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.
Review by Nicholas King
4 positive reader review(s) for The Shadow of the Torturer
David from United States
It goes so much deeper than the review even implies. I read this book once and enjoyed the atmosphere a lot but thought the characters were flat and the plot was random nonsense that was impossible to get into. I'm finally reading it a second time, six years later, with a lot more difficult books under my belt, with the intent to push through the entire series with a friend. Let me just put it this way--Severian would LOVE for people to think he got expelled from his guild against his will for showing compassion to a prisoner. It's a fantastic story, that paints him in a good light. That doesn't necessarily mean that's actually what happened...
Terranaut from Australia
I agree wholeheartedly with Nobody from USA. How this book, the series of the New Sun and the final culmination in The Urth of the New Sun get overlooked is beyond me. Granted they are dense in allegory, symbols and obscure references which may elude casual readers but much like any great SF series, the joy of really understanding what Wolfe is crafting is often only apparent on the second, third or even tenth read. I have read the series annually for more than 20 years and each year wonder at the efficiency Wolfe achieved whilst conveying a great depth to the character and setting. Casting the main character Severan as an unreliable witness yet with a perfect memory is, in my opinion, a stroke of genius that only really plays out in subsequent reads. From a technology point of view, Wolfe has an unparalleled ability to imagine a future so distant that dozens of civilisations and their advancements have thrived and perished leaving a technology detritus of objects and infrastructure that behave in such a way that may well be magic to the current inhabitants of the world. Recently there was an announcement that science had created a colour blacker than black. Wolfe anticipate this 30 years prior with 'fuligin' the material that clothed the main character. Minor perhaps but speaks to Wolfe's thoughtful approach as to what may be possible. The science, the technology and the time scales are impeccable thought through. Albeit this is a work of fiction. Even so, the word fuligin has an etymology derived from sooty and this is the type of delight that awaits those who take the time to investigate closer. At heart I think it's a (classic?) story of a person who had the belief that they were someone much more than where their station had landed and hence I think, a character which is deeply relatable for many - especially a young boy who found the Shadow of Torturer lying in a gutter whilst doing a paper round! If you're a fan of SF read it. If you're a scholar of SF, you've work to do. Just pray they don't make a film out of it and remove the best parts where your imagination fills in the blanks whilst you go on a journey with Severan.
RaphaŽl from France
Poetical and unconventional, this novel is an original approach to sci-fi and fantasy ideas. Wolfe's fanciful narrative and style create a remarquable and sophisticated setting that reads like a riddle. I am eager to go on discovering Urth's mysteries ! (Note for French readers : the translation is of high quality.)
Nobody from USA
Wow, the fact that this book has no reviews and Game of Thrones has a never-ending page of them really says something about the intelligence of the average reader today. If you have not read this book, and are a fan of complex writers like Borges, who write deep, multifaceted characters, you simply have to pick this up and read it. You won't regret it. Urth truly is an alien world, and Wolfe's gift for arcane language really helps to put you there. A fascinating concept, filled with fascinating settings, creatures and characters. I shed a tear to think there is a single literate fan of sci-fi who has not been exposed to this incredibly gifted author.
9.3/10 from 5 reviews