The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Part of my reading of Nebula-winning novels.
For the third time, I've found Gene Wolfe to not be the engaging genius that so many other reviewers have. It's clearly well formed with regards to language, I like the rich setting and the plot is a lot more engaging than the other Wolfe I've seen, but it's still ultimately unsatisfying. There just seems to be a narrative pointlessness to the whole thing, a deliberate undercutting of theme, and a lot of authorial ambivalence about if the work is genre or non, or if genre whether it commits to science fiction or fantasy. The whole thing is rather alienating, and while skilled in some ways, I can't pronounce it good.
Certainly there's a lot of subtle writing at work, playing with unreliable perspectives and shades of ambiguity. I don't see this project as worthy in itself, however, and it's not anchored to anything particularly exciting. It feels like a book too geared at expressing its own brilliance to actually be terribly interesting or engaging. Wolfe's narrative comes a lot closer to delivering an effective genre story than Memorare or There Are Doors does, but by the same token that leaves me frustrated by how much the book backs out of delivering an effective story. The other thing I find particularly alienating about this piece is the way it plays unreliable characters as against a distant and remote/weird setting. The ultimate result is to produce a type of alienation and remoteness that made it increasingly hard to feel invested in the story as it progressed. I was never entirely bored, but by the end I was rather frustrated and glad that this book ended.
Since this piece was, for whatever strange reason, a Nebula winner, some context. It gained this award in 1981, the year after Benford's Timescape and the year before Bishop's No Enemy But Time. Of the other shortlisted candidates for 1981 I haven't read any or their authors and can't say for sure if a more deserving winner was passed over at that stage. I'd tend to suspect it, however.
Similar to and better than: There Are Doors by Gene Wolfe
Similar to and worse than: Dying Earth by Jack Vance