The Shadow of the Torturer is the first installment of The Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe. It won the World Fantasy Award in 1981 and was nominated for several other awards, including the Nebula, and is an unchallenged classic from one of the genre’s most awarded authors.
Severian is the book’s narrator and the torturer in the title. He has been raised in the Guild of Torturers, whose members unquestioningly perform their duties for the Autarch. After forming an attachment to one of his prisoners, Severian is expelled from the Citadel and, bearing the sword Terminus Est, he is sent to take up the post of executioner in a town called Thrax. Suffice it to say that by the end of this first volume Severian has not made it anywhere near Thrax. He is sidetracked and, among other occurrences, finds himself performing in a play and partaking in an unorthodox duel.
A brilliant, imaginative setting
Discovering the setting is one of the joys of The Shadow of the Torturer. Coming to terms with the status of Severian’s dying world and how it relates to the past is immensely satisfying. The way Wolfe inserts references that ground the world’s history is simply genius. I won’t say any more for fear of detracting from a new reader’s enjoyment of the discovery.
The Shadow of the Torturer is about as far from ‘popcorn’ fantasy as you will find. Wolfe has raised the bar for the genre, telling a story with literary credibility. It’s a smart fantasy for adults that bears the hallmark self-awareness of post-modern fiction, while still allowing the reader to become lost in the story.
Am I missing something?
The book’s high quality is why I feel bad (and kind of stupid) that I didn’t really get it – certainly not at first. It is undeniably an impressive book, but taken as a whole I didn’t love it. As I was reading the story, well aware of its acclaim, I couldn’t help but think that I must be missing something. After putting the book down and reflecting upon it, I find that I appreciated the intellectual, thought-provoking experience much more than Severian’s story itself.
I hope you’re paying attention
Gene Wolfe doesn’t patronize his reader—in fact, he expects a lot of you. You must be patient to get your payoff and give particular attention to detail. Wolfe’s descriptions and imagery are never filler or linguistic “showing off.” It feels like every phrase has layers of meaning as the apparently naïve protagonist explores and reveals the world that is new to him. You have to concentrate or the language is overwhelming, particularly the made-up terms that the fictional translator of the story acknowledges as approximations. It can be exhausting and yet… to describe the pace of the plot as leisurely would be generous.
A leisurely stroll from beginning to end
The brilliance of The Shadow of the Torturer will be the problem for many readers, including myself. Wolfe masterfully creates the feeling that there is a real person narrating his own story. Like a real person, Severian sets off on tangents that don’t seem immediately relevant. He delivers ‘truth’ with the brutal honesty and calm that he applies as a torturer. He overwhelms with detail then leaves gaps in his explanations.
As a result the events can feel disconnected, even if they are drawn together in the conclusion. There is no climactic ending; the story just meanders to a pause and Severian warns the reader that they may wish to travel with him no further, for it is no easy road. I decided to read on (only partly because I bought the omnibus version).
Why should you read this book?
The Shadow of the Torturer is ideal for readers who want to be challenged. It seemed I wasn’t ready for the challenge while reading this book, but I am glad that I persisted. It is no easy read, but there is reward for the dedicated reader. Just don’t bring popcorn—perhaps a beverage with plenty of caffeine instead.