Great Fantasy Novel Nomination: The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The penultimate nomination in our search for The Great Fantasy Novel comes from Paul Weimer, an avid blogger and podcaster.


Is The Shadow of the Torturer the Great Fantasy Novel?

Is The Shadow of the Torturer the Great Fantasy Novel?

It’s a simple classic fantasy tale. Young man falls in love, and after an indiscretion with that love, is forced to leave and goes on an epic quest, leaving the place he has known all of his life for the wider world.  He gathers traveling companions by hook, by crook, and by accident, heading across the landscape. A long fabled Mcguffin falls into his lap. He has a trusty weapon as his constant companion. Adventure is always around the corner.

However, our hero is an apprentice turned journeyman torturer, whose job is to, in a prescribed manner, torture and execute enemies of the state. The setting is a decaying far future world and city. The sun is dying, and the Earth (Urth) along with it.  Visiting aliens from the stars stalk the streets. Strange and sometimes incomprehensible characters and events litter our hero’s journey. And even given a “perfect memory”, can we entirely trust what the main character sees and does, given incomprehension, youth and looking backward years later? It’s not so simple and straightforward a tale after all, is it?

The Shadow of the Torturer begins Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Sun series, and his even larger and more expansive Solar Cycle that includes the Book of the Long Sun series, the Book of the Short Sun series, and other associational stories and volumes.

We begin with characters. An apprentice torturer seems just about the most unlikely protagonist you can imagine, and yet, Severian is an intensely interesting main character. He doesn’t understand half of what is going around him, and that makes him an audience surrogate of the first order, as the reader, too, works to make sense of the Torturer’s Guild and the city of Nessus beyond. Severian is a very unreliable narrator, to be sure, but that seems to be as much a comment on the nature of memory and reflection than anything else. There are strong hints in the text that The Shadow of the Torturer is a memoir, a memoir that the narrator is relating years after the events.  This is further reinforced with the numerous flashbacks that fills in Severian’s history and background.

And even though he is an apprentice torturer, the bones of his story are familiar to fantasy readers. He’s given an extraordinary sword, Terminus Est, and is ultimately dispatched on a quest by the head of his order. He meets traveling companions, in the ultimate cliche, in an Inn. He gets into scrapes and adventures all across the city.  He even winds up with a magical artifact that could ultimately be the salvation or destruction of the world.

Besides Severian, we have a cortege of secondary characters that Severian meets and interacts with. From Baldanders and Dr. Talos, two mountebanks with a traveling show, to the beautiful aristocratic Thecla, tied to the revolutionary movement against the Autarch, to Agilus and Agia, brother and sister twins who want Severian’s sword, and are prepared to kill to get it. And many more. None of them are entirely what they appear, and the reader is invited, like Severian to divine their true natures and true motivations. For all of their mystery, however, many of them leap off of the page, even if they don’t ever appear again in the volume.

The setting was the first thing that drew me as a reader to The Shadow of the Torturer years ago, and it still draws and enchants me today. Jack Vance may have codified the idea of a Dying Earth, refreshing it from the work of Clark Ashton Smith and William Hope Hodgson. However, it is Wolfe that has taken the idea of the Dying Earth, and put a map to the territory, eschewing the picaresque, small bore scope of much of Vance and instead launching us into an epic tale of an Earth just as close to the end of its days. Plants as dueling weapons. A crumbling ancient city under a literally dying sun.  And yet, the careful and alert reader can see how this bizarre far future world connects to and is an extension of our own.  There are allusions, intimations, and references to our own past, and earlier still, for readers to untangle and discover.

Finally, and even more strongly than character and setting, is the writing. Reading The Shadow of the Torturer is to be immersed into a world of language and words you likely have never heard of. The fulgin black of Severian’s cloak, the Autarch that rules over the land. These are not neologisms, but rather underused and nearly forgotten English words that Wolfe has found in a dusty corner of an antique store, and has bought, cleaned up and brought to light to the reader. This careful use of baroque words not only reinforces and reifies the far future, alien, fantastic world, but they also provide nuances and shades of meaning to exactly portray what he wants. Wolfe could have called the Autarch a King, or a Dictator, or a Tyrant. Each of those would have been close to what we wanted, but none of them would have been exactly what we wanted. It is that painstaking exactness and perfection in language, in sentence structure, in dialogue that really marks his craft.

Admittedly, given that The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book of not only a four volume series, but an entire cycle of stories and novels, it might seem unfair and unreasonable to call this one book the Great Fantasy Novel. Nevertheless, a suite of stories and novels must start strongly or never be written. The Shadow of the Torturer is equaled and surpassed in some of the subsequent novels of the series. However, the stature of those later novels, in every case is dependent on it being a follow up, ultimately, of The Shadow of the Torturer. Thus, standing first, The Shadow of the Torturer is the greatest of the series and the cycle.

With its ambiguous and odd ending, The Shadow of the Torturer also stands alone as a volume that engages and allows the reader to fill in the blank at the end. The reader is perfectly capable and given the tools needed to leave the series and suite after reading this book, if they so wish. What really happens at the gate of the massive wall of Nexus? Where will Severian and his companions go? What is the world outside the walls of the city really like? The Shadow of the Torturer only gives us hints, leaving, in the context of this book, our imagination, our own faculties to fill it in. It allows the reader to continue to imagine it for themselves. And that is what the best literature, especially genre literature does: it provides room for the playground of the imagination.


This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction articleDo you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!


Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to his reading and gaming interests, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, the Functional Nerds, SF Signal, Twitter, Livejournal and many other places on the Internet. And one day he will write his own “trunk novel”.

About Stephan van Velzen

Stephan van Velzen
A 29 year-old Communications student, Stephan loves publicity and design, particularly web design. When he’s not designing websites, he’s busy being a total geek for fantasy. In The Ranting Dragon, he has found a way to combine these passions and discover a new love for writing too. Most of all, though, Stephan is just a crazy Dutch guy who enjoys doing things that people don’t expect.

View all articles written by Stephan van Velzen.

One comment

  1. It can be argued that SOTT is SF and not Fantasy. I think it partakes of both and deeply so.

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