe treats the female gender badly. In fact, since this is a gender-bender story, I'm not quite following the logic..


Simonfletcher I'm not sure if it is Wolfe who treats and presents women badly, or the narrator Severian, who definitely is a misogynist, or at least treats women without much respect.


message 195: by Meggan (last edited Jun 27, 2012 01:38PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Meggan Maybe not Wolfe, but also I don't think he knows how to subvert gender very well. What reader came away from the book pondering the deluded prerogatives of masculinity, in the genre or in real life? As far as I can tell readers who are favorable to the series focus more on the delusions of Severian himself. I also agree with a review of Home Fires that argues Wolfe views gender as essentialist; that even when he inverts men's and women's roles, he still sees them as inherently different people.


message 194: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely Yeah, I agree. Even if Severian is untrustworthy, I've never understood how that makes Wolfe's depiction subversive. If an author decides to write a character who treats women without respect and shows us no other view, what are we supposed to take away from that?


message 193: by Traveller (last edited Jun 28, 2012 06:11AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Which female character does Severian treat without respect? I've read the series at least twice by now, the last time very recently (after Keely's review) and i just don't see it. Please name an example?


message 192: by Traveller (last edited Jun 28, 2012 10:40AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Meggan wrote: "Maybe not Wolfe, but also I don't think he knows how to subvert gender very well. What reader came away from the book pondering the deluded prerogatives of masculinity, in the genre or in real life..."

I myself got irritated when one of the male characters viewed women as "physically weaker" , and much as i want to rage against the machine that this is so, it is a fact that males tend to have more testosterone and are therefore able to become physically stronger faster than females can, and unfortunately, it is a fact that females are more vulnerable than men or even other females while they are pregnant.

You cannot get away from these facts without changing the essence of what biologically distinguishes a male from a female.

This doesn't mean that there cannot be women who are at least as physically strong as most males and in almost all respects just like a male, which is where i think Wolfe was going with Agia and Thecla. Thecla is at least the intellectual equal and even superior of most men, and to me that is very clear from the text.

Ok, i suppose the fact that Agia doesn't do her own dirty work and has to use her sexuality to get what she wants, is an overemphasis by Wolfe of females having rather less muscle power, and therefore often having to 'fight dirty" to get the upper hand, but in any case, there it is Wolfe's prejudice, not Severian's.

It would certainly have been nice if Wolfe had made Agia Severian's physical equal, and if she fought him like a man and won;- but often it is merely by luck that he manages to escape her, so she's not exactly a wimp.

In any case, when Severian becomes Thecla, yes, perhaps it is true that he keeps Thecla for the most part seperate from Severian in his head,it would have been cool if they completely melded; but i think what basically keeps them apart is their different childhood and upbringing. Certainly Severian never stops loving and respecting Thecla, even at such close quarters of being inside her mind; - it is the Autarch who labels Thecla a spoilt, selfish person, and that in itself is a subversion of rebel/ruler; the irony that it is the Autarch who labels Thecla, part of the so-called rebel group, (which also becomes subverted later in the tale, of course) thus.

Yolenta is obviously supposed to be a stereotype of the typical movie-star nymphette type, who has plastic surgery 10 times a year and absolutely craves adoration, who uses her sexual power over people as if it were a drug; and i think with her Wolfe is doing some social critique there with her.

Dorcas is an interesting subversion of the virgin/mother/crone aspects of woman; i would assume you folks making all these comments about the feminist aspects of the cycle would have read as far as that, and seen that?


message 191: by Traveller (last edited Jun 28, 2012 10:41AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller PS. Is Dorcas a misogynist too? ;)


message 190: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely Are you suggesting a woman can't be a misogynist?


message 189: by Traveller (last edited Jun 28, 2012 11:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Keely wrote: "Are you suggesting a woman can't be a misogynist?"

Sadly, no, i know they can. Sadly, i also know they can be, and some of them are, anti-feminists. You and i both know that. However, it seems to me that you are suggesting that a man is a misogynist just by dint of having sexual relations with a woman, and i don't see how that necessarily follows.

By the same argument you could say that males having sex with males are misandrists, etc. It's an argument that doesn't quite make sense to me.

If he had sex with a woman and thought her a slut because of it, (whereas he is at least as much of a slut himself)- yes, sure, then i fully agree that such a man would be a misogynist; but that is not what Severian does.


message 188: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely "it seems to me that you are suggesting that a man is a misogynist just by dint of having sexual relations with a woman"

I afraid don't know where you got that impression--if you would like to quote some of what I have said to demonstrate why you think that is my argument, maybe it will help me understand where you're coming from.

As I said in my review:

It's not so much a case of misogyny as it is an inequality in how characters behave.

And I might add to that, the different ways that the genders are represented.

In Japanese comics and cartoons, there is something called 'fanservice', which refers to when a character is drawn such that their clothes are torn or removed, or often, when you can see a girl's panties from up her skirt. Many artists do this only or predominantly with the female characters. For me, that represents an inequality in how men versus women are portrayed, and it makes women into sexual objects. Even if the women are strong or deep characters otherwise, there is something belittling in focusing in on a slow-motion panty shot, especially if men are not sexualized in the same way.

In these books by Wolfe, there are several instances where female characters are naked or unclothed, sometimes for an extended period of time. I recall one incident when they are staying at an inn, and another when the girl is saved from the swamp. Male characters are not described in similar scenes of physical objectification, so I would call that an inequality in how the genders are depicted which trivializes the female characters.


message 187: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely I want to add that I don't think Wolfe is necessarily intending to titillate, but that the view of an author is naturally shaped by what interests him, so that he is likely to spend more time describing things and situations he finds appealing and less on things which displease him. that's part of what makes it difficult to have a balanced depiction of different races, classes, and sexes as an author, because we all tend to revert to our naturally assumptions about the world, and usually don't even notice it. An author who is not excited by the male body might find it difficult to describe one at length, but they may find it easy to describe all the various charms and features of a woman, in whom they have a more physical interest. This is why, as an author, it's important to be aware of your own preconceptions and to do what you can to deliberately balance them out with alternative views.


message 186: by Traveller (last edited Jun 28, 2012 02:07PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Keely wrote: ""In these books by Wolfe, there are several instances where female characters are naked or unclothed, sometimes for an extended period of time. I recall one incident when they are staying at an inn, and another when the girl is saved from the swamp. Male characters are not described in similar scenes of physical objectification, so I would call that an inequality in how the genders are depicted which trivializes the female characters. ."

Well, there are many instances in which Severian himself is naked. Since i am a heterosexual woman, i tend to remember them better than i remember the scenes with the naked women - in fact, i don't remember the swamp scene with a naked woman at all.
Here is an instance of a scene where Severian is naked: 28 CARNIFEX
I woke the next morning in a lazaret, a long, high-ceilinged room where we, the
sick, the injured, lay upon narrow beds. I was naked, and for a long time, while
sleep (or perhaps it was death) tugged at my eyelids, I moved my hands slowly
over my body, searching it for injuries while I wondered, as I might have
wondered of someone in a song, how I would live without clothing or money, how I
should explain to Master Palaemon the loss of the sword and cloak he had given
me.


In the instance above, Severian is lying sick naked and wounded- very vulnerable, while Dorcas is keeping vigil, fully clothed.
I also remember a kind of slapstick humor scene where Wolfe is doing a bit of social commentary on how humans love a 'show' that is the bloodier and gorier the better, and the whole thing reminded me very much of the kind of thing that goes on at a professional wrestling show; in the book it is customary, it would seem for a Carnifex to be bare-torsoed (perhaps partly a practical consideration to avoid blood on their clothes?), but anyway, Wolfe shows us the TV-show aspect by having Severian jump onto the stage in a dramatic flourish, all bare-breasted, and the audience loves every bit of it. Yuck.

In any case, the only other scene that i can think of where Severian is clothed where others are not, is in Agilus's cell, where Severian goes to see him as his carnifex, to give him advice on what to do to make the whole thing more dignified and least painful.
Agia, Agilus's twin, is there in the cell with them, and they are both naked. Here is the excerpt:
Inside a naked man lay upon straw. A chain ran from the iron collar about his
neck to the wall. A woman, naked too, bent over him, her long, brown hair
falling past her face and his so that it seemed to unite them. She turned to
look at me, and I saw that it was Agia.
She hissed, "Agilus!" and the man sat up. Their faces were so nearly alike that
Agia might have been holding a mirror to her own.
"It was you," I said. "But that isn't possible." Even while I spoke, I was
recalling the way Agia had behaved at the Sanguinary Field, and the strip of
black I had seen by the hipparch's ear.
"You," Agia said. "Because you lived, he has to die."
I could only answer, "Is it really Agilus?"


To try and find the instance of where a girl is saved from a swamp, i ran the word "naked' through my e-copy of the first book, and ironically, i found an instance of an unclad male with clad females: here it is:
There was no ceiling, only a triangular space beneath the roof where pans and
food bags hung.
A woman was reading aloud in a corner, with a naked man crouched at her feet.
The man we had seen from the path stood at the window opposite the door, looking
out. I felt that he knew we had come (and even if he had not seen us a few
moments be-fore, he must certainly have felt the hut shake when we climbed the..[..]. Then he said to him: 'This is the land I swore to your fathers I should give their sons. You have seen it, but you shall not
set your feet upon it.' So there he died, and was buried in the ravine."
The naked man at her feet nodded. "It is even so with our own masters, Preceptress. With the smallest finger it is given.


Note that the woman is involved in an intellectual pursuit; reading, while the male is "crouching naked at her feet" - need i even comment on the symbolism?
Then, of course, Agia is naked when she tries to seduce Severian, but that is the whole idea, and part of the plotline; it's like saying one should portray your characters wearing business suits while swimming in a swimming pool. Agia is indeed trying to seduce Severian, and that is why she is naked. The fact that there is a single conniving character like that in a book doesn't in itself make Wolfe sexist, Agia is a very strong character and the fact that Wolfe uses a single female that uses her sexual wiles doesn't prove anything to me.
So are you saying an author cannot write a character like this into a story? So if i wrote a character like Cassanova or Don Juan into a plotline, does that make me sexist against males?

Look, i can agree with you in the sense of that Severian doesn't seem to have any female friends who are friends only without him ever having a sexual interest in them. ..but do take in mind that we are talking about a teenage boy here, -you know, - hormones are raging.
This is what teenage boys generally are like, and i agree with you that Wolfe is probably to some extent a sexist person in the sense that he probably is pretty much a man's man and probably doesn't have a lot of female friends; who is to know; -but even if that were so, that doesn't make him a misogynist, and that is not a reason to deprecate his writing.

If we had to pull a downer on all literature that is not overtly shouting out a pro-feminist message, there is one hell of a lot of literature out there that's going to be answerable to that charge, and many of the culprit authors are modern day females, to make matters worse.


message 185: by J.G. (last edited Jun 28, 2012 04:32PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely "If we had to pull a downer on all literature that is not overtly shouting out a pro-feminist message, there is one hell of a lot of literature out there that's going to be answerable to that charge"

I never said literature needed to be pro-feminist, nor did I say that this book is misogynistic or that Wolfe is a misogynist. Please stop putting words in my mouth and stop creating straw man arguments.

I'm sorry if I'm a bit curt, I'm not trying to be mean, but I would like it if we could stick to what is actually being said, not to imaginary positions which no one actually holds.

I don't think a book has to be pro-feminist. A book can have chauvinistic characters, it can show a society where women are inferior and powerless, it can depict women who are weak, it can depict them as manipulative. A book can show perverts, libertines, and sexual predators. Women don't have to be as strong as men, as powerful as men, or as intelligent as men. When I talk about 'equal treatment', I do not mean that they have to act the same or do the same things, I mean that equal importance is paid to them in the text.

All I ask is that the female characters have the same depth, level of development, and variety as male characters. The narrative should not treat women primarily as physical objects to be admired and men as active, intellectual forces. They should not be secondary characters compared to men, nor should they be wholly dependent on men in terms of their goals and motivations within the story. They should have a personality and life outside of their relationship to men.

For example, if every time a woman is mentioned, we get a physical description of her hair and eye color, build, and level of attractiveness, but we never get that level of description for men, that's unequal narrative representation. It doesn't make the book misogynistic, or make the author a misogynist, but it does imply that a woman's personality and importance to a story are defined by her appearance.

Again, I hardly think Wolfe is the worst perpetrator of unequal gender representation, particularly among fantasy authors. I want to thank you for the excerpts from the text, and I think that they are good counter-examples to my impressions about the book. However, it is interesting to me that several people on this site and friends of mine in real life have gotten the same impression about the book as I did.

I do now have copies of the next two books in the series, and when I find the right mood to read them, I will have to pay close attention to the text and see if my previous criticisms hold up. I am curious to see if they will, and I will make sure to draw on examples from the text to either support or contradict my previous position.


message 184: by Jeremy (new) - added it

Jeremy Maybe some sort of mathematical equation authors should be lawfully required to adhere to? A kind of gender representation matrix formula, with space spent on characteristics divided by physical locations focussed upon multiplied by depth of emotional complexity evident (measured in ohms) all to the power of gender disparity per sexual preference (measured in cubits) plus the amount of times stereotypes are overtly subverted (above 12 watts minimum). And we haven't got into race yet... The type of fiction writers who would worry about this kind of thing overtly I am genuinely uninterested in.


message 183: by Meggan (new) - rated it 1 star

Meggan take in mind that we are talking about a teenage boy here, -you know, - hormones are raging.

Is this a story about an epic quest to satiate a boy's hormones?

Why is this called a "master work" again?

So are you saying an author cannot write a character like this into a story? So if i wrote a character like Cassanova or Don Juan into a plotline, does that make me sexist against males?

If you write a womanizer as your protagonist, the subtext should get harsher scrutiny to decipher your reason for forcing me inside his head. Is the author winking at the reader, twisting the trope, playing it straight, exploring an affectation, or doing something new?

Severian is untrustworthy, high on himself. Great. But why can't he be more like Humbert Humbert? At least he was fun.

Similarly, is Wolfe making a statement about how stories only allow women to be the love interest by writing all women around Severian as the love interest? I have no idea, but the mystery is why I stand by my statement that he doesn't subvert gender very well. The fact that biological sex differences are even in this discussion isn't dissuading me otherwise.


message 182: by Traveller (last edited Feb 06, 2013 12:23PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Keely wrote: "All I ask is that the female characters have the same depth, level of development, and variety as male characters. The narrative should not treat women primarily as physical objects to be admired and men as active, intellectual forces. They should not be secondary characters compared to men, nor should they be wholly dependent on men in terms of their goals and motivations within the story. They should have a personality and life outside of their relationship to men.
."


Well, taking into account that the protagonist starts off as a male, and the narration is in first person, that's a pretty hard act to follow, (especially at the start of the novel while he is still exclusively male), if, like Jeremy comments, you were to measure all the attention given to males in 'words spent' or something like that.

However, if you think about it, who are the significant male characters other than the protagonist?

They are mainly Jonas, Dr Talos and Baldanders , master Palaemon and other torturers, Hethor, and Vodalus, not so? (Feel free to add or detract from my list). Yet none of those male characters are as memorable and well-developed as Dorcas, Thecla, Agia and Jolenta. So in the case of the Book of the new Sun, did the protagonist not start off as a man and for the most part retain his male character, then you could actually have said the book has predominantly more interesting and varied female characters, than male ones.
Also keep in mind that the protagonist does not remain exclusively male in any case, so...

Keely wrote: " However, it is interesting to me that several people on this site and friends of mine in real life have gotten the same impression about the book as I did.."

I might only be your GR friend, but doesn't that at least count for something? ..at least it shows that i generally have respect for your opinions and even agree with your general outlook on life.

This particular tetralogy seems to be our main point of contention generally speaking. ... Since i've shared this site with you for quite awhile by now, and am cognizant of your intellectual superiority, and knowing that you prefer to be fair and well-reasoned in your judgments, i will not insult you by suggesting a possibility that you may have allowed the opinions of other to sway your judgement without embarking on a scrupulous investigation of your own, first. ...so therefore, i ask you to please read the book in it's entirety before making a judgment. I find it rather discomfiting that you focus so much on the sexual aspects of the book while there is so much else to find in it.

Here are some examples of what others have noticed: I quote from David Langford's review: On the surface it's a colorful story with all the classic ingredients: growing up, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved. For lovers of literary allusions, they are plenty here: a Dickensian cemetery scene, a torture-engine from Kafka, a wonderful library out of Borges, and familiar fables changed by eons of retelling. Wolfe evokes a chilly sense of time's vastness, with an age-old, much-restored painting of a golden-visored "knight," really an astronaut standing on the moon, and an ancient citadel of metal towers, actually grounded spacecraft. Even the sun is senile and dying, and so Urth needs a new sun.

From a New York Times review: " The Book of the New Sun contains elements of Spenserian allegory, Swiftian satire, Dickensian social consciousness and Wagnerian mythology".

My own love for the first chapter of the book, The Shadow of the Torturer, was upon my second re-reading as a more mature person, when it dawned on me what Wolfe had done with Severian: how he had been brought into a guild of torturers as a baby and trained to accept their code of conduct and their morals and yet- in spite of that, in spite of his childhood indoctrination, when he actually has to act as a torturer, he finds that he just cannot do it, eventually it becomes more and more clear to him that he has to reject the role that is required of him; that no matter how much shame it brings on himself, his guild, and his mentors, he simply cannot fulfill the role of a torturer. It starts with small realizations, and gradually builds until he rejects the role fully, realizing that he has no right to wear the garb of the guild anymore, because he cannot fit into that particularly inhuman role.

This is juxtaposed with the "masters" of the guild, who are none of them natural sadists, but remained with the guild nevertheless, and who struggle to varying degrees to live with an occupation that eats away at their souls. One of them driven to drink, for instance. There is of course a lot more to find in the cycle, but that particular theme, of humanity and compassion vs inhumanity and cruelty, was for me the most moving one.


Traveller Jeremy wrote: "Maybe some sort of mathematical equation authors should be lawfully required to adhere to? A kind of gender representation matrix formula, with space spent on characteristics divided by physical lo..."

Well said, Jeremy. Much as i am a feminist myself, and see the necessity for striving to maintain political correctness, there are levels at which anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-religious prejudice, anti-homophobism, etc, can become a bit unpractical and frankly a bit silly, and that is the level where we start to try and dispense fairness via formulas.

To my mind it constricting and acts against the freedom of the creative spirit to say there should be two teaspoons homosexual content, one and three quarters of a teaspoon lesbianism, 49% black representation, and exactly 50% female representation, and x% each of Christians Atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and etc. to other religious groups included int the mix before you have a PC final mix.

As long as a particular group is not isolated and in any way denigrated, i'm fine with any % of ingredients in the mix.


message 180: by Traveller (last edited Jun 29, 2012 05:59AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Meggan wrote: "take in mind that we are talking about a teenage boy here, -you know, - hormones are raging.

Is this a story about an epic quest to satiate a boy's hormones?

Why is this called a "master work" ..."

As i assume you know, it is not. :)

Meggan wrote: "If you write a womanizer as your protagonist, the subtext should get harsher scrutiny to decipher your reason for forcing me inside his head. Is the author winking at the reader, twisting the trope, playing it straight, exploring an affectation, or doing something new? ."

Well, in the first place, we weren't talking about a protagonist, we were talking about a male equivalent of Agia, who is not the protagonist of this specific work, though she is of course an antagonist.

..and although Severian, the assumed protagonist takes his chances wherever he can find them, he is usually not the sexual aggressor, he is mostly cast in an eagerly receptive but rather submissive role.

But yes, i think Wolfe winks at the reader often, and he twists his own constructs in a completely 180 degree twist in the second half of the cycle. He does play around with a lot of tropes yes.
Of course, since the entire narration is in first person, but not always in Severian's voice, one has to take it from whom it comes regarding what happens... and one can also wonder, is the Severian who tells the story, the same Severian that started off in the Torturer's guild at the beginning of the story?


message 179: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely Jeremy said: "Maybe some sort of mathematical equation authors should be lawfully required to adhere to?"

No, that's clearly absurd and, as Traveller notes, would retard creativity. I'm in agreement with Traveller that "As long as a particular group is not isolated and in any way denigrated, i'm fine with any % of ingredients in the mix."

Nowhere did I suggest that women should be given an equal number of words on the page, I'm talking about an equally deep depiction of character when and if women do appear in a story. I never say women (or Latinos, or Muslims) have to be in a story in order for it to be fair, I'm saying that if an author chooses to include such characters, they should ensure that they do not come off as shallow or cliche compared to other characters.

A story could consist entirely of male characters and not promote gender inequality, as long as women were not defined in the text as empty objects. Likewise, a book which featured only female characters could be extremely misogynistic if all of those women were represented as shallow, physically objectified, and cliche.

I assume you meant your comment as a joke, but I'm not sure how hyperbolic straw men add to the discussion.

Meggan said: "Is this a story about an epic quest to satiate a boy's hormones?"

I can think of few more apt descriptions of modern doorstop fantasy, though interestingly, recent psychological studies have suggested that the whole 'teen hormone' thing is a cultural myth and that the real problem is that we lock teens up in close contact for years with only pointless busywork to occupy them.

Traveller said: "taking into account that the protagonist starts off as a male, and the narration is in first person, that's a pretty hard act to follow"

It's true: it would be very difficult to write a story from the perspective of a horny teen boy and not have it come off as fair to women. As Meggan notes, even if we accept that the narrator is unreliable, the author would have to present some very strong subversions in order to overcome the overriding views presented in the narration.

This is a very difficult task for any author, and it would hardly surprise me to see them fall short. If it was what Wolfe intended, then I simply didn't think he was successful in presenting a strong alternative to Severian's view of the world, particularly when it comes to women. It is not enough for him to be unreliable: unless he is unreliable to some specific end, it is merely a muddying of the waters.

It's true that many of the characters surrounding Sevarian are women, but as Meggan points out, they all become his girlfriends. Even though Sevarian is "mostly cast in an eagerly receptive but rather submissive role" in these relationships, I don't find that makes the portrayals any more balanced.

A book full of submissive women is just as shallow as a book full of dominant women. As I said, I'm not saying women have to be strong or dominant, or even that it's better if they are. I'm saying they should have internal lives that aren't dependent on men. Whether a woman dominates or is dominated by a man, she's still being defined by her relationship to him.

I do not find the portrayal of an unpleasant, self-centered teen boy who is inexplicably chased and desired by numerous women to be either realistic or psychologically compelling--indeed, it seems to me to match up rather well with male fantasies about women.

"I might only be your GR friend, but doesn't that at least count for something?"

Certainly, I wasn't saying your opinion is less valid, I was saying that I have hardly found myself to be alone in my opinion of Wolfe, so clearly people are getting this impression from something in the text, even if it may be a misreading.

"i ask you to please read the book in it's entirety before making a judgment."

Certainly, my impressions may change when I finish the series, and I will probably have to work hard to ensure that I go in with an open mind and am not wholly prejudiced by how unimpressed and bored I was by the first two books.

". . . one can also wonder, is the Severian who tells the story, the same Severian that started off in the Torturer's guild at the beginning of the story?"

Definitely not, but as Meggan and I pointed out before, an unreliable narrator is not a mend-all for a book. I'm not just going to assume that Wolfe is really brilliant and clever and that anything Sev expresses that I find asinine is purposeful. Wolfe has to use very careful and deliberate writing to convince me that this is more than just a teen boy's fantasy, and as of yet, I have not seen that depth or subversive contradiction. If the second half is really a complete reversal from the first, I will be interested to see how his depictions and focus change. I hope that I am wrong, because it would be awesome to discover a piece of epic fantasy that wasn't adolescent and condescending.


message 178: by Traveller (last edited Jun 29, 2012 12:13PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Keely wrote: "It's true that many of the characters surrounding Sevarian are women, but as Meggan points out, they all become his girlfriends. "

Um, well, actually, not a single one of them ended up being his girlfriend. Yes, he and Dorcas were companions for a while, not sure if you'd read up to the point that he wanted to marry her, in spite of torturers being forbidden to marry - ..but then if you'd read a bit on from that, you would see, why that would have ended up being a preposterous act. (There's a very strong reference to a classical play here, and i'm guessing you haven't read up to that part yet, so i'll rather not give any spoilers away.)

Agia does seduce him in order to rob him (I can't remember if she actually succeeded in that and if they ever actually did have sex, but whether they did or not is so irrelevant that i truly cannot remember.) But of course if you'd read far enough regarding that particular plotline, you'd know that they in fact became mortal enemies, and Agea was as far from being his girlfriend as an adder in a pit would be your best friend. Agia only cared about her brother, Severian was merely a pawn to her, whom they were going to kill in order to rob him, but after her brother was killed by Severian, that sparked a hatred in her of him, and she swore to avenge her brother's death. So, no girlfriend there, either.

Thecla did toy with him and according to her, later on, the relationship was sexual, although when Severian is the one who narrates, he never mentions any sexual relations, only how much he admired her and was in awe of her especially intellectually speaking.
...so i suppose you could call her a girlfriend in the same way that a powerful, intellectually superior woman might toy with an impressionable teenage boy to amuse her when she has nothing else to do - and Thecla sadly, at that stage in her life, didn't have any alternate amusements.

He had sex with Jolenta once, but that was after Jolenta had made it clear to him that nobody could resist her physical charms; and to me it was clear that when it happened, he was basically acknowledging that it was inevitable - she wanted that kind of homage from everyone, and he would simply do it and over and done with to get it out of the way and over with. Severian always made it very obvious that she had a purely physical allure to him, as opposed to the intellectual allure that Thecla held and the emotional bond that he had with Dorcas.

In any case, Jolenta cuckholded him, so, er...

Anyway, none of the women above with the exception of Dorcas really loved him, and it was obvious that he loved Dorcas.

There is one more woman in the second half of the book with whom he has a sexual dalliance, which ends up being his total undoing as a torturer, which i'm guessing you haven't come to either if you don't know about the specific intrigue with Dorcas and Severian's desire to marry Dorcas, since that comes even after certain plot twists regarding Dorcas. (Though i think the final revelation regarding Dorcas comes only in the very last chapter of the tetralogy.)

Keely wrote: "If the second half is really a complete reversal from the first, I will be interested to see how his depictions and focus change."

I would pretty much say that it was so much a reversal that i felt rather empty and cheated at the end of the fourth chapter, because things end up so totally differently than one expects in the first chapter. Unlike you, i very much enjoyed especially the first book and the character of Severian as he starts off on his bildungs-quest.


message 177: by Rob (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rob Traveller's comments remind me why I've gone off Gene Wolfe; he writes the same story over and over again. The protagonist always labours under some sort of identity or memory gap. He always meets women who deceive and betray him. He always attracts a following who know more about him than he knows himself. We inevitably find out that character X and character Y are in fact the same person. His novels are clever and atmospheric (though opaque) puzzles, but they're always the same puzzle.


Traveller Rob wrote: "Traveller's comments remind me why I've gone off Gene Wolfe; he writes the same story over and over again. The protagonist always labours under some sort of identity or memory gap. He always meets ..."

Yes, it seems as if "Home Fires" (which i've not read) has similar themes albeit in a different setting.
(And FYI, Keely, in this one the female "love interest" is a soldier).

However, there are Wolfe novels which are totally different; 'There are Doors' is one pretty different one that i recall, and then The Island of Dr Death collection is different too. I've actually not read all that much Wolfe recently, some of his more recent stuff has been dauntingly long, and I'm not a lover of tome-like kittencrushers.


message 175: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely "And FYI, Keely, in this one the female "love interest" is a soldier"

Why would that make any difference?


Traveller Keely wrote: ""And FYI, Keely, in this one the female "love interest" is a soldier"

Why would that make any difference?"


Because being a soldier isn't one of the traditionally demeaning female stereotypes.


message 173: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely Ah, perhaps that's part of why we're having miscommunications about the presentation of gender roles in stories: I don't care about a woman's 'job' in the story, because that has nothing to do with whether she's a well-developed character. I'm not suggesting women should be strong, or dominant, or depicted as a gender inversion, because those are all just surface changes which add nothing to her depth of character.

Think about the three musketeers: you have four guys who all have the same job, look and dress the same, and who do the same things (fence, romance women, get involved in intrigue)--yet each one has a distinct personality that could not be mistaken for the others. The fact that they are musketeers is secondary to their desires, goals, fears, and other internal motivations. Their job should not be mistaken for their personality. A musketeer could be a shallow or deep character, just as a woman soldier could, depending on how they were written.

A female character being a soldier does not mean that she will have her own internal life. A submissive, girly princess could be a more gender-balanced character than a gruff lady soldier, it all depends on whether she is written well, whether she has depth, and whether she is fundamentally dependent on men for her motivations and purpose.

Indeed, a female soldier character can be just as insulting and cliche as a princess if the only thing that defines her is being a woman in a non-standard role. At that point, the only reason she is 'special'
is because she is capable of doing things that the male characters find easy, which is rather patronizing, and hardly presents her as competent.

'She's a woman, but she's tough' is no more indicative of a good character than 'he's a man, but he's tough'.


message 172: by Traveller (last edited Jul 02, 2012 08:17AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Keely wrote: "Ah, perhaps that's part of why we're having miscommunications about the presentation of gender roles in stories: I don't care about a woman's 'job' in the story, because that has nothing to do with..."

Ok, I've read your other comment in the Perdido Street Station thread as well, and now I am more perplexed than ever.

Firstly, your perception that Severian is a "bad-ass with a cool sword". That perception seems to me an indication that you only looked at the upper layer of the plot, the "window-dressing" that Wolfe camouflages his settings with.

Remember how many people's assessments of the book (which you've only read the first half of) is that it is layers upon layers, that Wolfe 'tricks' you into thinking things are what they are not? It is easy to think that this is a typical medieval setting with bad-ass hero with big sword.
It is not - it is a future world that has decayed to the point where some aspects of it have come to resemble medieval life, but if you look carefully, you will see that it is quite an alien world , every much as alien as that of Mieville's, and that "magic" is actually technology, since in this world advanced & alien technologies exist alongside "medieval" technologies, very similar to what is the case in our current world - only in Wolfe's world there are more advanced technologies in the mix as well; which is why this book is classed as SF and not fantasy.

As for Severian being badass, I don't quite see how you can think that. In fact, he is quite the anti-hero as far as combat is concerned, and his strongest suite seems to be in his ability to stay alive, in his toughness in surviving as opposed to having any battle prowess, an just pure, simple luck.

The "badass" image that his tenure in the guild of torturers lends him, falls away when he realizes, later on in the book, that he simply cannot carry on doing this;- he cannot simply kill people without it having severe psychological effects on him. Every time he has to kill someone, he would have preferred to rather let the person escape, despite the long explanation he gives Dorcas regarding why the job of torturers are a necessary thing.

I think he does actually believe in the rationale that he has been taught as to why torturers are 'necessary', but i think he comes to realize that it's just not the job for him. I don't quite see how that makes him a 'badasss'. In fact, he tends to see himself as a failure.

Regarding the female characters, i am getting rather tired of repeating myself: like i said in earlier posts, besides the character of Severian himself, the best developed characters in the plot are those of Dorcas, Thecla, Agia and Jolenta.

You don't really get to see Agia's childhood, but you do get to see Thecla's and Dorca's as well as their earlier lives; and you do get to see a lot more of the 'real' Jolenta behind the mask.

I ask you yet again; which of the male characters in the Book of the New Sun do you judge to be better developed than those of Dorcas, Thecla, Agia and Jolenta, and why do you say that they are?


message 171: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely "It is easy to think that this is a typical medieval setting . . . It is not - it is a future world that has decayed . . . [a world] as alien as that of Mieville's, and that "magic" is actually technology . . ."

I do see it as typical medieval fantasy, despite the technological trappings. I don't think that 'technology vs. magic' is a good way to separate fantasy from sci fi. Though it is full of futuristic technology, I consider Star Wars to be a work of fantasy, because it is a mythical story about space wizards fighting a war of good vs. evil. It is not a speculative work which looks forward and tries to imagine technology realistically.

For me, much of the difference between sci fi and fantasy is conceptual--it is a difference between whether the book looks back into myth and archetype, or forward in the possibilities of what humanity may someday become. As Arthur C. Clarke said: 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic', and if something is indistinguishable from magic, that means in the story, it is operating as magic.

I did like those parts of Wolfe where he began to show us the odd technological remnants that existed in his world, but I never felt that he took those concepts very far, so in the end, they didn't make much of a difference to the story. Sure, it's cool to recognize that one of the characters is actually a (view spoiler), but Wolfe never made that detail important to the story, so it was just a bit of trivia.

If Tolkien's Lord of the Rings had ended with the sentence 'And by the way, all the magic was actually technology and the magic races are aliens and Sauron was a nano-AI', that wouldn't have suddenly turned it into science fiction, because it wouldn't change the themes, characterization, archetypes, mythology, or tone.

I appreciate that Wolfe has sci fi elements, and I think those were the most interesting parts, but I was very disappointed at how little he did with them. These small little details did not conceptually transform this book from medieval fantasy to sci fi.

Just like taking a weak, shallow female character and making her a soldier doesn't automatically cause her to become deep and interesting, taking a standard fantasy book and giving it a technological backstory doesn't automatically change its structure or focus.

"As for Severian being badass, I don't quite see how you can think that. In fact, he is quite the anti-hero . . . his strongest suite seems to be in his ability to stay alive . . ."

Anti-hero just struggling to survive by his wits and luck? Isn't that every Bruce Willis character? Sounds like a typical badass to me.

"Regarding the female characters, i am getting rather tired of repeating myself . . ."

So am I, but until we develop psychic powers, we don't really have another option.

"which of the male characters in the Book of the New Sun do you judge to be better developed than those of Dorcas, Thecla, Agia and Jolenta? . ."

I actually didn't find the male characters to be well-developed, either, but at least they had internal lives, wants, and desires that were not based upon Severian. If the women seduce him, manipulate him, rely on him, love him, and follow him, then all their actions are reliant on the presence and interaction of this male character. Since the men in the book don't behave in the same way toward Sevarian, there is a fundamental difference in how women are presented versus how men are presented in the book, and this representation makes the women psychologically reliant on the presence of men in order to act.


message 170: by Meggan (last edited Jul 02, 2012 11:47AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Meggan ...the best developed characters in the plot are those of Dorcas, Thecla, Agia and Jolenta...You don't really get to see Agia's childhood, but you do get to see Thecla's and Dorca's as well as their earlier lives; and you do get to see a lot more of the 'real' Jolenta behind the mask.

Dorcas, Thecla, Agia, Jolenta - I can't recall a single three-dimensional trait for any of them. Jolenta was some kind of sex kitten? Dorcas was found in a lake? Agia stole something from him? These are just plot points, not characterizations. I think if they were as well developed as you say, they would have made vivid impressions that haunted me for years after putting the book down.

As i assume you know, it is not. :)
Oh it's not a master work then? I thought this series had some kind of "legacy" for SFF. One of the reviews Keely links to in his review makes the case that it is


message 169: by Traveller (last edited Jul 02, 2012 11:46AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Keely wrote: "If the women seduce him, manipulate him, rely on him, love him, and follow him, then all their actions are reliant on the presence and interaction of this male character. Since the men in the book don't behave in the same way toward Sevarian, there is a fundamental difference in how women are presented versus how men are presented in the book, and this representation makes the women psychologically reliant on the presence of men in order to act. "

But Dorcas does not rely on Severian at all, later on (though she does follow him around initially due to having amnesia and not having a clue where she comes from) - in fact he is powerless to help her in the end, and doesn't even make his presence known to her when he goes to look her up at her old dwelling.

Jolenta is MUCH too self-absorbed and narcissistic to even think much about Severian. He doesn't really feature largely in her universe at all.

Thecla was only bound to him due to fate and her imprisonment, and though Agia is admittedly obsessed with him, it is via hatred, because he killed her twin, who could just as easily have been a female than a male.

So, as we see, none of the females rely on him, and though Dorcas does love him, finding herself and finding out more about her past is more important to her than Severian is; which is why she leaves - to go and search for her roots; and the one who does follow him, Agia -well, she is only one, and she could just as well have been a male character, if you think about it. I suppose her being female just throws one off balance a bit more, but essentially her character could just as well have been male.

I'm not going to get involved in a long discussion re fantasy vs. SF, since i too personally feel that so- called SF such as Star Wars is actually fantasy.

Gene Wofe is an engineer by profession though, and i do think he plays around a quite bit more with technology, (there's no tech in Star Wars really, is there, if you think about it) especially, for instance the ideas regarding time which you deal with in the third book.

Also, you have to admit that what he does with Dr Talos and Baldanders is every bit as weird as anything in a Mieville book.


message 168: by Traveller (last edited Jul 02, 2012 12:14PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Meggan wrote: ".As i assume you know, it is not. :)"
Meggan, my reply was to:
"Is this a story about an epic quest to satiate a boy's hormones? "

It's a Masterwork, i would imagine, because it is more dense and allusive and has so much more 'meat' to chew on than almost any other SF book i've read.

Meggan wrote: "Dorcas, Thecla, Agia, Jolenta - I can't recall a single three-dimensional trait for any of them. Jolenta was some kind of sex kitten? Dorcas was found in a lake? Agia stole something from him? These are just plot points, not characterizations. I think if they were as well developed as you say, they would have made vivid impressions that haunted me for years after putting the book down.


Since there might be people around here who have not read the series yet, I'd be hard-put to write down Dorcas's entire story, without exposing them to huge spoilers, but really- is honestly all you remember about her that she was pulled from a lake? What about the part where she starts remembering about her past - where she brought up the stones, remember, and decided to leave and go back to find where she comes from? ..and then what Severian discovers about her which puts their past relationship in a very weird light?

What about how relentlessly Agia keeps hunting Severian and trying to kill him, and her relationship to/with/regarding Hethor and Vodalus, etc. etc?

You did read the entire Book of the New Sun,in reasonable quick succession, right? It's very easy to forget details about the series, since the prose is extremely dense - one needs to do at least one re-read to 'get' everything, and many people say they keep finding new things on multiple re-reads.

Especially the first book makes a lot more sense if you read it quite soon after the fourth one - but one needs to read the 4 books close together, as they're essentially one book.


message 167: by David (last edited Jul 02, 2012 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

David I’ve been following this discussion for a while now, and I’m seeing a bit of confusion. Both “sides” seem to think the other side is confused, and whenever that happens, well, it’s time to take a step back.

Keely’s Position: Arguing “the affirmative”, Keely’s basically saying (writing?) that the female characters in “The Claw” are less developed than the male characters in the world, he sees this as a form of gender imbalance, and thus, bad writing.

Traveler’s Position: Arguing “the negative”, Traveler denies Keely’s conclusion in a few ways. At least one of these ways is by way of saying that the female characters *are* as developed as the male characters.

I love a good definition. It’s a place to start, and so let’s define character development.
I’d suggest that character development is not just inside the story as the story progresses but is a process the author goes through before writing (and during writing) to make sure that his or her characters are not flat, 2D “clichés” of standard idea. Character development is the process by which authors make sure that good characters have all the ticks, nervous ideas, surprises, and sometimes, yes, boring sadness that real people have.

A good character exists despite the story, not because of the story. Jean-Luc Picard as a character could be in any world, any story. His character is not that he’s a captain, or that he is part of Star Fleet. His character defines the person he is (albeit a person that is influenced by him being a captain).
All people are composites of all the experiences we have in life. Good characters should be too. What Keely is arguing is that the women characters are not good characters, because the author doesn’t show that they are made up of a whole spectrum of experiences. Instead, their relationship (and I don’t mean something romantic, I mean relationship as the relations they have with Severian), with the main character is often all they do. They may have desires, but those desires are related to the main character. They may have motives, but those motives play off the main character’s motives and plans.
The gender imbalance would exist if the other male characters are *not* like this.

Some examples might clear this up. Imagine a story where the author describes the male character as hardworking man, focused on his career and dismissive of everything else, including conventional morals. You can easily imagine how this guy would react in a lot of situations. It’s easy to imagine him as a politician, or a lawyer, but he could really be anything.

Now imagine he has a wife. If I, as an author, described a female character as “the hardworking man’s wife, tall, slender, with curves where it counts”, and in order to give her more depth constantly talked about how she nagged the main character, she’s not a real character. All her characteristics are simply how she looks and how she acts towards the main character. She’s not a real person.

So, that’s where we are now. We can agree that if an author writes male characters as fully developed characters with their own motives and desires, and does not do the same for female characters, everything else being equal that’s not fair or good writing.

Now, I’m not saying that this book is being done one way or another. That’s a factual argument, and I’m not making it. I’m just trying to get the argument here down to where we can *talk* about facts. Can we agree with the above definition?

Disclaimer: I read these books/book when Keely handed them to me ages ago, so that’s my bias, clouded by the years between then and now.


message 166: by Traveller (last edited Jul 02, 2012 02:39PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Thanks, David, yes that's a good definition, and by that definition, the female characters are rounded for me, in fact pretty much rounded. We see how they grow and we see different angles of them. We see Dorcas when she is pulled out of the river like a lost child and we see her find her place as a mother and a grandmother and someone with a past life; all of this on her own steam, completely unaided by Severian. We even see her as a lesbian lover, we definitely see her as a woman in her own right - if Sev didn't exist, there she would still be there, shining in her own light.

When we meet Agia, we think she is just a sexy, sly girl pulling scams on people along with her brother; which is probably just what she what at that stage, until grief transformed her into an avenging monster.

When we meet Jolenta, we think she is this sexy, beautiful, young wholesome woman, until we see her totally disintegrate at the end..- unravel so to speak to eventually find out what lies underneath - and that part had particular pathos for me.

In the end, Thecla is perhaps the one who comes off worst - she is seen as harsh and arrogant, spoilt - you see her from several angles in addition to what Sev says about her - you hear versions of her past from her own mouth and see perceptions from her own eyes, and you become privy to her memories and you hear what the Autotarch's opinions and impressions of her is, and you meet the people she grew up with;- all of them giving you an angle on her.

All in all though, i think Wolfe treats these sad women with exquisite pathos.


message 165: by David (new) - rated it 2 stars

David That's interesting. However, I don't recall any of that happening in these books, book 1 and 2.

Does this happen in books #1 and #2, or does it happen later? If it happens in Books 1 and 2, I must have missed it, but honestly, I don't remember these books well at all, which is why I'm not critisizing these books.


message 164: by Traveller (last edited Jul 03, 2012 09:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller David wrote: "That's interesting. However, I don't recall any of that happening in these books, book 1 and 2.

Does this happen in books #1 and #2, or does it happen later? If it happens in Books 1 and 2, I mus..."


Nope, most of it happens in book #3 and #4 which concludes the story. I mean, you can't stop half-way through a story and comment on the plot if you haven't read the whole thing, can you? It's like saying you've read through the entire Lord of The Rings and you've only read through book one. To me, BOTNS is actually even more of a unit than the three books of LOTR is.

So, like I said before, The 4 volumes of The Book of the New Sun should be read as one book. I have no idea why Wolfe and his publishers decided to publish them separately; -it's really confusing to readers who end up thinking they should be separate stand-alone books. ..and you get really zero from them as stand-alone books, I'm afraid. You'll simply end up wondering: What was that about? ..since the books closely follow on to the events of one another; no idea why they cut it up.

It's really such a pity.


message 163: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely I guess I don't see as much of a problem with looking at different parts of books--just as some chapters are weaker than others. Fundamentally, I'm talking about whether this book works effectively as an opening to the story, and I don't think it does.

I'd like to try looking at it in your own words, in the hope that we can be on the same page. So, we have a book where:

'It is easy to think that this is a typical medieval setting with bad-ass hero with big sword'

and that this apparently bad-ass guy is an 'anti-hero' whose 'strongest suite seems to be in his ability to stay alive'.

Then there are the main female characters, who are (at least as we see them in the first two books):

1. 'a lost child' (in the body of a full-grown woman)
2. 'a sexy, sly girl pulling scams on people'
3. a 'sexy, beautiful, young wholesome woman'
4. another sexy woman who is 'harsh and arrogant, spoilt'
and 5. 'a stereotype of the typical movie-star nymphette type'

most or all of whom end up as love interests for the main character.

You've also said:

'I agree . . . Wolfe is probably to some extent a sexist person' and that he 'isn't very good with deep characterisation, depending how you look at it'

so I'm not sure why you would be surprised that people come away from the opening books of the series with the impression that the women are weak and mostly defined by their physical appearances and relationships to men.

As you said:

'maybe the fact that [Wolfe] makes his allusions and riffs and his digs so subtly and that they fit in so organically into his worlds, is his very downfall. (Because then people tend to overlook them . . .'

If Wolfe intended to write a witty satire of generic fantasy, but did it so sparingly that his book is nearly indistinguishable from generic fantasy, I would call that a case of ineffective writing, not subtlety. I noticed his attempts to include technology, such as the (view spoiler), but I still don't see how those details matter. So the magic used to be technology--does that materially change how it affects the story or the characters?

Even if it's true that the later books develop the characters fully and turn the world on its head, that doesn't change the fact that the first two books (all four-hundred pages) are not subversive or surprising. So, I would consider the first two books to be failures. If we have to read the last two books in order to make sense of the first two, that means the first two were not effective at telling the story, presenting the world, or developing the characters.

If someone is trying out a new recipe and screws it up blandly five times in a row, even if they succeed on the sixth try, that success won't suddenly make all the earlier failures more palatable. Even if the latter half is good, that doesn't excuse the fact that the first half is not a good introduction.

Four hundred pages is a lot to write just to have an intro. I tend to feel that if the author has not been able to demonstrate the strength of his setting or the depth of his characters in that much space, that's a problem. I mean, most authors write entire books in less space than that, and I didn't see anything in Wolfe that he needed so much space for his story.

If the first half is so easy to mistake as a generic fantasy book, why write it that way? Why spend so much time establishing a fairly uninteresting world if he was intending on turning it all on its head? Why doesn't he get into the subversion earlier? What is the authorial purpose of making the first half easy to mistake for cliche fantasy, and why would I trust Wolfe to improve after such a lackluster intro?

Even if the books hadn't been split, I'm still going to give up on a book if, after four hundred pages, I have been given no reason to think that the author is doing anything interesting.


message 162: by Traveller (last edited Jul 04, 2012 01:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller WARNING: SPOILERS:

Keely wrote: "1. 'a lost child' (in the body of a full-grown woman)
2. 'a sexy, sly girl pulling scams on people'
3. a 'sexy, beautiful, young wholesome woman'
4. another sexy woman who is 'harsh and arrogant, spoilt'
and 5. 'a stereotype of the typical movie-star nymphette type'
"

Hmm, you might have mixed them up a bit: 1.) Dorcas eems like a lost child to start with, because she's been submerged for so long and starts off with a good dose of amnesia. (view spoiler) and it is quite interesting how her family relationships work- Subversive, no?

2)In the beginning, Agia just seems like a friendly, helpful attractive woman to Sev. Harmless and helpful. She turns out to be dangerous and deadly, and quite the opposite of "helpful". Subversive, no?

3)I think you split up the description of Jolenta (remember much from the books?) :originally one sees her as: a 'sexy, beautiful, young wholesome woman' and 'a stereotype of the typical movie-star nymphette type' but when she is (view spoiler) Subversive, yes?

4. another sexy woman who is 'harsh and arrogant, spoilt' ... Um, no - don't know where you got that from... Thecla is NEVER portrayed as sexy. Like her sister, Thea, she is physically portrayed as tall and mannish. She is portrayed as superior and intellectual from the very start of the story, and her subversion comes in a different sense, I suppose in the sense that (view spoiler)

I'm not sure why your requirement for 'subversion' is so insistent regarding this book? Do you require from all novels that subversion takes place, or is it simply because you heard that Wolfe especially tends to be noted for that?

Wolfe doesn't just subvert stereotypes or typical tropes if that was all you were looking for, but he also subverts his own world and characters inside the text (but later on, of course, since if you don't establish a norm first, how can you subvert it? Suberversion means to "change", to change the perception of something. If it was already the changed thing from the start, then no change has taken place, has it? It's a contradiction saying that you want the subverted thing to be subverted right at the start already, because then what was it originally, and what has changed? )

However, for subversion to take place, one has to first establish the norm that is later going to be subverted, don't you agree? ..so this is what Wolfe does. He introduces you to a bunch of characters that look a certain way when you meet them, though with most of them, he gives subtle clues that all might not be what it seems; but the clues are not glaring at you, otherwise there'd be no surprise later on, isn't that so?

He puts you in a world that at the start makes you think you are in a medieval setting, but he also starts to throw out clues that the setting is actually in the far future, when the world has already decayed. By his setting, he subverts two tropes, the standard medieval fantasy trope of fantasy as well as the futuristic "space age" trope of SF.

This is a world in which space travel takes place and half the creatures are mutations created by genetic engineering. ..but usually, when we read novels set in the far future, everything looks clean, shiny and new, and everyone wears silvery space suits, and most of the action takes place while travelling the stars, in shiny new space rockets, and your cities are these shiny glass buildings under huge shiny glass domes and so on, and everyone shoots with shiny laser guns. In these stories, you usually find mutated creatures, biologically engineered creatures, cyborgs and aliens.

Wolfe's world also has all of these things, but since the emphasis is on "old and decayed" as a homage to Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" series where the earth is so old already that the sun is actually "dying", nothing looks shiny and new.. the whole world has an "ancient" feel to it.

Wolfe subverts all the expected shininess and makes it grim, dingy, grungy and decayed instead. To emphasize the theme of decay, the story even starts off in a graveyard. So the whole trope of space age looking shiny and clean and new is subverted by making everything feel "old".

Like you mentioned, one also finds cyborgs - humans that have been mechanically enhanced. Wolfe even subverts the original idea you had of the cyborg character later.

Remember the aliens that you find lurking all around the place, attaining parties with masks on, and so on? If you read into the second half, you find your original concept of the cacogens is also subverted.

Your original impression that you have regarding Dr Talos and Baldanders is also subverted.

Your original idea of Who and what Vodalus is, is also subverted, you original idea of who and what Hethor is is subverted, your original idea of what the Claw of the Conciliator is, is subverted, and your original impression of who and what the Autarch is and how the whole system works is subverted.

If that's not enough subversion for you just out of one book, i suppose i could think a bit more and try to find even more examples for you.

Oh yes, and Severian totally, eh, ..changes.. so your idea of who and what the narrator is, is also subverted.


message 161: by Traveller (last edited Jul 04, 2012 02:55AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller If you meant subversion in the transgressive sense, then you find a few transgressive themes in the book overall that are overtly transgressive, such as incest and cannibalism, but in a narrower sense, you also have Severian's pervading sense of transgression when he keeps breaking the Guild of Torturer's rules and keeps breaking with the norms and restrictions that he was brought up to adhere to.

What i particularly loved, was the subversion of "accepted" morality, the morality that says that it is bad to kill and good to have empathy for living creatures. These "traditional" mores have been subverted as the accepted mores of the society Severian is brought up in, says that it is "weak" to have compassion, and that he should be cold and detached about torturing and killing.

Severian then keeps feeling guilty when he breaks these subverted mores when he acts compassionately.

Gradually he breaks a way from the twisted values he had been taught, and starts to embrace his full humanity with all it's flaws, and his feelings become more natural.
Above all, he starts to accept compassion as a basic part of his make-up, and chooses rather to reject the guild than this aspect of himself.


message 160: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely "Hmm, you might have mixed them up a bit . . . (remember much from the books?)"

Since the female characters didn't seem to have distinct inner lives, I did not find them being very distinct from one another. I can remember characters and events if I think back, but in general, few things stood out for me.

"I'm not sure why your requirement for 'subversion' is so insistent regarding this book?"

Because if it isn't a subversion, then it's just cliche fantasy, like Jordan or Goodkind.

"However, for subversion to take place, one has to first establish the norm that is later going to be subverted, don't you agree?"

Not if that norm is already established within the genre. In order to subvert doorstop fantasy novels, it is not necessary to start off by writing a 400-page cliche fantasy novel. Instead, the author refers to known tropes and cliches, but changes and undermines them as they are introduced.

As you said, it's easy to mistake the two opening books for cliche fantasy, which indicates to me that there is very little subversion or imagination which would set them apart.

. . . the whole trope of space age looking shiny and clean and new is subverted by making everything feel "old".

Sounds like 'Dune'. It also sounds like Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, where she does the same 'magic is technology thing' (like Vance did), and neither of them had to write two whole books of vague clues and shallow characters before they got to the interesting part. I mean, this is stuff that was done twenty years before Wolfe did this series, so I'm not seeing any innovation here.

"Your original idea of Who and what Vodalus is, is also subverted, you original idea of who and what Hethor is is subverted, your original idea of what the Claw of the Conciliator is, is subverted, and your original impression of who and what the Autarch is and how the whole system works is subverted."

If everything that makes this story interesting and worth reading happens after the first 400 pages, then I have no compunction in declaring these first two books to be mostly pointless, generic, and dull.


message 159: by Traveller (last edited Jul 05, 2012 01:07AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller Well, I tried. I did a whole lot of writing to show you how the genre is subverted even from the very start of the book, but when a person is prejudiced, they only see what they want to see, i guess.

I guess you'd made your mind up before even reading the books, Keely, and nothing's going to induce you to give them a fair chance.


message 158: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely ". . . when a person is prejudiced, they only see what they want to see, i guess."

Funny, I feel the same way about you. As I said, all the subversions you note seem to happen later, so I don't see how they would make these first two books any good.

"I guess you'd made your mind up before even reading the books . . ."

No, I was expecting them to be good--I was excited to read them. I'd never heard anyone speak a bad word about Wolfe, nor had I heard anyone mention the flaws I found in it. In fact, several authors I respect had great things to say about Wolfe, so if anything, my prejudice was to expect something cool and interesting.

What made me feel negatively about the books was not any preconception, it was the content of the books, themselves.


message 157: by Traveller (last edited Jul 05, 2012 11:03AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Traveller ..what frustrates me is that, as i said, the books make up a unit, and there is nothing i can do about the fact that the four volumes were published separately.

If you cast your mind back a about 10 decades and more ago, (not that we were around then), you'll recall that most novels like those of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens were originally published in serial form in newspapers.

Wait, let's take an example of a book i seem to remember that you liked quite a lot; Moby Dick. Moby Dick was originally published in 3 separate volumes. (..and i believe in a boy's magazine, in serial form, but i cannot seem to find 100% confirmation of that.) Would it be fair of me to read the first volume only and judge the entire book on that?

Would it be fair of me to read the first volume of Les Miserables and judge the entire book on that?

Besides the fact that the volume is being split and being judge by volume, it also feels to me that, as i said before, you're not recognizing with how much careful attention a text as dense as this one should be read, because then you're liable to miss and/or forget a lot of clues. Also, like i said, the series needs to be read and then re-read to really see the whole picture. It's a bit like the Figure–ground organization dilemma: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figure%E...

If you look only once, and take a quick glance only, chances are very high that you're only going to see either the faces or the vase, but not both.

Believe me, i wouldn't go to all this trouble to try and defend anything that was typical 'genre' or 'mainstream'.


message 156: by J.G. (new) - rated it 2 stars

J.G. Keely "Moby Dick was originally published in 3 separate volumes . . . Would it be fair of me to read the first volume only and judge the entire book on that?

No, but it would certainly be fair to judge the part you read. Books can have weak and strong chapters, and it is possible to have some insight into an author reading only a page or two of a work--though that wouldn't be a good basis for a review of an entire book.

But then, I'm not judging the entire book, I'm judging the part I read, which I found unremarkable. Even if it is as you say, and the rest of the series is brilliant and original, that doesn't make the early part better.

You say I must have missed the mores subtle parts and 'clues' in the early going, but since I read Paradise Lost and didn't have trouble following it or picking up on the subversions, I have trouble believing that this book is 'too deep' for me. I mean, it certainly could be, but I haven't seen an argument made yet that would lend it that kind of depth.

It might be true that there are things in the first books--references and clues--that don't make sense unless you've already read the later books, but I would say that's just bad writing. A good work builds on what has already been established, and coming in later and saying 'X character is really Y and this scene was a dream' does not retroactively make the first part good.

All the things you have referenced as being subversive, all the character depth, all the things that happen later--if Wolfe wanted to write the book you're describing, why not start writing it from page one? Why put in 400 pages of misleading, generic stuff first?


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