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[Reading Group] Shadow & Claw

Discussion in 'Novels & Stories' started by Ankari, Oct 6, 2014.

  1. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I'm 65 pages in. I have a few questions to share.

    1. I found the first chapter to be a hurdle. The first time I tried to read this story, I struggled with what was going on and Gene Wolfe's descriptive writing. Was it the same with you?
    2. Although the first chapter was a hurdle, it provides action and a hint of conflict. The proceeding chapters are clearer, but seem disjointed from what we're introduced to. Have you foind this to be true? Does it bother you that Gene Wolfe stepped away from the plot to develop Severian's character and showcase the world?
    3. Severian belongs to guild of torturers. Do you find Severian's personality in compliance with the savage nature of the guild? If not, does this bother you?
    4. Gene Wolfe's writing is beautiful and descriptive. I'd venture to say it falls squarely in the realm of "purple prose." Do you think so? Do you think he's able to pull it off (writing purple prose yet retaining your attention)?
    5. The world appears to be a post traumatic world simliar to Elysium but far more deteriorated. What is your opinoin of the world/setting?
     
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  2. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    1. Yes, I felt the same with the first chapter, although I actually read it a while back. I can't really say I've read any other fantasy writer like Wolfe. I feel he takes a more literary approach to his writing than a fantasy one. This is probably why he has achieved such high praise in the community over the years because his style is unique in the genre. I'm not a huge fan of stories where I have to puzzle things together, but as I've said before, when it works, it works. In the case of Wolfe, I can't really say if it works for me yet. I'm reading, but it's more like a school assignment than for personal enjoyment at this point. That may change though.

    2. I get the feeling the first chapter has more of a prologue feel. That may explain some of the disjointedness. I feel that because this story is from a first person perspective, it hops around a bit more and doesn't seem to have a linear path. It doesn't bother me that he does this, but from a traditional reading perspective it was confusing.

    3. Severian seems to be different than the others around him. I can't quite place it yet, but he doesn't seem to fit in. I feel like I'm saying "I can't quite place it yet" a lot because in all honesty, I have no idea what is happening five chapters in. I'm getting bits and pieces of understanding here and there, but I'm more entranced with the prose than I am the actual story.

    4. I have never understood the various definitions of purple prose. I've always thought this to be overly descriptive writing, meaning it has a negative meaning. In that case, I don't find Wolfe's descriptions overwrought. He definitely seems to be more about setting the mood than advancing the story though. This is why many people probably find him inaccessible when they pick up his books. They may be expecting a typical fantasy yarn and they come across this more artistic approach.

    5. I agree with what others have said. I think the intention is to create a world so alien from our own, that it's hard for us to really connect with it. This is the reason things are mentioned like people marrying lions and bears without it being considered abnormal to Severian. This is the kind of world-building that can be either off-putting or captivating. I haven't put the book down completely yet, so the world is definitely one of the strengths of the story so far.

    I think I'd put Wolfe in the same category with someone like Jack Vance or even Steven Erikson. He doesn't hold your hand and explain things to you. They're just there and it's up to you to unpack it and figure it out. I like this approach in some aspects. It reminds me strongly of Jodorowsky's films. You're assaulted by images and it's up to you to piece it all together.
     
  3. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I'm going to repost this from the other thread, since it's better here, then I'll answer the questions:

    I've started as well. I think I'm better prepared to read this book than the last time I tried, when I only got about halfway in before I couldn't go on. While reading the first chapter I realized for the first time that this is an entirely cerebral book. There are no feels, as we Otaku say, in it. I remember that the first time I read it I expected to sympathize with the protagonist, at least eventually. But what happened was that I liked him less and less as the book went on. The thing is, I believe this is the effect the author and Severian as the one recounting the story are going for. I don't think Severian wants to be sympathized with, perhaps just understood. (I am basing these thoughts, by the way, not just on my own experience with Severian but on everything my obsessed husband has told me about the books over the years.)

    Here's a particular quote that helped drive this home to me:

    "All this took place in dark and fog. I saw it, but for the most part the men were no more than ambient shadows- as the woman with the heart-shaped face had been. Yet something touched me. Perhaps it was Vodalus's willingness to die to protect her that made the woman seem precious to me; certainly it was that willingness that kindles my admiration for him. Many time since then, when I have stood upon a shaky platform in some marketplace square with Terminus Est at rest before me and a miserable vagrant kneeling at my feet, when I have heard in hissing whispers the hate of the crowd and sensed what was far less welcome, the admiration of those who find an unclean joy in pains and deaths not their own, I have recalled Vodalus at the graveside, and raised my own blade half pretending that when it fell I would be striking for him."

    Now, my first reaction to this passage was: WTF? That makes no sense. Who could possibly sympathize with an unapologetic grave robber? Who could see him as the defender and the people who have come to protect their dead relatives as the enemy? But it was this passage that made me realize that I'm not necessarily supposed to understand how Severian thinks and feels and what his motivations are. Or at least, I'm only supposed to understand them intellectually.

    My husband has told me that Gene Wolfe is trying to establish a world in these books that is truly alien in culture and morality from our own. A world in which grave robbing is just a thing that some people do. It's supposed to be the kind of world, like Middle-earth, where you read about it and then wish you could live there. An Severian is both an unreliable narrator and an anti-hero, not in the modern sense of "I know I shouldn't like him, but he's so sexy!" He's actually difficult for some and impossible for others to like. I found it impossible to like him. But if I can hang in there for more books this time I expect to develop a better understanding of him.
     
  4. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I'm within a handful of chapters of the end of Shadow, and will be moving on to Claw. My thoughts on the questions:

    1. I found the first chapter to be a hurdle. The first time I tried to read this story, I struggled with what was going on and Gene Wolfe's descriptive writing. Was it the same with you?

    Not so much. I won't give an author long to pull me into a story, and in this case I was intrigued by the book and pulled into the writing right off the bat. This is primarily the strength of Wolfe's prose. I like the level of descriptiveness in the prose, which I find to be at perhaps the high end of moderate.

    2. Although the first chapter was a hurdle, it provides action and a hint of conflict. The proceeding chapters are clearer, but seem disjointed from what we're introduced to. Have you foind this to be true? Does it bother you that Gene Wolfe stepped away from the plot to develop Severian's character and showcase the world?

    I don't remember feeling disjointed, though the approach to narrative is not the standard one. I'll have to go back and look at this specifically when I have the book in my hand, but I didn't feel disjointed at any point. It doesn't bother me that Wolfe stepped away from the ongoing narrative to do other things, like develop character and so on. He does this a number of times throughout the work.

    3. Severian belongs to guild of torturers. Do you find Severian's personality in compliance with the savage nature of the guild? If not, does this bother you?
    I wouldn't say he's in compliance with the nature of the guild. There are certain aspects of his personality that are in compliance, and he sees the world he was brought up in as a rote, formal, machine of society, and at least early on doesn't much question its function or necessity. However, even early on I think he was just enough out of step that he seemed separate from his fellow guild members. It doesn't bother me - I think Severian's character is interesting in terms of how Wolfe develops him. I can't say I like him, but I'm intrigued by him.

    4. Gene Wolfe's writing is beautiful and descriptive. I'd venture to say it falls squarely in the realm of "purple prose." Do you think so? Do you think he's able to pull it off (writing purple prose yet retaining your attention)?


    I don't think it is purple prose (my definition of purple prose has a negative connotation, meaning the author overreached or handled the description ineptly. I don't think Wolfe does either). In terms of works I've read lately, Wolfe is squarely toward the high end of "moderate" in terms of descriptiveness. I read enough that is much more dense and descriptive than Wolfe that I don't usually consider him to be an example of heavy description, though he is certainly more descriptive than the likes of Abercrombie, etc. Wolfe's work certainly retains my attention, so I think he's successful in this regard, and interestingly he is successful even though he goes off on tangents at times, or presents descriptions that are at the same time dense and somewhat vauge in in terms of what is provided.

    5. The world appears to be a post traumatic world simliar to Elysium but far more deteriorated. What is your opinoin of the world/setting?

    I put this squarely in the dying earth category in that respect. We're not talking a post-apocalyptic near future, or even a handful of millenia into the future. My understanding is we're talking about a million or more years into the future where other worlds are known or even traveled to and humanity seems to have stagnated on earth.
     
  5. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Well, I haven't read that far yet, but I'm in the unique position of knowing a lot about the whole series even though I've never read them myself. As some of my husband's favorite books, he's talked to me a lot about them. And he's also decided to reread them with me so we've been discussing it at home.


    1. I found the first chapter to be a hurdle. The first time I tried to read this story, I struggled with what was going on and Gene Wolfe's descriptive writing. Was it the same with you?


    No, I didn't find the first chapter a hurdle. I didn't find it terribly interesting either, but it wasn't difficult. Though I think that the first chapter is more important than it appears. Severian chooses that moment in time, that scene, as the jumping off point for his journey and that's significant.

    2. Although the first chapter was a hurdle, it provides action and a hint of conflict. The proceeding chapters are clearer, but seem disjointed from what we're introduced to. Have you foind this to be true? Does it bother you that Gene Wolfe stepped away from the plot to develop Severian's character and showcase the world?

    No, actually I enjoy those chapters a lot more than the first chapter.

    3. Severian belongs to guild of torturers. Do you find Severian's personality in compliance with the savage nature of the guild? If not, does this bother you?

    I think it's a mistake to think of the guild as "savage" just because we live in a society that frowns on torture and capital punishment. I think it's the opposite. The emotional detachment and efficient methodology of the torturers is not something I associate with savagery. This society is highly civilized to the point of extreme degeneration. Also, consider the guild's formal name: The Seekers for Truth and Penitence. These are not ideas that come from savagery, but rather from civilization.

    Severian's personality is, I think, one of the big mysteries of the books. Because he is an unreliable narrator and because everything we experience is through the lens of his narration we can't ever be quite sure about him and his motivations and desires. I think it is best not to establish too much of a picture of Severian in your head while reading these books. He is too much of an enigma to really grasp, at least this early on.

    4. Gene Wolfe's writing is beautiful and descriptive. I'd venture to say it falls squarely in the realm of "purple prose." Do you think so? Do you think he's able to pull it off (writing purple prose yet retaining your attention)?
    The world appears to be a post traumatic world simliar to Elysium but far more deteriorated. What is your opinoin of the world/setting?


    I'm unfamiliar with Elysium. However, I believe that two of Gene Wolfe's major influences were The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson and The Dying Earth by Jack Vance. And it is fairly well established that New Sun takes place in an extremely far future where the sun is dying (hence the introduction of a New Sun).

    I find it very interesting that you interpreted it as being "post traumatic". Is there anything in particular in the book that led you to that conclusion? Gene Wolfe rarely comes out and says anything directly. He generally likes to leave pieces of the puzzle lying around and so that the reader can piece it together themselves. I wouldn't be surprised if this early on he meant it to be much more vague and misleading.

    For me, it's the worldbuilding that is the major draw of the book. I LOVE dying earth stories.
     
  6. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I'm done with Shadow of the Torturer and on to Claw of the Conciliator. Like Mythopoet, I don't necessarily see any post-traumatic world at this point. My impression upon first getting into the story is that things have been on a sort of gradual decline (if you want to call it a decline) rather than having changed as a result of some traumatic event. That viewpoint is open to changing as the series moves on, but as for the initial impression, that's what it is (and it has been so long since I read these, I can't remember the details of the world's history).
     
  7. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    Dang, you read fast! :)

    I think I'm on Chapter 4 or 5 now. He is talking to some guy named Ultan. I'm curious what others think. Do you believe a modern fantasy writer can write in Wolfe's style and still achieve success? Or is this kind of writing more designed for critical claim? I don't find really any mainstream appeal to this book at all. It's fascinating as art, but there's something I can't place missing.
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think a modern writer can achieve success doing this. Heck, Wolfe still writes, and still sells, and other writers get together and put out anthologies with homages to him (there is one that Neil Gaiman was involved in that is quite good). So I think it is fair to say Wolfe is popular.

    Anyone else making progress on the stories? If you don't like Severian in Shadow of the Torturer, I don't think you'll like him any better at the beginning of Claw of the Conciliator, but he remains an interesting character.
     
  9. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I think it really depends on what you mean by success.

    Wolfe has never been a huge commercial success. He has a devoted, but smallish fanbase. He's a writers' writer. Many fantasy and sci fi authors love him, but he's never been a big hit with the majority of fantasy and/or sci fi readers. His books definitely don't have mainstream appeal. They are very unique, quirky, challenging and literary. If you want a big audience and lots of money, I wouldn't suggest writing like Wolfe. But he's obviously able to make a living as a writer, which is pretty much my idea of success. :)
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    True, he's not filthy rich by any stretch...but he's won numerous awards, had games made about his work, songs about them, books written about him and his work, homages from other authors playing in his world or writing stories Gene Wolfe would like etc.

    To me, that's all pretty cool. And as you said, he makes a living, gets to be guest of honor at cons and so on. I'd take that gig :)
     
  11. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I'm on about page 50. I'm reading multiple things on my Kindle and I have this book in print, so it's not getting my full attention.

    It's interesting to note that two of you mentioned Wolfe does well with a niche audience. One thing I think a lot of writers focus on nowadays is becoming big and having multi-book deals and such. However, I find with the rise of indie writers there is a lot more room for realistic careers. You might not be swimming in coins, but you'll be comfortable. I think it also opens up opportunities for the niche fantasy writers that they're might not have been room for otherwise.

    I brought this up before about self-published writers having a unique opportunity to bust open the genre and do new things with it. New things that a mainstream audience or a mainstream fantasy publisher may not touch. Wolfe seems one of those kind of writers that is in an interesting position in that he's pretty well known in fantasy circles, but maybe not as widely read. He reminds me of a Jodorowsky-style figure.

    I'd recommend Wolfe to others simply because he's hard to pin down. That's one thing I like about certain writers. You can't really sum up their style in a couple of words. I agree that he seems like a writers' writer more than one readers would flock to. If he's built a career from that, it must be satisfying to not have to sacrifice his vision and still gain critical acclaim. When so many people focus on making big bucks writing, I think you'd notice mid-list authors are more the norm than any others out there.
     
  12. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I wasn't sure if you were talking about success as a trad published author or as a self published author when you were asking that question. Your comment about "mainstream appeal" lent me to think you meant the former. I think some writers focus a lot on becoming big and getting multi-book deals because that's the type of success that traditional publishing pushes, the only kind they're really interested in these days. Many authors with long term success have admitted that their success came slowly and as such they don't believe they would have been able to achieve it if they were starting out in traditional publishing these days. It's very likely if a younger Gene Wolfe was submitting to traditional publishers now, his work would never be published. Unless, of course, he decided to self publish it.
     
  13. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    Well, I'm at chapter 31 now. Still haven't gotten past the point I read up to the last time I tried to read the book, but I think it's going better this time. I'm getting a much better feel this time for what doesn't work for me about this book.

    One of the biggest problems for me is that the meticulous effort Severian goes to in depicting every single little thing that happens from the moment he leaves the Matachin Tower is, in my opinion, excessive to the point where I am struggling to care even a little about any of it. I recognize that many of these episodes are significant. And I also recognize that the exhaustive detail employed is almost certainly intended to be mind numbing so that the reader will be less likely to see the significance of certain things early on in order to be more surprised by them later on. Still, to me, it ends up feeling unnatural and just boring.

    Also, it's during this time (after leaving the Matachin Tower, before leaving Nessus) that I really start disliking Severian. The reason for it is his irrational, animal-like attraction for Agia who is obviously a little bitch. Severian's approach to sex in general, at this point, is just too animal-like for me not to feel repulsed by him. And from what I've heard, I doubt it will get any better any time soon.

    At this point, I'm just glad to be putting the whole Agilus and Agia plot behind me and look forward to the return of Dr. Talos and Baldanders who are at least interesting.
     
  14. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I'm on chapter 25.

    Here are some questions/observations so far.

    1) While reading, you can't help but notice the odd words used to describe various classes of people. Gene Wolfe also uses unfamiliar words in other ways. Whenever I came across such words, I looked it up (using the ereader tool) and discovered most of these words were real. This intrigued me, so I searched online and discovered that, in fact, all the words are supposed to be real words. An example of this is the color Gene Wolfe uses for Severian's cloak, fuligan. Apparantly the word was associated with soot.

    Have you noticed these words? Did you think them real or made up? Does it impress you if the reports are true and all the words in the book are real (just to clarify, the claim is that every single word is a real word)?

    2) The scene concerning Thecla was handled well. Later in the book Severian admits he loved Thecla. Knowing this, and knowing how he handled Thecla's situation, what do you think this says of Severian?

    3) As Mythopoet has mentioned, Wolfe is investing so much of the book to the details of Severian's time after leaving the Citadel. Do you appreciate this? Do you find it implausible that so much can happen to one person in such a condensed time? Are you like Mythopoet and bogged down by the details?

    4) Somewhere to this point (chapter 25) Severian has acknowledged he is recounting his life from a room in the House Absolute. He notes that a changing of the guard occurred while he was thinking of Thecla. I find writing FPOV challenging for this very reason. One of the significant tools of tension is the character's life. Reveal that they are alive and the reader will know the outcome of mortal situations. The current chapters show Severian preparing for a duel. Now that I know he lived, doesn't it rob me of the worry?

    What are your thoughts on FPOV writing? Does it bother you to know the MC will live through whatever is recounted? What tricks would you employee to hide such knowledge from your reaeders?
     
  15. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    1) Wolfe chooses his words carefully. Some are made-up, of course, but as you said some are not. Even the main character's name seems to me to be significant. Look, for example, at Severus of Antioch.

    2) The scene with Thecla seemed to me to point to some humanization of Severian. He still maintains this very formal approach to things, including the dictates of his profession, and the detachment that comes with it. But it seems to me that the incident with Thecla separates Severian from his fellow torturers.

    3) I liked the details. So long as it remains interesting, I'm content to let an author go in this direction. I like Wolfe's writing, so I enjoyed it.

    4) I don't think this is an inherent limitation of first person. I've read first person novels where the narrator unexpectedly dies. First person is not an assurance that the narrator will live. In this particular case it is because Severian tells you so. But that doesn't bother me for this particular book, because it isn't written as an action or suspense-filled novel. It's more cerebral, and that can be pulled off even when you know the narrator survives.

    I should point out, as well, that in the vast majority of stories the main character lives, and there are all kinds of series where the characters return book after book, so you know they're going to live. Many of those are third person. So, knowing the main character is going to live is kind of the default assumption in books.
     
  16. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Anyone else getting the impression that we need to stick to more mainstream/commercial books if we want to keep participation in the reading group high?
     
  17. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I hope not. These books have been a great reference for writing. I'm engaged in this story that doesn't seem to have a real plot (yet). I've just started the second book yesterday.

    As such, I'll have some more questions about the first book today or tomorrow.
     
  18. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I also started the second book yesterday. And I was gratified to notice that the title page of Claw of the Conciliator fell exactly at 50%. Yes, symmetry.

    1) I recognized, if not the word, then at least the root of most of the words that Wolfe used. I find it very believable that all the terms and names he uses have a real world basis. I would say that most character names are also significant. Steer pointed out Severus of Antioch, but there was also a Bishop of Syria named Severian who wasn't a very nice guy. Dr. Talos obviously comes from the Greek man of bronze, Baldanders is, I believe, from Germanic folklore. And so on.

    2) Nothing that Severian has said so far leads me to believe that he has any real idea what love is. But Severian's account of himself is strangely detached and even after an entire book in his POV I don't feel like I have any clear idea what sort of person he really is and I haven't found any reason yet to like him as a character. Particularly after that seen where he wants to laugh and caper because he cut off that woman's head so well. Yeah, not a guy I can relate to.

    3) I feel like I'm not so much bogged down by the details per se, but by the presentation of the details. Severian's account doesn't flow. He skips time without mentioning it, wallows in certain episodes for what feels like an excessive amount of time, goes back and forth in time and never presents anything in a straightforward or reliable manner. It just goes against my person sense of story, but I also recognize it a little bit from the weirdly convoluted way my husband (who has asperger's) tends to relate events. I wonder if that's intentional. (Don't be silly, everything Gene Wolfe does is intentional.)

    4) I do find Severian's habit of suddenly shifting to himself as he writes the narrative to be distracting at best. Like at the end of Shadow when it felt like he was ramping up to something significant at the gate (my husband tells me it is significant and also never explained, remaining one of the big mysteries of the books) and then I flipped the page and he says "Here I pause" and invites me to continue reading the next book if I feel like it. I gotta say, that just completely destroyed my immersion in the narrative. If I wasn't determined to read these books for external reasons I would have said, "Screw you, Severian and your stupid story. I'm going to read something else."

    That said, I am keenly aware that these books just aren't written for readers like me. They are written for readers like my husband who almost worships Gene Wolfe like a god. (That's only a small exaggeration.) So I really am going to try to not be too critical as I continue reading, but I'll admit right now, that's going to be really hard for me. ;)
     
  19. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I want to clean up some observations.

    I. Severian has an odd attitude toward women and sex. I say it's odd to our accepted standards, but to the Gene Wolfe's Urth, it seems to be the norm. Agia and Dorcas both are receptive to his attention. In fact, Dorcus competes for Severian and is intimidated by Agia's apparant ability to win him over.

    I think it was hinted earlier that Severian has a unsavory attitude toward women. As I read the story, I expected to see Severian force himself upon women, or think of them as less than human. I didn't find this to be the case at all. If he had a straightforward approach of conveying his inteterest, the women didn't seem put off by it. What does this say about the society itself?

    I found that he simplified each woman to an aspect which allowed him to love each equally but different. He often links Thecla to grace, Dorcas to intellectual stimulation, and Agia to imperfect beauty and raw lust. Is this where some readers detest Severian's attitude towards women?

    II. It was noted that Severian morals are not concurrent with our own, so that many of his actions may seem odd to us but are, in fact, normal to his society. I didn't find this to be the case. He is raised in the Torturer's Guild. The word torturer grains against our nerves as it conjures images of pain and suffering. As you read deeper into the story you see very little suffering and more justice. He isn't happy to see blood and cracked bones, only that justice has been applied.

    Justice is a cold thing. It doesn't compromise. You are either wrong or right. You deserve to die or live. Perhaps this unrelenting outlook on the world is what steers his interaction with people. He wants a woman, he acts upon that need. Do you find, as we conclude the first book, that Severian's actions are too foreign to equate to our understanding?

    III. It's intriguing that the names of the characters are sourced from historical figures. Do you believe it's just a method to find distinctive, pronouncable names, or is there other deeper meanings behind each choice?

    Just a recount of the names used:

    Severian: Severian of Gabala

    Thecla: Saint Thecla

    Agia: Not a name, but a title. It's the female form of "Saint" in Greek.

    Agilus: Saint Agilus

    Baldanders and Dr. Talos have already been commented upon.
     
  20. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

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    I do agree with this. I'd like to read classics and books that we should be reading as fantasy lovers and writers, but the more mainstream books have had more people participating.

    I'm still reading this book, but I can see how it would be difficult for most people. I'm going at it very slow, but I'm on about page 60 now. I can definitely see the appeal as more literary fantasy. I think it is good to read different kinds of books for this group, but sticking to more mainstream fantasy might help increase activity. Or maybe even choosing more controversial books even.

    I'm going to be making some choices for November soon, so I'll try to keep in mind some books that might be interesting for a wider base.
     
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