The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
Published: Simon & Schuster/Sidgwick & Jackson (1980)
Series: Book 1 of the Book of the New Sun
Awards Won: World Fantasy and BSFA
Awards Nominated: Nebula, Campbell, and Locus F
“The Shadow of the Torturer begins the 4-volume story of Severian, who we meet as an apprentice torturer on a decaying world called Urth. His orderly life takes its first unexpected turn when he has a chance encounter with the revolutionary Vodalus. It is changed forever when a small act of mercy towards a ‘client’ causes him to be exiled from the Citadel that was his home.
Severian begins his journey to become the local carnifex (executioner) of the distant city of Thrax. As it turns out, he is able to follow his path only to the city outside the Citadel, Nessus, where many encounters and complications delay his passing.” ~Allie
This is the first Gene Wolfe novel I’ve read, and I plan to at least finish this tetralogy. I’ll likely read more of Wolfe’s work, depending on how I enjoy the complete series. I’ve heard a lot of praise for these novels, so my expectations are high!
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first novel of a tetralogy, and it definitely feels like the first quarter of a larger work. The novel is described as a document translated from a future language into current English, and it tells the story of Severian, who lives in a far-future dying ‘Urth’. Since the story is set far from modern-day, the narrator’s vocabulary includes a number of unusual words, some of which are taken from non-English languages and other which are derived from words in currently existing languages. I thought this was a neat touch, and it made it easier to work out the meanings of many of the words. The story is a memoir told by an older Severian, so it is shaped around events that he wants to relay, skipping over ‘unimportant’ events. Severian also occasionally digresses a little from the story to discuss particular topics in more detail. My idea of what events were important did not always seem to match up with Severian’s, but I’m guessing that some seemingly minor events in the story will grow in importance as I gain more information throughout the series.
Severian’s world feels mostly like a feudal fantasy scenario, but there are also occasional pieces of advanced technology, as well as references to or relics of a technological past. At this point in the story, the distinction between fantastical and science fictional doesn’t seem to make that much difference, but I’ll be interested to see if and how this changes in the future volumes. This atmosphere does allow for some really creative scenes, which are probably technology-based, but sometimes seem magical. For instance, Severian is at one point challenged to a duel—to be fought using poisonous flowers that are collected from the banks of a lake that preserves the bodies of the dead. For this and many other interesting scenes, no explicit explanation is given, so it rests in an ambiguous place between science and magic.
The way the story drifts from one of these strange events to the next gives the feeling of wandering through a dream. Severian’s response to the things that happen around him intensifies this feeling, since he approaches everything with a very passive, detached, and incurious attitude. Like a dreamer, he seems to just accept everything that happens to and around him with little question. At first I found the way the story was progressing to be frustrating, since Severian didn’t really seem to be getting anywhere in terms of his stated goals (such as going to Thrax). Once I got used to the style, though, I was better able to appreciate the interesting aspects of each event as it occurred. I expect that many of the events of this novel, and characters introduced, will play some greater role in the novels to come.
Though Severian’s detached personality helped set the tone of the story, I really disliked him as a character. He was raised to be a torturer, and he takes great pride in the proper execution of his craft. He does not care for the guilt or innocence of his ‘clients’, but only that the proscribed sentences are carried out smoothly. Given his upbringing, I think his amorality and lack of compassion make a lot of sense, but understanding the origin of these traits doesn’t make him any easier to like. He also has an unfortunate view of women, which colors how the female characters are treated and act in the novel. Some of his musings betray that he has some pretty disturbing opinions on sexual violence. I don’t get the impression that any of these character traits are likely to change, or even to be treated negatively in the text. Given this, I think I can just accept that I will never approve of Severian, and continue to enjoy the creative story.
The novel ends abruptly, and it seems clear that the novel is meant to be read as the first quarter of a larger work. In the end, Severian’s adventures in Nessus seemed more like a string of events than a single cohesive story. A few of the subplots are resolved, in a way, before the end of the novel, but most of them leave many lingering questions. I have actually already started reading the second novel in the tetralogy, because I think I really need to continue while all the details are fresh in my mind. Based on my experience so far with the second book, I feel pretty sure my opinion of the first novel will be changing as I progress through the series.
My Rating: 3.5/5
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first quarter of the Book of the New Sun, and it definitely feels like a piece of a larger work. Very little is resolved by the time one reaches the abrupt end of the novel, and I’m sure many of the subplots will play a larger role in the future novels. The story seemed to wander from scene to scene in a dreamlike fashion, which was intensified by the detached, musing style of the narrator and protagonist, Severian of the guild of torturers. The individual scenes were often delightfully strange, leaving me more interested in the world than in the story’s amoral main character. I’m curious to see how this series will turn out, and how my opinion of it might change as I learn more about the world and larger story!