the Little Red Reviewer

100 pages into Shadow and Claw

Posted on: November 1, 2017

This weekend past, I dug out all four volumes of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Yes, i know physically I only have 3 books, but Shadow and Claw is TWO volumes of the series.  This series has been called a modern masterpiece, a “must read” for anyone who calls themself a science fiction reader.  I read Shadow and Claw a handful of years ago (three years? eight years? i have no idea) and enjoyed it. I remember it being heavy, beautiful, mythic, unforgettable, groundbreaking, strange, sci-fantasy dying Earth. I barely understood it. It was like reading a dream.

I do most of my reading on weekends when I have large chunks of uninterrupted time. By Sunday night I was 100 pages into Shadow and Claw. The (unreliable? kinda crazy?) narrator Severian is talking about his youth as an apprentice in the Torturer’s Guild. In a more modern epic fantasy, this guild would be the Justisters, I suppose – people who mete out punishment without thought for if the person is guilty or if the punishment fits the crime.   In Severian’s world, there is an all powerful Autarch who holds concubines as hostages and does who knows what else, strange machines that speak when they feel like it, a rebellion, the dangers of waiting,  a library that holds books older than history, The Citadel, and an entire civilization outside the Citadel who thought the Guild of Torturers died out generations ago.  The story is presented episodically, with a much older Severian telling you what he thinks you need to know and sometimes apologizing for spending time on needless details.   This is a world in which so much has been forgotten.


Anyway, forget all of that.  You don’t need any of it. At least not yet.


Because it’s the words that Wolfe uses to tell this story, and therein lies the magic.  I found so many words in this book that I don’t know the meanings of, giving them the shimmer of magical spells. Are these real words? Where they once words in a language that was forgotten hundreds of years ago? Are they satirical? Simply nonsense? I have no idea.   They are like stones in a riverbed – smooth on one side, rough on the other. Here are a few:











See what I mean, that they are like stones that have smooth spots and rough spots? Say them out loud and you’ll see what I mean.  Say them out loud and you can tell me how they should be pronounced.  If these words were stones we could build a road by which to travel to the answer. If they were stones we could build a tower, and from the top of the tower we could see the answer.  Every new and strange word is another stone, another step in the right direction.

Which of those are real words, or were at one time?  Maybe they aren’t river stones with which to build a road or a tower, but memories and myths. A last attempt to bring back lost knowledge of a dying world.

Who knows what the next 100 pages of this book will bring.





11 Responses to "100 pages into Shadow and Claw"

I tried the first book, Shadow of the Torturer but didn’t like it much and dropped it a third of the way in. Haven’t gone back to him since.


it is certainly not for everyone!


They are, in fact, all real words!


Yes, they’re all words, although I’d only consider ‘vitiated’, ‘thurible’ and ‘peccary’ to actually be ordinary run-of-the-mill appear-in-the-newspaper words. ‘Caique’, ‘bartizan’ and ‘pursuivant’ are more specialised vocabulary, although I’ve heard all three in speech (though I’ve only hear ‘caique’ in the avian, rather than nautical, sense).
I’m not familiar with “inutile” specifically, but the meaning is obvious – and likewise, “pardine” is probably clear in context though it took me a moment of blinking here. “Agathodaemon” ought to have been obvious but sadly required more Greek of me than I possessed. “Saffian” is pretty obscure, and I didn’t know it, but it’s easy enough to guess that it’s some sort of bright yellow textile. [substances ending -ian are often textiles, like fustian and hessian and so on, and “saff” is an Arabic borrowing indicating a yellow or gold colour found in the names of dyes – as in saffron and safflower.]

This sort of thing always makes me a little worried. I don’t have an enormous vocabulary, but every so often people remind me that apparently nobody knows what a thurible or a peccary is, and I get worried about how pretentious people must think I am for forgetting to pretend not to know those words. [I can’t help it, I read a lot as a child. And I was raised Catholic and used to like nature documentaries, so…]

Anyway, if you like Wolfe’s use of traditional vocabulary, you should try reading Stephen Donaldson. I mean, obviously he’s vastly inferior to Wolfe in every other way, but his vocabulary is even more … well, fustian!


For what it’s worth, and not to belabour the point, “thurible”, “pursuivant”, “peccary”, “vitiated” and “inutile” are all words repeatedly used on the BBC website. I suspect “caique” is probably there somewhere as well, but it just keeps showing me results for “clique” instead.

In fact, coincidentally, the BBC used the word “vitiate” TODAY! Although admittedly they were quoting the governing party of Indian Kashmir, the BJP, who claim that the recent braid-cutting attacks are an attempt by separatists and ‘anti-nationals’ to vitiate peace. Likewise, a few years ago the chief administrator of an Indian university resigned to avoid the academic atmosphere becoming any further vitiated, and a scottish appeals judge regretfully concluded in a case of a dog about to be put down that the conclusions of fact reached by a lower court had not been vitiated by any error of law. And even BBC journalists use the word themselves: Robert Peston acknowledged that, regarding airline emissions charges, “the associated commitment to improve so-called CO2 efficiency by 1.5% a year on average is vitiated (or so critics would say) by the inclusion of the words “on average””.

Similarly, regarding increased Scottish devolution, we’re told that “Ms Davidson and others say that such a debate at the moment would be inutile”, and that at the reopening of St Peter’s Seminary (a giant modernist ruin in Scotland), “As darkness falls, bit by bit, the building is illuminated to an eerie soundtrack of choral music. A giant thurible swings across a pond, created from the sunken floor of the old refectory.”

Anyway, I guess my point is just that authors using these words aren’t necessarily aware that some readers will regard them with such mystery. Though in the case of Wolfe, it’s true that he generally attempted in these books to create an archaic and peculiar atmosphere through his lexicon.


” readers will regard them with such mystery. Though in the case of Wolfe, it’s true that he generally attempted in these books to create an archaic and peculiar atmosphere through his lexicon.”

that’s it exactly. he succeeded in building a certain atmosphere through lexicon, and I do regard the words with mystery.

worldbuilding through lexicon is one of those storytelling layers that speaks to me.


Keep us updated! [I’m particularly curious to be reminded when exactly Severian explains what an Autarch is, metaphysically speaking.]


I plan to! 🙂 Or at least I’ll keep posting about beautiful words that aren’t in my vocabulary.


Now you’ve intrigued me about this series. Sounds like another addition to the TBR pile!


be warned, spoilers are coming!


Reblogged this on The Website of Author Adam Vine and commented:
Posts like this are why I internet


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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