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The Book of the New Sun #1

The Shadow of the Torturer

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The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume in the four-volume series, The Book of the New Sun. It is the tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession - showing mercy toward his victim - and follows his subsequent journey out of his home city of Nessus.

262 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 1980

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About the author

Gene Wolfe

509 books2,927 followers
Gene Wolfe was an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He was noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, to which he converted after marrying a Catholic. He was a prolific short story writer and a novelist, and has won many awards in the field.

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award is given by SFWA for ‘lifetime achievement in science fiction and/or fantasy.’ Wolfe joins the Grand Master ranks alongside such legends as Connie Willis, Michael Moorcock, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Joe Haldeman. The award will be presented at the 48th Annual Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose, CA, May 16-19, 2013.

While attending Texas A&M University Wolfe published his first speculative fiction in The Commentator, a student literary journal. Wolfe dropped out during his junior year, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War. After returning to the United States he earned a degree from the University of Houston and became an industrial engineer. He edited the journal Plant Engineering for many years before retiring to write full-time, but his most famous professional engineering achievement is a contribution to the machine used to make Pringles potato crisps. He lived in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

A frequent Hugo nominee without a win, Wolfe has nevertheless picked up several Nebula and Locus Awards, among others, including the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the 2012 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. He is also a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.


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Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews9,787 followers
November 6, 2019
Wolfe has an almost legendary status amongst fellow authors; Gaiman called him 'a ferocious intellect', Swanwick said he's "the greatest writer in the English language alive today", and Disch called this series "a tetralogy of couth, intelligence, and suavity".

You can rarely trust the popular market to single out good authors, but you'd think it might be safe to listen to the opinions of other writers (especially an assemblage of Nebula and Hugo winners in their own right). I will give his fans one concession: Wolfe is an author who defies expectations. Unfortunately, I was expecting him to be remarkable and interesting.

This book had been sitting on my shelf for months, along with other highly-praised works I've been looking forward to, but I bade my time, waiting for the mood to strike. Few live up to their reputation, but most at least deliver part of the promise.

I would expect any author mentioned in the same breath as Peake to have an original and vibrant style, but I found Wolfe's writing to be simple without being elegant. His language and structure serves its purpose, only occasionally rising above mere utilitarianism, and then he rushes to florid flourishes that fall flat as often as they succeed. Sometimes, it is downright dull. The prose of the second book is stronger than the first, but its plot and characters are more linear and predictable.

I appreciated his 'created language' more than most fantasy authors, but I didn't find it particularly mysterious or difficult, because all of his words are based on recognizable Germanic or Romantic roots. Then again, after three years of writing stories about Roman whores in Latin, I had little problem with 'meretriculous'. Even those words I wasn't familiar with seemed clear by their use.

The terms are scattered throughout the book, but rarely contribute to a more pervasive linguistic style, as might be seen in The Worm Ouroboros, The Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast, or The King of Elfland's Daughter. Wolfe's terms pepper otherwise and unremarkable modern style, which hardly helps to throw us into a strange world.

He is better than the average fantasy author, but he resembles them more than he differs from them. His protagonist started off interestingly enough: an apparently weak and intelligent man, which made it all the more disappointing when he suddenly transformed into a laconic, wench-loving buttkicker who masters sword-fighting, finds the Super Magic Thing and follows the path of his Awesome Foretold Fate. Again, I must agree with Nick Lowe: Wolfe's plot owes more to magic and convenience than good storytelling.

It relies on the same tricks over and over: any time a character is about to give important information to us, there will be a sudden attack or other interruption, as convenient and annoying as the moment when the dying man says "I was killed by . . . aargh". We also get problems solved by divine intervention whenever things start to slow, which doesn't leave the characters much room to be active.

He also seems to suffer from the same sexual discomfort that plagues so many fantasy authors. There is an undercurrent of obsession with women and their sexuality, complete with the sexualization of rape and murder. It's not so much a case of misogyny as it is an inequality in how characters behave.

The women always seem to end up as playtoys for the narrator, running around naked, desiring him, sparring with him coyly, but ultimately, conquered; and the camera pans away. They always approach him, desire him, pretending they don't want him, then give themselves up to him. It's the same old story of an awkward, emotionless male protagonist who is inexplicably followed and harangued by women who fall in love with him for no given reason, familiar to anyone who's seen a harem anime.

I will grant that the women have more character than the average fantasy heroine, but it still doesn't leave them with much. Instead of giving into love at first sight, they fight it as long as they can, making it that much sweeter when the narrator finally 'wins'. The sexuality was not new, interesting, arousing, or mutual, it was merely the old game of 'overcoming the strong woman' that is familiar to readers of the Gor books.

The sense of 'love' in The New Sun is even more unsettling. It descends on the characters suddenly and nonsensically, springing to life without build or motivation. The word never comes up in connection with any psychological development, nor does it ever seem to match the relationships as they are depicted. More often than not, it seems love is only mentioned so the narrator can coldly break his lover's trust in the next chapter.

Several times, the narrator tries to excuse himself for objectifying women by mentioning that he also objectifies ugly women. What this convolution of misogyny is supposed to represent, I couldn't say. The narrator seems very interested in this fact, and is convinced that it makes him a unique person. It made it very clear to me why the most interesting antiheroes tend to be gruff and laconic, because listening to a chauvinistic sociopath talk about himself is insufferable.

Then there is the fact that every character you meet in the story turns up again, hundreds of miles away, to reveal that they are someone else and have been secretly controlling the action of the plot. It feels like the entire world is populated by about fifteen people who follow the narrator around wherever he goes. If the next two books continue along the same lines, then the big reveal will be that the world is entirely populated by no more than three superpowered shapeshifters.

Everyone in the book has secret identities, secret connections to grand conspiracies, and important plot elements that they conveniently hide until the last minute, only doling out clues here and there. There are no normal people in this world, only double agents and kings in disguise. Every analysis I've read of this book mentions that even the narrator is unreliable.

This can be an effective technique, but in combination with a world of infinite, unpredictable intrigue, Wolfe's story begins to evoke something between a soap opera and a convoluted mystery novel, relying on impossible and contradictory scenarios to mislead the audience. Apparently, this is the thing his fans most appreciate about him--I find it to be an insulting and artificial game.

I agree with this reviewer that there is simply not enough structure to the story to make the narrator's unreliability meaningful. In order for unreliable narration to be effective, there must be some clear and evident counter-story that undermines it. Without that, it is not possible to determine meaning, because there's nowhere to start: everything is equally shaky.

At that point, it's just a trick--adding complexity to the surface of the story without actually producing any new meaning. I know most sci fi and fantasy authors seem to love complexity for its own sake, but it's a cardinal sin of storytelling: don't add something into your story unless it needs to be there. Covering the story with a lot of vagaries and noise may impress some, but won't stand up to careful reading.

Fantasy novels are often centered on masculinity, violence, and power struggles, and so by making the narrator an emotionally distant manipulator with sociopathic tendencies, Wolfe's story is certainly going to resemble other genre outings. If Severian is meant to be a subversion of the grim antihero, I would expect a lot of clever contradiction which revealed him. His unreliability would have to leave gaping holes that point to another, more likely conclusion. If the protagonist's mendacious chauvinism is not soundly contradicted, then there is really nothing separating him from what he is supposed to be mocking.

Poe's Law states that it can be difficult to tell whether something is an act of mockery or an example of genuine extremism, and perhaps that's what's going on here: Wolfe's mockery is so on-the-nose that it is indistinguishable from other cliche genre fantasy. But even if that were true, then the only thing separating Wolfe from the average author is the fact that he's doing it on purpose, which is hardly much of a distinction. If a guy punches himself in the nose and then insists "I meant to do that", I don't think that makes him any less of a dumbass.

Human psychology and politics are fraught enough without deliberately obfuscating them. Unfortunately, Wolfe does not have the mastery of psychology to make a realistically complicated text, only a cliched text that is meta-complicated.

After finishing the book, I tried to figure out why it had garnered so much praise. I stumbled across a number of articles, including this one by Gaiman and this one by an author who wrote a book of literary analysis about the New Sun series.

Both stressed that Wolfe was playing a deliberate meta-fictional game with his readers, creating mysteries and clues in his book for them to follow, so that they must reread the text over and over to try to discern what is actually happening. I won't claim this isn't a technical feat, but I would suggest that if Wolfe wanted us to read his book over and over, he might have written it with verve, style, character, and originality. As the above critic says:
"On a first, superficial reading, there is little to distinguish Wolfe’s tetralogy from many other sf and fantasy novels . . . The plot itself is apparently unremarkable."

Perhaps I'm alone in this, but I have no interest in reading your average sword-wielding badass gender-challenged fantasy book over and over in the hopes that it will get better. If Wolfe is capable of writing an original and interesting story, why cover it with a dull and occasionally insulting one?

I have enjoyed complex books before, books with hidden messages and allusions, but they were interesting both in their depths and on the surface. I didn't find the New Sun books particularly complex or difficult. His followers have said that he isn't 'concerned with being conspicuously witty', but I'd suggest he's merely incapable of being vibrant or intriguing.

There were interesting ideas and moments in the book, and I did appreciate what originality Wolfe did have, but I found it strange that such a different mind would produce such hidebound prose, tired descriptions, convenient plots, and unappealing characters. It has usually been my experience that someone who is capable of thinking remarkable things is capable of writing remarkable things.

Sure, there were some interesting Vancian moments, where you realize that some apparently magical effect is actual a piece of sci fi detritus: this character is a robot, that tower is actually a rocket, a painting of a mythical figure clearly depicts an astronaut--but this doesn't actually add anything to the story, they weren't important facts, they were just details thrown in.

It didn't matter that any of those things were revealed to be something else than they appeared, because it didn't change anything about the story, or the characters, or the themes or ideas. These weren't vital and strange ideas to be explored, like the mix of sci fi and fantasy in Vance, Le Guin, or M. John Harrison, but inconsequential 'easter eggs' for obsessing fans to dig up.

As Clarke's Third Law says: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Therefore, switching back and forth between magical explanations and super-technological ones doesn't mean much, on its own. They're indistinguishable. Star Wars may use the trappings of sci fi, but it's just a fantasy story about wizards and knights in space. In order to make the distinction meaningful, you've got to put some kind of spin on it.

Overall, I found nothing unique in Wolfe. Perhaps it's because I've read quite a bit of odd fantasy; if all I read was mainstream stuff, then I'd surely find Wolfe unpredictable, since he is a step above them. But compared to Leiber, Howard, Dunsany, Eddison, Kipling, Haggard, Peake, Mieville, or Moorcock, Wolfe is nothing special.

Perhaps I just got my hopes up too high. I imagined something that might evoke Peake or Leiber (at his best), perhaps with a complexity and depth gesturing toward Milton or Ariosto. I could hardly imagine a better book than that, but even a book half that good would be a delight--or a book that was nothing like that, but was unpredictable and seductive in some other way.

I kept waiting for something to happen, but it never really did. It all plods along without much rise or fall, just the constant moving action to make us think something interesting is happening. I did find some promise, some moments that I would have loved to see the author explore, particularly those odd moments where Silver Age Sci Fi crept in, but each time he touched upon these, he would return immediately to the smallness of his plot and his annoying prick of a narrator. I never found the book to be difficult or complex, merely tiring. the unusual parts were evasive and vague, and the dull parts constant and repetitive.

The whole structure (or lack of it) does leave things up to interpretation, and perhaps that's what some readers find appealing: that they can superimpose their own thoughts and values onto the narrator, and onto the plot itself. But at that point, they don't like the book Wolfe wrote, they like the book they are writing between his lines.

I'll lend the book out to some fantasy-loving friends and they'll buy the next one, which I'll then have to borrow from them so I can see if there's ever a real payoff. Then again, if Sevarian's adolescent sexuality is any evidence, the climax will be as underwhelming as the self-assured, fumbling foreplay. If I don't learn to stop giving my heart away, it's just going to get broken again.

Ah well, once more unto the breach.

My Fantasy Book Suggestions
Profile Image for Mark Lawrence.
Author 72 books51k followers
October 5, 2022
RIP Gene Wolfe.

For 38 years I was under the belief that I had read this book and just couldn't remember much about it.

I got it from my school library in 1980. I know that much.

I am now sure that this is the first time I've read the book and that back in 1980 I read maybe 10% of it, reaching the first horrific if rather dry (and all the more horrible for that) torture scene (basically the only memory I have of the book). I have always found torture, both in real life and in fiction, deeply disturbing. I guess that I read this one scene and assumed that there would be many more in store - the book is about a torturer after all.

It turns out that my assumption was wrong and there are no more gruesome torture scenes.

In a way this has echoes of my own debut where a good number of readers reached the early "off screen" rape and assumed (incorrectly) that there would be more. Some have even run with this false assumption and presented it as fact, describing that book as "full of unrelenting rape".

So, yes a book about a young man raised in a guild of torturers.

This is work of literary fiction as much as it is a fantasy book. The prose is powerful and styled in an archaic fashion with a great many $10 words and a number of invented words with classical roots. It left me with the impression that Wolfe had hit the thesaurus hard but with an erudite discrimination.

I would describe the style as Joseph Conrad meets Charles Dickens.

For the first third of the book the story has considerable momentum. We are learning about the torturers' guild and the world beyond their doors through the eyes of apprentice torturer, Severian. There is a growing dilemma as Severian becomes entangled with a woman who is imprisoned in the guild's tower and who may well be sentenced to torture (then death) in due course. Naturally this leads to mounting tension. We are also intrigued by Severian's chance involvement with the lead figure in some kind of civil revolt.

As things come to a head Severian leaves the tower to commence a long journey. Oddly, it is when things start moving that the story loses momentum. The plot vanishes and we are led though a long series of vignettes. The events that follow Severian's departure appear largely random and disconnected. He encounters a variety of colourful characters and gets embroiled in what seems to be part of a large plot but turns out to be far more random and less significant.

What saves the book from being dismissed as aimless is that the imagination on display combined with the intelligence of the writing and quality of the world building, constitute a good read on their own.

The world of Urth and single vast city in which the book unrolls its story, have an unimaginably long history in which many civilisations have risen and fallen, and epochs have come and gone. The result is a rich mix of technology and decay, both social and physical. It is hard to tell where the present stands in terms of the heights of the world's technological mastery. Do the current inhabitants understand the technology they use?

The story trickles along and ends in mid flow with many outstanding questions to lead you on to the next book should you feel you need to know the answers. Most of these questions centre on the world building. I want to know more about the leadership of this city/empire and about the conflict partly revealed at the start of the book.

One thing that struck me as odd is the Severian seems to be an incredible rarity, i.e a traveling torturer, and yet everyone seems to recognise his profession from his garb.

Additionally, and this may well be intentional, the contrast seems odd between an early scene where a housemaid is tortured for no obvious reason (I think her employer was accused of treason or some such), and near the end when a man murders nine people and Severian is employed to behead him (which, yes may require some skill but not a lifetime training in the art of torture) but the murderer isn't so much as beaten.

Anyway, a book written in a slightly dry literary style but full of rich characters and great imagination. It kept me reading and I am glad to have read it, but on the other hand I never found myself emotionally engaged and wasn't convinced by any of Severian's attachments to the women he encounters.

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Profile Image for Lyn.
1,868 reviews16.5k followers
April 4, 2021
A dark jewel.

Reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg and Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe’s 1980 high fantasy begins a four book series about Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers who shows mercy and is exiled as an executioner.

And like most fantasies, it’s about a lot more too. Wolfe explores themes of honor, guild loyalty and resurrection / rebirth. This can also be seen as a religious allegory, though his tone is somber and the redemption is subtle and hidden in his intricate writing.

This comes with a lot of hype. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Le Guin gush when they write about Wolfe and other commentators have provided accolades that lift Wolfe’s writing out of the speculative fiction genre and praise him as a great writer period.

No doubt the quality of Wolfe’s writing is impressive. He has a mastery of the language not often seen in fantasy writing (again the comparison to Le Guin). Couple this with an original and unique, highly imaginative and complex world building and the high praise is warranted.

I thought of Jack Vance and his The Dying Earth series frequently while reading this. But whereas Vance tells his stories with a wink and a nod, letting his humor and personality shine through, Wolfe’s writing is dark and brooding. He creates a mood like a gothic opera.

I also thought about Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series because while I can see how other readers love this work and want to read more and more – for whatever reason I find myself on the outside looking in, never really buying in.

*** April 2019 - Mr. Wolfe has passed on but his incredible work lives on.

2021 reread – Magnificent.

In 2017 I read this straight, saw only the surface story and was confused and disconcerted. I read all the praise and knew there was a lot I was missing. It was as if I had entered the foyer of an enormous mansion and only went that far. This time the doors were opened wide and the lights were all turned on and I got the grand tour.

There are so many themes in this book and the other three, actually one long story in four parts.

Masks. Severian wears a mask as part of his guild of torturers, so does his victims and there are multiple references to masks. Wolfe is using the ancient symbolism of masks to add depth and mystery to the narrative.

Gates. This story is bookended by two great gates, physical and metaphysical. Wolfe also uses resurrection / rebirth allusions as Severian (and later Dorcas) survive from a watery grave setting.

Death. Severian is referred to as death multiple times and, as an executioner, he brings death and the threat of death. The proximity of death is an element that Wolfe uses to great effect as Severian grows up amidst the tombs and coffers of the necropolis. Vodalus’ grave robbing is also both a Christian and pre-Christian (and in this context also post-Christian) symbol of the tenuous edge of life and death.

There are recurring allusions to myth and the legend, from Arthurian legend to Biblical and pagan sources.

There are multiple layers to the narrative. Gene Wolfe is telling the story that a future Severian is relating and also there are plays within the play, especially as illustrated with the Dr. Talos sections of the story. There is also the surface fantasy story, with deep science fiction underpinnings, and all under the rubric of Wolfe’s morality play about good and evil and a great many other things.

The close connection between reality and dream as in Severian seeing Master Malrubius and his dog again and again.

Vodalus. A rival and foil of the Autarch, this character is also a source of leadership and revelation for Severian.

Thecla, Dorcas and Agia. Severian seems to fall in love easily and his interplay with these three strong females add further complexity to an already fascinating story.

Water and wine, multiple allusions from Wolfe’s Catholicism.

Wolfe blends and blurs the lines between fantasy and science fiction. As this is a “Dying Earth” story, set in the distant future, the ancient, misunderstood technology is treated as magical realism. Likewise, the aliens who inhabit earth are seen more as monsters than as beings of another planet.

All this and more to say that this is a truly unique and superlative narrative that transcends the SFF label.

Profile Image for Vit Babenco.
1,425 reviews3,395 followers
April 5, 2019
The Shadow of the Torturer is like a Preraphaelite canvas – the ancient perishing world, painted in unbelievably vivid but at the same time sepulchral colours, is washed in the sanguine rays of a long fatal sundown.
But Gene Wolfe limns his painting with words:
The necropolis has never seemed a city of death to me; I know its purple roses (which other people think so hideous) shelter hundreds of small animals and birds. The executions I have seen performed and have performed myself so often are no more than a trade, a butchery of human beings who are for the most part less innocent and less valuable than cattle. When I think of my own death, or of the death of someone who has been kind to me, or even of the death of the sun, the image that comes to my mind is that of the nenuphar, with its glossy, pale leaves and azure flower.

When the routine of his day to day living is unexpectedly shattered – even the most fantastic worlds have their routine ruts, however incredible – Severian goes into exile, which turns out to be a beginning of the fabulous quest of his life.
There is always some moment in any life that becomes a point of departure…
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
405 reviews2,203 followers
May 21, 2017
First off, the setting is awesome. Secondly, there are sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections of this book that are gorgeously written. Exquisitely crafted prose.

The first half of the book is entirely enjoyable, and builds up a world (Urth) that is entirely unique among any fiction I've come across. The second half spends some time meandering. There are enough mysteries here to keep me very interested in finishing the series, because I really need to know what's going on here. It's intriguing.

I'll save final judgement until I've finished The Book of the New Sun, since this is very much just 1/4 of the total story. I will say that there was a moment where I felt that the story was going off the rails, and precisely then, the protagonist chose to mention that he felt like his story was doing the same... I liked that. He compared events happening to him as being too strange, and too random, like badly written stories that he's read before.

This Gene Wolfe fellow seems to know what he's doing here.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,894 reviews430 followers
September 3, 2017
The title of this book really turned me away from reading this book for decades. However, it was selected as a club read so I decided to give it a try.

There are a few torture scenes and the violence is graphic but minimal. Overall, it is a pseudo-myth story, so the tone is dreamlike, and primarily a meditation on the pain of living as a human being rather than an adventure or coming-of-age story. The language is beautiful, poetic; however it's also a touch self-conscious. Whatever. The author deserves the kudos he was reaching for.

I suggest reading http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archetype and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jungian_... before reading this novel, but it isn't essential. However, I think it will deepen your understanding of how clever the author was in his design of the plot and why he created the dreamy atmosphere and solemn tone, in my opinion.

This is a hero's journey of the Underworld, a place of death, pain and suffering, but Severian, the narrator and main character who is writing a journal about his past, is not quite the hero or antihero, which is the the usual setup. As the Torturer, he is simply doing his job, but he certainly is also the mythological intermediary between us common beings and the gods. My mind immediately jumped to Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Adventure: Power of Myth 1, which I read in the 1970's. Mozart's The Magic Flute also came to mind, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descent_.... However, the novel's unique viewpoint is that of from the guy who's job is to send heroic and antiheroic seekers to the Underworld. Severian is symbolic stand-in of the Ferryman Charon who demands a coin before transporting souls across the river Styx. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charon_(....

The place is sometime in the future after everything has fallen apart and the world has forgotten everything about where we are today. It is a return to the Dark Ages, similar to the early Middle Ages. The Guilds have returned as well as aristocracy, kings and peons. Swords are the main weapons, and poverty is the overwhelming state of most people's finances, even though private business in the form of little shops and taverns are thriving. Duels are fought among the different varieties of wealthy classes when they aren't dodging the Autarch, the dictator king and his Guild of Torturers. While the world is mostly low tech, such as travel using animals or walking, and cooking over fires, here and there in pockets of society appear ancient devices from a more advanced technological time, and mysterious magical gems and, perhaps, wandering spirits of the dead and gods.

Severian is an orphan, parents unknown, given to the Guild of Torturers almost before he began to remember things. Once he begins to remember his life, he cannot forget anything being blessed (!?!) with remembering everything perfectly. It's a strange coming-of-age. He learns the rudiments of reading, writing, and ciphering, but his main education is learning how to cut up the human body and using implements of torture. His school is in a tower, a prison, within the Citadel, which is a massive ancient structure consisting of many buildings and towers, some crumbling and in disuse for centuries, riddled with secret passageways and tunnels and forgotten gardens. Despite having lived there all of his youth, he has not been anywhere except a few paces beyond the Tower of his Guild.

Once deemed acceptable as a student, he and his friends become apprentices, then journeymen, and if showing exceptional ability, graduating to Masters. Severian makes it to Journeyman, but he meets a girl imprisoned in the Tower, scheduled for torture and death. He falls in love, but he knows his duty. Thecla, the beautiful concubine (of whom there are thousands, basically taken to ensure obedience from her wealthy family) of the Autarch, is an educated woman, and requests books from the library. Severian is assigned to meet her requests and through the year of her imprisonment, learns much beyond his basic education as they both read and discuss philosophy and myth (don't worry, there are no pages of arcane philosophy to be skimmed past).

He eventually commits a grievous sin against his Guild oath, and is reassigned to be a carnifex of Thrax. Thrax is a small town, and a carnifex cuts off the heads or otherwise carries out the punishment sentences of criminals of the State. Unlike those living in the Citadel, who have their victims delivered to them, Severian will now spend his days going to where he is assigned to carry out punishment. He begins his journey out of the Citadel, which takes several days, and meets a variety of people, all new to his experience. Unavoidably he makes mistakes and is challenged to a duel. Although he has a magical sword, Terminus Est , given to him by the Head Master, the duel is by using poisonous flowers, of which he knows nothing. Is it the end before he has even begun? Given that this is part one of a trilogy of books, perhaps not.

Personally, I think if you really really want to 'get' this book, you should read at least the introductory paragraphs in my links, in my opinion. This is not a typical fantasy, but a literary metafictional story specifically referencing ancient myths and historical literature. Without at least some preliminary knowledge of what the author was doing, I think the joy in reading this interesting smart novel will be dimmed to a degree.

I noticed some of the more literary reviewers who also picked up on the mythological references gave this book two stars or so simply because they thought, "oh, dear, yet ANOTHER metafictional story, yawn." Well, EXCUSE ME! It's very GOOD for another mythological literary novel! Since a lot of young people will primarily be interested in this book because they tend to be fantasy genre readers, do not let this opportunity go to introduce yourself to the myths behind 60% of the stories out there! Ok, ok, it's not a shoot'em up video game, but this book is a way into upping your game in reading and understanding literature.

Ahem. Sorry. I admit I am a little excited.

"Oh, death, where is thy sting?", Shakespeare, from 'Hamlet".
Profile Image for Chris  Haught.
576 reviews214 followers
December 28, 2015
I tried. Fuck it.

That was my original review, but not much to go on. Then again, if I took up 200 pages with flowery words of why this booked suck, I'd be doing the same thing the author of this piece of shit did.

The Torture of the Shadower:

Flowery prose? Yes. Gene Wolfe has it. He's a talented writer that can make a pretty sentence. I was often impressed with his word usage and some of the sentences were really enjoyable to read.

That said, you don't have to construct pretty sentences to impress me. That won't last but a moment, gone by the time I've moved to the next sentence. But when you string along a bunch of them, I start getting annoyed. Look, I read a work of fiction for story. Not to clap my hands to my face and get orgasmic because the writer is so very talented and smart.

I get that Gene Wolfe is smarter than I am. Frankly, I don't give much of a fuck. I'm reading a book for story. Tell me one. And while you're doing that, try using the language that your readers read (in this case English). Wolfe has this insanely annoying tendency to make up a bunch of words without definition and string them through the narrative, making the readers feel like the dumbfucks because they don't know what they mean. Many of these you can pick up in context, until after the halfway point of the book when context goes out the window. Because you don't know the fuck is going on. And don't much care by this point. This reminded me of China Mieville, and as people that know me will tell you, THAT IS NOT A GOOD THING.

I found myself skimming by the last 40 pages or so. Sure, I missed a lot of what was happening by doing this, but to be honest, I wouldn't have gotten much more by reading every flowery word. I'd have just been more impressed with Wolfe's ability to use fancy words (which he either makes up or I'm just too stupid to comprehend), and been angry with him for wasting my time.

I get that some people love this stuff. That's fine. I can see where one might. I'm just not that one.

1 1/2 stars.
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.5k followers
May 28, 2019

The first volume of The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer, is a traditional picaresque fantasy, in which a young man, going forth to seek his fortune, gains mentors, weapons, magic jewels, and companions along the way. But this is a picaresque fantasy with a difference, for our hero Severian is no wide-eyed country boy from the shire, but an apprentice torturer, thoroughly schooled in his trade. He speaks of his young life as a thing long passed, and relates his adventures carefully, guardedly, like someone not completely trustworthy, someone re-writing his own history. The world he shows us, which at first seems charmingly (although morbidly) medieval, gradually reveals itself to be the poor remnant of a great modern civilization in decline (perhaps it is ours?), lit by the fading light of a dying sun.

Although we sense Severian is untrustworthy, we still believe in his world, for he describes it vividly, evocatively—in the superb prose of Gene Wolfe. His scenic descriptions are brief, but vivid, immersing the reader in a world of ancient buildings and haunted landscapes, of torturer’s cells filled with strange device, with fantastic gardens where the dueller’s weapons--the sharp-leaved flowers—grow.

One of the novel’s eccentricities is that each of its pages is peppered with obscure latinate nouns—substantives even an old word-hound like myself does not know—but they help to create a context that is once alien and inviting. (My advice: don’t bother to look these words up. Although they are always actual words, their definitions never quite fit the context. They are primarily here to summon an atmosphere, and they do that very well.)

The Shadow of the Torturer ends inconclusively. But that’s OK, because I’m coming back for more.
Profile Image for Markus.
473 reviews1,526 followers
May 15, 2016
I have no idea what to say about this book. I don't even know what I thought of it.

I've heard that it's supposed to be difficult to read. I disagree.

I've heard that the writing is outstandingly beautiful. I disagree.

And so neither my positive nor my negative expectation was met. Moreover, the story was a mess, the main character was a mess and the setting was a mess. Somehow it was still good. The end.

Profile Image for Nick Borrelli.
368 reviews354 followers
January 5, 2019
There are certain books that can be considered life-changing experiences. Gene Wolfe is an author who has written one of those for me. The Shadow of the Torturer may very well be my favorite fantasy book of all-time if you pinned me down and forced me to give you an answer. I first read it in my early twenties, and recently picked it up again because I wanted to visit the world of Urth again. In many ways, The Shadow of the Torturer has everything that I look for in a great read: awesome world-building, post-apocalyptic setting, mysterious and complicated characters, an engaging and interesting plot, and just a really cool protagonist. The story takes place in what can only be considered a ravaged Earth (called Urth) which is now suffering under a dying sun. The world has been thrown backward into an almost medieval setting and the people both dress and behave in the same manner. However, it is obvious that something is wrong and that underneath everything, the secret to what has occurred will slowly be revealed, whether it be by the end of this book or in subsequent books to follow. This fact alone made me devour the book when I first picked it up all of those years ago. I have always been drawn to a mysterious underlying history in the books that I read. Shadow of the Torturer has that in spades. Severian is a young man who is an apprentice to the Guild of Torturers in a sinister place called the citidel. We get an early impression that Severian does not necessarily relish the opportunity to join the torturers guild, it is just something that he sees as a natural progression of his studies. Severian feels a sense of loyalty to the guild since they raised him after he was left at their doorstep as a child. When a young woman named Thecla is brought to the citidel to be tortured, Severian soon forms a friendship with her. Needless to say, it is frowned upon for any torturer to form any kind of bond with their subjects as their grisly work mandates that no emotion be felt. When it comes time for Thecla to be tortured, Severian commits the ultimate sin of showing mercy to his victim and assists her in committing suicide to end her suffering. At this point, Severian is cast out of the citidel and left to wander the shattered land alone with only his cloak and sword Terminus Est. It is here where the true brilliance of the story takes hold and we get to experience the horrifically beautiful world that Gene Wolfe has created. I will warn most readers that this isn't a light and easy to read fantasy. It requires that you pay attention to every word and every sentence. Things happen that are foreshadows of events that occur later in the book and also the series. But if you feel like reading one of the more impressive monuments of dark fantasy ever imagined, then give Shadow of the Torturer your time. You will not be disappointed.
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
540 reviews125 followers
February 20, 2023
Re-read, and now I'm more attentive to the weird mysteries going on here. Events are retold in weird little puzzles that raise and re-raise the question of what might have really happened. It's definitely an interesting way to write, though it feels a bit dated without a more direct emotional investment in the characters.

Cool old school fantasy. Great start, with a chill introduction to this nightmare world of professional torturers. The middle is meandering, in an old school way, with a focus on building all the details of Urth instead of story or character. But hey it sure is a fully realized world, in an extreme amount of detail. Things come back together a bit by the end, but I imagine since this is the start of 4 novels, things actually come together better later on. This one seems like the full vision of this world became clear in the writing.

I like reading influential classics because I can see how they echo through fantasy literature. That said, if you're looking for a casual contemporary read, this sure isn't the right pick. The language is tricky and ornate, and the book demands a slow read. But if you have the patience, it has a lot to give.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,977 followers
February 9, 2017
I was awash in strange expectations and assumptions before picking up this book, and after coming out the other side, I'm happy to say that this thoughtful novel pleased me.

It didn't wow me, but it certainly pleased me. I was very worried it wouldn't because the period of the late seventies and early eighties was a time of Fantasy that I just never really liked.

What? But this novel is SF!

Yes it is, and I loved all the old incorporation of alien life, our dying sun, quantum physics extrapolations and Odd Reality, but at its heart, the novel reads just like a Fantasy.

The apprentice must face a difficult choice, is engaged with wise old men, must suffer the consequences of his heroic and/or compassionate actions, and is thus expelled to make a way into the wide and difficult world carrying a sword and a complex menagerie of companions.

Sound familiar?

I might have balked at such a blatant use of tropes for an SF novel had it not also been full of characters I truly liked. What a relief! Plus, I'm a freaking sucker for libraries and book-talk, even when the books and philosophies entertained are of a far-off time and "supposedly" alien to us.

In point of fact, this far-off time feels more like a feudal dark-ages and I really got into the novel by the point it felt like a shadow of A Canticle for Leibowitz. It didn't end there, by far, but that was the point it grabbed me and didn't let go. :)

The rest of the adventure and the discussions of love and affection and sex, even with the societal ick of institutionalized sex-work, was somewhat hit-and-miss for me, though, but I couldn't help but be charmed by Severain's puppydog-outlook. It might annoy others, but it felt like some of the most genuine parts of the novel.

Lastly, I loved the world-building. It was all understated and slipped in so gently that we the readers were delightfully focused upon the characters long enough to be surprised by the full weight of the world. It didn't hit me over the head. Instead, it charmed. :)

I don't think I'm going to have any issues reading the rest of these novels, and that's a real surprise for me! Like I said, I have had a lot of bad experiences with Fantasy during this time period. But then, that begs the question, doesn't it? Maybe I'm simply freer with praise and lax criticism because it is, ostensibly, SF?

I admit I might be influenced by my expectations in both directions, but it doesn't change the fact that I liked the novel. :)

Profile Image for L.S. Popovich.
Author 2 books324 followers
November 27, 2020
Shadow of the Torturer demands active participation from the reader. It is considered the beginning of Wolfe's crowning achievement, The Book of the New Sun. The reading experience is both challenging and rewarding, but should not be intimidating. Close reading does not have to be unpleasant reading. The manner of the storytelling matches the tale being told. Wolfe avoids info dumps. And thus the glimpse we perceive of his world is merely that, a galaxy peeped through a narrow aperture.

In a far future, on planet Urth, a medieval society within a vast, uncharted realm operates a guild-centric dystopia under the enigmatic House Absolute within the confines of an area called The Citadel. Severian is our first-person narrator, a young apprentice torturer, who comes to question his place in the guild, shows a bizarre and disturbing form of mercy to one of his wards, and is exiled for the second half of the book. He then sets out to discover the missing pieces of the world his limited purview hid from him. Remnants of advanced tech are appropriated for the use of higher beings, and signs of alien creatures, languages, and civilizations abound, but never take center stage.

Within this well-crafted setting there emerges the illusion of bottomless world building. But enough of Urth is revealed to us through suggestion to allow us to suspend disbelief, and to marvel at the depths of the unimaginable history which led up to this state of affairs, and to begin to unravel on our own the constituent elements existent past the edges defined in the text. There is everywhere the sense of a vast gulf of time. We are dealing with the fossils of a once-great planet, now in decline. The sun is dying, and the perspective offered by the story is from the lowest caste, rising up out of obscurity, to a grand destiny to encompass the cosmos.

Severian is guided by female companions, stage by stage, out of naïveté and innate curiosity, making a few key decisions after they’ve thoroughly influenced his understanding of his surroundings. Often, he is as baffled by the observed 'magic' of his travails, as is the reader, and we can only intuit that there is still a wealth of explanation and implication to come. Severian is susceptible to the influence of others, but not always seduced or helpless. His first study of female leader and conduit for his awakening is Thecla, whom he regards with respect. She marks the turning point in his apprenticeship and the origin of his exile. Agia is his second guide outside of the guild, and Dorcas establishes a pattern in this mode, during the symbolic near-drowning scene late in the book. As he journeys through brothels, towns, Botanical Gardens, and comes to the walls encircling the Sanguinary Fields, confidence seems to blossom where fear had once resided.

He is a disgraced torturer, who understands little of his true place in the world. He at many points becomes a parallel to religious figures, being tempted in turn, standing in for rites and trials, but a dichotomy exists in his character, due to his sexual desires and violent methods and reactions. This is a world built around violence, predicated on Old Testament-like prophecies, and subject to the judgment of those in power, who appear intimately in congress with the multifarious gods. Severian is adaptable, and we get the account third-hand. Severian’s retelling of his adventures are not always perfectly authentic, though they are detailed and consistent, piercing and biased. But G. W. explains in his afterward - a framing device the reader would do well to read first - that this is a translation of a document sent back in time, with many arcane words added as approximations to indefinite entities.

The cogwheels of Fate, tending toward entropy, the discovery of the self, the initiation into mysteries of an alien world, all offer the reader much food for thought. Severian’s encounters provide a window onto the landscapes of a divergent universe, and through their very obscurity, take on a cyclical, timeless value.

Keeping track of Urth's hierarchies, deities, and mythological allusions provides a literary puzzle for the astute reader, but the tale can be enjoyed by escapists uninterested in uncovering the religious imagery and historic references.

The autarchy is a complex system, requiring study and not laid out plainly by the author. Resurrection and death is a cycle presented throughout the work. Many of the themes enlarge and carry forward into later volumes. Plot is not the motivating factor in this novel. Wolfe offers the reader as much as they are willing to invest in his project. His creations always yield greater treasures than are visible from the surface. His books must be excavated, and in so turning over the soil, they can be appreciated deeply, or easily consumed, but they will always be burned into my memory. The narrator’s charming outlook in the beginning eases us in. The oubliette appears almost idyllic in his eyes. But slowly, it dawns on the reader that this home is presented with an undercurrent of horror, of uncanny dread. It is also a chronicle of man's growth from childhood, of coming to regard the world with the respect it deserves, of exiting that self-serving solipsism of youth. We are made to witness the juxtapositions of these joys and sorrows against moral strangeness of the rituals of the cult-like torturer guild.

In fantasy literature, nowhere else is it so abundantly clear that the human mind is capable of conceiving an infinite chain of causal relationships, ie. a microcosm so complete and refined as to dwarf the reality we inhabit.
Profile Image for Penny.
172 reviews345 followers
April 9, 2013
I struggled through this book and spent most of it waiting for the end to redeem it. But then it had no end! It just stopped. If you've read any of my other reviews you may know that books that don't have proper endings are a major pet peeve of mine. I was extra annoyed this time because I'd been told that the beauty of this series lies in the twists and turns brilliantly laid out by Wolfe. I was sorely disappointed.

I found this book very difficult to read. I formed no attachment to the protagonist Severian and I didn't care for his narration as an older version of himself telling the story of his young life. His habit of falling in love at first sight many times over became less believable the more times it happened.

That said, I didn't give this one star because I think it's a book one has to read the entire series to understand, and then re-read a number of times to truly see the genius in it. My lack of enjoyment reading the first book will likely mean that I never get into a position to understand this series, but I do understand that I'm disliking something partly because I don't fully understand it.
Profile Image for Hazal Çamur.
172 reviews202 followers
February 22, 2020
Bu kitabı yaklaşık 9 yıldır bekliyordum. Sonra umulmadık anda dilimize çevrilmiş halde buldum. Aradan geçen zaman çok olunca beklentim de çok yüksekti, bu nedenle sanırım, ilk 50 sayfa benim için dağınık ve hayal kırıklığı doluydu.

Kitabın devamı aradıklarımı verdi mi? Açıkçası keyifle okudum. Sönmekte olan bir güneş ve seriye de adını veren yeni güneşe dair bekleyiş harikaydı. Özellikle sönmekte olan güneşin gökyüzünde yarattığı renklerin bizimkinden farkı bir hayli ilgimi çekti.

Epey uzak gelecekte Orta Çağ benzeri bir çağın yeniden yaşanması bana çok ama çok sevdiğim Leibowitz Için Bir İlahi'yi hatırlattı.

Her şey bir yana, Işkenceciler Loncası'nın kendi içindeki tutarlı ve hatta mantıklı yapısı bile övgüye değer. Hikâyenin kendisi ise kahramanın yolculuğu unsurlarını bütünüyle taşımakla birlikte Gene Wolfe'un özellikle isimlendirme konusunda evrenine sakladığı zekice göndermeler oldukça hoşuma gitti. Eh, bunları araştırırken serinin geleceğine dair bazı spoilerlar yedim ama pişman değilim.

Son olarak harika bir çeviriydi. Kerem Sanatel lütfen bu seriyi devam ettiren isim olsun. Editörlük de benzer oranda güzeldi. Ithaki kitaplarında zaman zaman karşımıza çıkan sorunlar bu kitapta mevcut değildi. Tertemiz bir okuma alanı sağlanmıştı.
Profile Image for Jake Bishop.
281 reviews330 followers
August 20, 2022
I will probably hold back giving a score until I have read all of BotNS. But I really enjoyed it.

I felt like I got about 3% of the content in this book, but that is not because I didn't get a lot out of it. It just feels like for it's page count this book hides so much.
Profile Image for Ivan.
417 reviews278 followers
January 24, 2020
Slow and not very uneventful book especially in middle part but but it's very well written so I didn't find it boring at any point.
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11k followers
June 23, 2010
5.0 stars. Along with The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, the book that set the standard for the "science fantasy" epic. The Book of the New Sun Tetralogy is one of the great achievements in science fiction and is a MUST READ for fans of the genre. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!!!

Winner: World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (1981)
Winner: Britsh Science Fiction Award for Best Novel (1982)
Nominee: Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1981)
Nominee: John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1981)
Nominee: Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel (1981)
Named to Locus list of "All Time" Best Fantasy Novels (#4)
Profile Image for Scot Glasgow.
42 reviews63 followers
January 6, 2023
More detailed review to come. Suffice to say for now - the setting is magnificent (and almost a character in itself,) our protagonist Severian is fascinating, and Wolfe's prose are among the best I've ever read. Did about 50 pages each day, and this book was an absolute pleasure. Can't wait to continue the series.
Profile Image for Linda.
464 reviews1 follower
August 10, 2018
I had no idea what to expect from this book, but I wanted to read outside my normal comfort zone in order to broaden my horizons. (Thanks, John, for the suggestion!) Well, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. I immediately connected with both the style of writing and how the narrator presents the story as reflecting back upon his life and the choices he made or did not make. I also loved the ancient feeling of this world, although . I held back from giving this 5 stars only because there are a lot of philosophical musings and other physical mysteries of the world that went right over my head. That and the feeling that this book didn't feel completely self-contained, but a continuation of reading the next book in the series is a must.

EDITED: After finishing the four book series, I'm upgrading book one to 5 stars.
Profile Image for Bas.
125 reviews12 followers
March 29, 2023
Did I understand a lot of what happens in this book ? Not really
Do I care ? Also not really
Reading this book was an unique experience which I enjoyed immensely.
The prose of Gene Wolfe is amazing and I have come to the conclusion that I just love stories told by the protagonist reflecting on his life.
The world is unique and I'm sure on a re-read I will pick up so much more. Now I'm just going with it and I'm enjoying it so much !
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,692 followers
February 26, 2012
I am almost anti-fantasy. I find most derivative at best and banal to the extreme. Wolfe's first book in his famous The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, however, is genre fiction at its finest. Original, difficult and well-crafted, it is easy to see how Wolfe is regarded as a writer's writer.
Profile Image for Kat  Hooper.
1,583 reviews399 followers
September 3, 2010
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

For those of you enjoy audiobooks, this is the perfect time to finally read (or to re-read) Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Audible Frontiers recently put it on audio and the excellent Jonathan Davis is the reader.

The Shadow of the Torturer introduces Severian, an orphan who grew up in the torturer's guild. Severian is now sitting on a throne, but in this first installment of The Book of the New Sun, he tells us of key events in his boyhood and young adulthood. The knowledge that Severian will not only survive, but will become a ruler, doesn't at all detract from the suspense; it makes us even more curious about how he will get there and what he experiences on the way.

What makes Gene Wolfe's epic different from everything else on the SFF shelf is his unique, evocative storytelling style. The reader isn't given all of the history and religion lessons (etc.) that are often dumped on us at the beginning of a fantasy epic. Rather, Severian's story is episodic and seems like it's meandering lazily, taking regular scenic detours, as if there's nowhere to go and plenty of time to get there. Because the story isn't a straight narrative, we don't understand the purpose or meaning of everything Severian relates — we have to patch it together as we go. By the end of the book, we're still clueless about most of it and we're starting to realize that Severian is kind of clueless, too. Much of the power of this novel comes from the sense that there is world-building and symbolism on a massive scale here, but that explanations and revelations for the reader would just cheapen it and remove the pleasure that comes from the experience of discovery.

In addition to being unique in style, The Shadow of the Torturer is a gorgeous piece of work: passionate storytelling (heart-wrenching in places), fascinating insights into nature and the human condition, beautiful prose:

Perhaps when night closes our eyes there is less order than we believe. Perhaps, indeed, it is this lack of order we perceive as darkness, a randomization of the waves of energy (like a sea), the fields of energy (like a farm) that appear to our deluded eyes — set by light in an order of which they themselves are incapable — to be the real world.

I enjoyed every moment of The Shadow of the Torturer. I love the oddness, originality, and challenge of it, the way that events I knew I saw coming didn't happen, and the unsettling sense that there's way more going on here than I'm being explicitly told and that it will probably take several readings to fully (if possible) uncover it. I can't wait to read on in The Book of the New Sun with Jonathan Davis. This story is deeply emotional and introspective and, as usual, Mr. Davis's performance is perfection.

Profile Image for Ryan Mishap.
3,356 reviews59 followers
December 18, 2008
Okay, like many an SF book, this plunges us into a nebulous world not wholly rendered--in a grave yard no less. Now that's a good start: the protagonist encounters rebels in the graveyard robbin' bones and then goes back to his guild. The Torturer's Guild, mind. From here, the book drags like a fucking stone weight around your brain as our would be torturer becomes obssessed with a captive and eventually leaves to find some other destiny. I got to the end after hundreds of pages and realized nothing really happened, the plot was dead in the water, and I didn't give a fuck about any of the characters. Hell if I'm going to read the other three books, Gene.
Profile Image for Olivia.
709 reviews120 followers
January 31, 2020
I stumbled over Gene Wolfe and the Book of the New Sun via Neil Gaiman, who was praising it highly.

I can definitely see why. The prose is beautiful. Gene Wolfe has a wonderful way with words. It's almost like reading poetry.

Not much happens in this first of four books, but it was an easy read, immersive and beautiful. I connected with the narrator almost immediately and can't wait to find out what happens to Severian the Torturer.
162 reviews30 followers
April 17, 2012
I'm really drawn to decadent, crumbling civilisations in literature, especially those of the far distant future. Those who know my tastes know how much I love Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" books, set in a world where the days of the starfaring and ambitious aims of humanity have long dwindled away and in fact the sun itself has ceased to be the warming, welcome beacon it once was but has grown feeble and weak over millions of years. Let's ignore the fact that human life would probably have long expired (on Earth at least) before the sun has reached this stage of decay, because the theme is a great one, allowing for plenty of doom, atmosphere and pathos as humanity seems to eke out its final days in a state somewhere between resignation and madness. Vance wasn't the first to cover this sort of ground: Clark Ashton Smith did it some twenty years earlier in his stories of Zothique, the last surviving continent on a world covered with water and living under the baleful light of a cold sun, and way back in 1912 William Hope Hodgson wrote the strange and near-impenetrable "The Night Land", about a sprawling metal construct that sheltered the last bastion of humanity from the creatures and blights of the dying Earth. I can now add Gene Wolf to this list of purveyors of gloom and atmosphere, those soothsayers of the far distant future who grant us a vision of a world where there's no sudden cataclysmic apocalypse, but instead a grim and inevitable decline into stagnation and decay, where the crumbling cities of man are a testament to the glory of a race who's time has seemingly passed.

at the recommendation of a couple of friends, I sought out this first volume of Wolf's "Book of the New Sun", an opus spanning across four books that details the travails and travels of Severian, a professional torturer who's task it is to wield justice on behalf of his guild and exercise "excrutiations" and executions in a formal, ceremonial manner. This first novel depicts Severian as a youth, brought up in the Guild of the Torturers from the time of his birth and learned in the arts of pain, which his guild exercises at the behest of the Autarch, some kind of monarch exulted with near-divine reverence by the people. There is little background given as to the structure of Urth (Earth) society, but there are plenty of hints, and I expect more will be revealed later in the series. Early on we're led to understand that there is political unrest in the Citadel, and the autarch and his chief advisor are attempting to quell the former's principal enemy by abducting the sister of his consort and ensconcing her within the Oubliette of the Torturers, where she will be excruciated and slowly killed unless her sibling betrays her lover. Severian is assigned to bring the imprisoned woman food and books, and also to provide her with some company, perhaps to create false hope in her until the order arrives for her torture to begin. Severian, young and inexperienced, is very much overwhelmed by the woman's haughty self-possession and beauty, and the two develop a strange rapport. When the prisoner is subjected to a macabre device which will cause her to go slowly mad with self-hatred until she pulls out her own eyes and throttles herself, Severian smuggles a kitchen knife into her cell so she may suicide and be granted a mercyful death. This is a heinous crime for a member of the Guild, so Severian, after readily confessing to his masters, is banished from the Citadel in disgrace and ordered to a small rural outpost where he will be Carnifex and guild representative, a thankless task since he is likely to be hated by everyone. The rest of the novel details the first part of his journey to the town of Thrax, his meeting of two strange women who are not all they seem and a sojourn in the hallucinatory, bizarre Botanical Gardens, where duelists pick poisonous, writhing alien plants with stems as long as maces which they use to fight one another in single combat.

I loved this book. At first, I was expecting something along the lines of Jack Vance, and while Wolf is a fantastic craftsman of prose, his dialogue does not sparkle as Vance's does and the humour and sardonic wit that is a staple of Vance's writing is not here. Wolf is a much subtler writer, perhaps just as talented, and he has fleshed out his own "dying Earth" with exquisite detail that definitely rivals Vance for strangeness and atmosphere. The novel is told in the first person, from Severian's point of view, and he is a fascinating character for many reasons. He has an eidetic memory, it seems, and can recall events from years past with absolute tnd total clarity. There's one problem here, though, as early on he admits that to some degree he is probably insane and that even though his memory is near-perfect, he can't quite be sure if the events he remembers really happened or whether his own mind has modified them in some way. His narrative is occasionally disorienting because there are times when things simply don't seem to add up, he glosses over details that the reader might feel are important, or references people or events that suddenly seem important to the story which happened pages and pages back that the reader has forgotten. Conversely, he tantalisingly hints at future events (he tells the story as though it were a memoir, writing it from a possibly much older perspective) but doesn't really break up his narrative to explain them, so the reader is constantly wondering in exactly what manner Severian's circumstances seem to have changed so much. It's definitely a fine way of hooking us in and certainly worked for me as I've already nearly finished book two, "Claw of the Conciliator". There is also a really bizarre dream sequence within a dream sequence, and while I love this sort of halucinatory writing I suppose it might be off-putting to some.

Wolf is the sort of author who leaves the reader with a lot of work to do in deciphering meanings and motive. There's a lot of obscure terminology here, although Wolf won't have you reaching for your dictionary as often as Vance might, and a great deal of latin. I am a little puzzled as to why he uses so many Latin terms, even though he includes an unnecessary appendix at the end of the novel explaining that the book is translated from a future manuscript in a language that he doesn't know (??) and takes great pains to point out the fact that none of his terms are "made up", and the latin is only used to convey a sense of archaism. Well, I often have a beef with authors notes and appendices and some things are better left mysterious; I dont object to the use of Latin so much as feel that were it a choice between making up new words and including an appendix that amounts to a metafictional disclaimer, I'd have preferred the former. a very minor quibble, but one which I feel is worth noting.

It's hard to say whether books like this fit more easily into the fantasy or science fiction genre. I know that many readers, even those who enjoy both, like to keep them as far away from one another in writing as possible, but I've always enjoyed these sorts of hybrids and felt that paths of technological change aren't simply arrows shooting for the sun. many divergences and changes and losses ought to happen, and the idea of a distant future where humans are aware of alien life, space travel and such, yet use swords and beasts of burden, is not one I have a difficulty with. There's no real magic on Wolf's Urth, it seems, although Severian does talk briefly about a "Guild of Witches", but the arcane atmosphere, mysterious artefacts, epic flavour and somewhat spiritual bent *feels* like a heady sort of magic. I recommend "Shadow of the Torturer" to those who hunger for modern fantastic literature with philosophical content, strong (and occasionally macabre) atmosphere and really excellent, sometimes beautiful writing that even the lack of eloquence which Severian professes can't subdue. I've discovered a new writer to be excited about; let's hope the rest of the series holds up as well as this one.

Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,145 reviews1,820 followers
November 4, 2014
Okay...what do I say about this book?

I read it first back in the '70s and found that I have very little memory of it. Possibly it was at a time when things were a bit stressful...the '70s were like that. Anyway, I decided to reread it.

The Shadow of the Torturer is a novel where we are dropped into the middle of a world and get to know it as we go, sort of like "on the job training". I won't give away details as..."what would be the point of learning things as you go" if I spill the beans? What I will say is that we have another one of those books that straddles the line between science fiction and fantasy.

Severian, when we meet him is an apprentice torturer...that is member of the Guild, "Seekers for Truth and Penitence". The Seekers are an interesting group. They are the Torturers Guild. They make sure never to to "take in" those who are sadists, those who simply enjoy giving pain. They never, never do more nor less than the "clients" are sentenced to by the courts.

If you've read the synopsis then you know that once Severian becomes a Journeyman he is...exiled for showing mercy. He could have and even in his own eyes should have received worse, much worse. There are reasons why that isn't possible however. So, he is exiled to the far away city or Thrax to be Lictor.

This in many ways is a somewhat existential book with much internal dialogue on our protagonist's part. The action takes place (after the events above) along the way. So in the tradition of some of the best stories throughout human history here we have a road story, a trip turning into a quest.

I really enjoy this book and it comes very close to getting a 5 star rating and would like to, "reserve the right" to up my rating later. I'd say that I can recommend this one very highly and plan to buy the next after I thin out the library book pile a bit.

Profile Image for Sud666.
1,944 reviews158 followers
April 29, 2021
"The Shadow of the Torturer" is a sci-fi story that has the feel of a fantasy world. Gene Wolf has a wonderful writing style but the story is on the strange side.

Severian is an apprentice in the Torturer's Guild. Torturers carry out judicial torture and killing of the court's victims. Need I say Torturers are not well liked in the wider world? All is well for Severian until he foolishly allows himself to fall in love with a prisoner named Thecla. Violating his order's remit and oath, Severian smuggles a knife into her chambers and allows her a merciful end. This results in his banishment.

What follows from here is where the story gets very strange and you realize that this is a sci-fi story. As Severian travels towards his city of exile, he meets various characters and seems to fall in love quite quickly. This draws him into some odd situations.

The world is only hinted at. Wolfe expects you to learn more as you read. I am certainly intrigued by the hints of the world. I really enjoyed the first parts of the story. The middle to rather abrupt ending parts detailing Severian's adventures with Dorcas, Agia and Dr. Talos were where the tale gets very strange. It is certainly a book that I will need to read the following parts of.

A enjoyed Wolfe's writing style. I also liked the setting, but the story arc, so far, is somewhat confusing. A good sci-fi story set in a unique world.
Profile Image for Laura.
1,041 reviews13 followers
December 18, 2017
I don't even know whether I liked this one or not.

The story is weird and the MC's a mess. The prose is not difficult to read but dense. The writing is beautiful at times but tedious at others.

From a detailed desription of a building or a landscape the author takes you smack right into an equally exquisitely detailed description of say the technique of a proper "socking" (method of torture not article of clothing) or the correct way to suture a stump. Perhaps it is because of the author's particular way of writing that the torture scenes described in this book will make one want to empty his stomach's contents. Granted, there aren't so many of them, but for me those were enough to creep me out.

Severian himself is a complete mess as a character. And I think I already mentioned that before. He falls in love instantly (as soon as he lays eyes on the woman) and despite his ardent desire, he wouldn't hesitate to cleave off the head of his so called love (or put a knife in her hand so she can do the job herself). And that is only one of the things that bothered me about him. I honestly resent him.

There are so many loose ends and so many bits and parts of the story that don't seem to connect. I suppose it is normal as this is only the first book of the series but still, by the end of it, I ended up having more questions than answers.

All in all, I am not sure I will continue with the series. The concept of the future Earth with the dying Sun is great and there are lots of little hints of greatness to come dropped along the way.

If you don't balk at dark stuff, don't mind dense flowery prose and are not quesy you could give this a try. It's supposed to be one of those either love or hate books. For me it was neither. It was just sort of "meh".
Profile Image for Juho Pohjalainen.
Author 5 books252 followers
May 27, 2020
This is my second time tackling this series of books. The first time around was also my introduction to the author, and I had no idea what to expect. The second time, after also having read several other works of his... I have all the pieces, but I'm still pretty stumped. Perhaps it is a time to admit that I am a fool.

With that said, it takes a special kind of an author to make you want to keep reading his works, and enjoy them immensely, even when you understand almost nothing of what's actually going on.
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