A new Book of the Week post! I’ve been looking forward to talking about this specific book for a while now, though I had to postpone it for various reasons (a very busy business trip to London and then nearly dying while traveling to Glasgow), but the result is that I have more context to talk about it, since I’ve read further into the series. Today, we’re going to take a look at The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, the first installment in his acclaimed Book of the New Sun. Very slight spoilers after the jump.
I cannot begin talking about this book without first saying that it is difficult. Few aspects of Shadow are typical of either the fantasy or science fiction genres, which are the two areas it falls under. The language Wolfe uses is dense, archaic, and most of all, deliberate. From the main character’s name, Severian—the roots of which I think most people can understand belong to a character known as a “torturer”—to mythological references like Erebus and Abaia, Wolfe chooses every single word with care. Nothing is made up in these books, but a dictionary is almost mandatory because so many words are veritably ancient. If you skip over them, you miss the subtextual importance that Wolfe has made such an important part of the book.
The structure of the book is in itself fascinating. It is a first-person retrospective, seemingly a translation of a memoir Severian himself wrote, made possible by his claim of a perfect memory (though, to add to the confusion, Severian often contradicts himself, making the issue of an unreliable narrator very immediate). Additionally, though the setting at first appears to be a typical fantasy setting, featuring a “Citadel” and seemingly mystical objects and events, the story takes place in the far future of Earth, when the sun is dying and civilization is deteriorating. Incredibly advanced technology pops up here and there, producing many of the effects that seem at first magical. As befitting a society in its death throes, the morality of the characters is very much ambiguous; our protagonist, Severian, is prone to compassion (even to his own detriment) at times, and at others is thoroughly cold and ruthless when dispatching a human life through execution. He is capable of lust and even love where it comes to certain encounters, and in others he is nearly sociopathic in his treatment of acquaintances.
The Shadow of the Torturer is certainly a slog despite its relatively short length, and is disconcerting initially because Wolfe doesn’t bother to spend lots of time on narration for the purposes of building up culture and setting, as is common in fantasy. Rather, much of his worldbuilding is done through dialogue and action, with the onus on the reader to piece together bits of information that are dropped along the way.
Additionally, there are no major action scenes or climactic events in Shadow. In what is perhaps Wolfe’s biggest break from the traditions of SFF, major character progression is done quietly, through small interactions and almost disappointing results from inverted expectations. When a looming duel seems to be an important moment for a character, it ends up being finished almost before it begins, and the aftermath of the duel is what matters the most for the characters.
And the characters are where Wolfe excels the most. Each person that Severian meets throughout this book has an indelible impression upon him, even when it seems like an inconsequential meeting. Each is a building block upon which his growth is predicated. Severian himself is a deeply conflicted character, who changes in subtle ways that seem inevitable only after the fact.
This isn’t to say that the setting isn’t compelling, however. In fact, Wolfe’s sparing descriptions and mysterious events serve to only heighten the sense of wonder in the reader. Everything leaves you burning to know more, to gain a greater understanding, and put the pieces together.
I’ll be continuing and going into more detail next week, when I cover The Claw of the Conciliator. The Shadow of the Torturer is nonetheless an impressive work, and one that I highly recommend—with the disclaimer that it is not a book for the casual reader. Shadow requires close, critical reading and astute attention to detail and deeper meanings. It is challenging, yet ultimately rewarding. I give The Shadow of the Torturer four and a half stars out of five, and any serious reader of science fiction and fantasy should consider this a must-read.