The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolf
Review by Nicholas King
To say that Gene Wolfe is a difficult author is both a compliment and a knock. In Shadow of the Torturer, the first in a four book series known as The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe’s strongly allusive language is on full display. From character names to descriptions to articles of clothing, Wolfe uses language in the most deliberate fashion. Not a single word chosen by the author is random and throughout this novel, one can see the author’s love and command of language.
Shadow of the Torturer is a far future setting, where the Sun has cooled, leaving the Earth (or Urth as it’s referred to in the novel) a dying landscape. Much of the first half of the novel takes place in a decrepit, dark city of medieval-style towers known as the Citadel, which is where the guilds are traditionally make their home. From the lightless tunnels to the freezing necropolis, the Citadel can be seen as emblematic of a dying culture and a dying world. The guilds that exist in this world are a throwback to the late-medieval, early-Renaissance trade unions that took in people and trained them all their lives for specific duties. This juxtaposition of a far-flung futuristic setting filled with anachronistic social and physical constructs is disconcerting and atypical of this genre.
Wolfe utilizes a first-person narrative with the main character of Severian, a journeyman in the torturer’s guild (the Seekers of Truth and Penitence) who is cast out for the harsh crime of compassion. The character’s name is an interesting choice and quite deliberate. It is associated with severe, which means something very great or very demanding; but also sever, which means to cut off or put an end to. This is a primary example of Wolfe’s allusive, mercurial nature as an author. The novel moves at a brisk pace and, unlike his contemporaries in both the fantasy and science fiction genres, Wolfe does not waste any time on long explanations of the society and structure, preferring instead that such things be revealed through dialogue. This is not to say that there is no shortage of pontification. The novel is written in a translation style, meaning Wolfe is acting as if he is translating the manuscripts of a much older Severian who has taken to writing about his life’s experiences. The appendix at the end of the first novel acknowledges this setup and the word choices are explained as being necessary to translate a language that has not yet come into existence.
Concerning the tone of the story, the audience is reminded from time to time that these are essentially memoirs of the main character, which does take away from the narrative tension. In effect, you are reading a story knowing the ending beforehand, which I think is an admirable decision on the part of the author. By placing the ending of the story in the beginning, Wolfe has essentially challenged his audience to come along for the ride just to see how the lead character gets to where he is. Severian claims to possess not just an eidetic memory but a perfect memory and as such any contradictions on his part as the narrator are deliberate obfuscations.
To say that the world of Severian is grim is more than an understatement; it is unable to fully portray the stagnation and moral latitude the characters show. As befitting a torturer, Severian is strongly ambiguous morally, capable of both deep affection and lust but also uncaring with regards to violence. The character oscillates between merciful (for one character) and detached when executing another and there is very little in the way of brevity from the main character. Wolfe also takes his time despite the size of the novel in getting where he wants the character (and the audience) to go. There are no grand events in this narrative (another break from genre conventions). Instead, Wolfe relies on small events that culminate in substantial but subdued changes in the major character. In the beginning chapters of the book, Severian shows mercy and cares for a wounded wardog. This compassion builds up inside the character, leading to the event that would cause his expulsion from the only home the character has ever known among the torturers.
Shadow of the Torturer and the subsequent series are not for beginners in the science fiction or fantasy genre. Wolfe’s prose is lyrical, dense, and filled with double and triple meanings. He is by no means an easy author to read. While he does not invent words for his world, he does use old, archaic language to fill in the gaps, which would force a reader to consult a dictionary (or in this day and age Google) in order to understand the deeper meanings in the prose. I would recommend this book only to seasoned fans of the genre and it will probably require multiple readings to fully grasp what is hiding beneath the surface.
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