The Shadow of the Torturer

Gene Wolfe
The Shadow of the Torturer Cover

The Shadow of the Torturer



So, I was in the mood for starting a new multi-book fantasy and sci-fi saga and after reading a little about the New Sun series and a little about the author I was intrigued to give The Shadow of the Torturer a read and was hoping that this was going to be the start of a relationship with a well respected author who I had not previously read before. This was also part of a challenge to read twelve Damon Knight Grand Masters I had not read before in 2014.

To put my review in context I would like to say I really wanted to like this and also that I probably did enjoy the book more than the review suggests as there was quite a bit in the book that niggled me.

The book is set in Urth that is our Earth in the far-future. The Sun is dying and Urth is essentially a medieval society with some future tech (lasers, space travel etc.) The author states that the book is a translation from a 'future language' and it is the language of the book which was the most rewarding thing for me. Wolfe uses language and words from all over Europe, America, Africa. He uses words from the 16th, 17th and 18th Century as well as formal language from more recent times. I can imagine this grating on some people but I found much enjoyment in looking up words - it's a book that benefits from the 'future tech' of built in dictionaries of e-readers. Quite often Wolfe makes words up. In 1980 I suspect many readers would be quite lost with this book due to the difficulty for most readers not having such an enormous vocabulary. I totally understand a reader's opinion that Wolfe thinks he is smarter than his audience.

A major issue for me in the book is that Wolfe takes so long to get anywhere. Basically the whole book is the central character of Severian leaving the Citadel he grew up in and making it to the City Wall of Nessus. For all the wonderful language used the book pretty much plods along, it is downright pedestrian in places (there are a few chapters in where Severian visits a botanical garden which just seems to go nowhere with little purpose).

So what is the book about? Severian is a torturer, raised within the Guild of Torturers and shrouded in the 'mystery' of torture and excruciation. The torturer does not question the reasons for torture, the justice behind it or the reasons clients are sent to them. Decisions are handed down from the House Absolute, home of the Autarch who seems to be an all powerful, unquestioned leader.

As a young man Severian witnesses and intervenes in a skirkmish between a 'rebel' outlaw Vodalus and some guards as Vodalus attempts to steal some human remains. For some strange reason this has a strange effect on Severian and he identifies with Vodalus.

He soon becomes a journeyman torturer (think a professional rather than apprentice position). He meets a member of the 'aristocracy' Thecla who is one of the Autarch's concubines who is awaiting torture. Severian falls in love with her and then after her torture assists in her suicide which goes against everything the Guild stands for. Rather than be executed he is sent to the town of Thrax where he will take up the post of Carnifex (which appears to be a village executioner position). I quite enjoyed this early section of the book as the Citadel which hosts the torturer's dungeon seems a huge place with different guilds and military services based there. It reminds me of some huge structure where someone could spend there whole life, never know much of the vast structure and never need to leave. I'm not sure if the structure is huge or whether Severian has had such a sheltered boyhood it just seems so big. Leaving the Citadel Severian enters the city of Nessus which again seems such a huge city. I think Wolfe does a good job of describing the 'wide eyed youth seeing the big city for the first time'.

Severian tries to buy a cloak, gets an offer to buy his sword, gets challenged to a duel, goes on a chariot type race, crashes into a temple and then goes for a wander around said garden.

He then goes for something to eat, takes part in a duel, cuts someone's head off, takes part in a play and walks to the City gate and it takes a while to do all this.

The duel is quite interesting as the duellists use an avern plant - a plant with razor sharp poisonous leaves which are thrown. I do think that Wolfe has a great imagination and can introduce ideas even if his prose leaves much to be desired.

So what of the characters - well I think Severian is pretty boring. Things just seem to happen around him, women tend to throw themselves at him for some inexplicable reason and I just didn't find him that interesting. What is interesting about Severian is that he can be dispassionate about his brutal and essentially cruel career. He is largely oblivious to the suffering of the clients and the sadism involved. That said, he is capable of compassion as showed when he cares for a sick dog and his help of Thecla.

Agia is kind of feisty and at least has some energy about her. Although her reasons are explained she hardly seems to go a few pages without being disrobed or at least without a breast falling out of her dress.

I know about the authors Catholic background and so was perhaps looking for Catholic symbolism and I think it is here is spades - in particular Severian could be an analogy for Jesus. He attracts followers who follow him at the drop of a hat. There is the possible resurrection of the character Dorcas. I viewed the avern plant as a symbol of the Crown of Thorns, even the carrying of the plant could be viewed as the carrying of the Crucifix by Jesus.

I did have a problem with the misogyny in the book. All the female characters are described as physically beautiful. Severian manages to get into sexual situations with a prostitute and Dorcas, Agia throws herself at Severian often and as mentioned before is stripped naked at one point and later rips her dress so her breast falls out often. Jolenta enters towards the end and she is very well endowed and of course she is very beautiful. Agia and Dorcas declare their love for Severian (both on the day of meeting him). I'm sure there is a reason for this and I did kind of think Agia had a sexiness and desirability about her, whilst still being 'bad news'. However, for all of this the women seem to be there (including Thecla) purely for the pleasure of Severian. It wouldn't be so bad but Severian is just so boring! I'd just appreciate it more if the women had more depth and perhaps Wolfe didn't mean this but they all came across as one dimensional sex objects for male fantasy readers.

This is a book which almost certainly would benefit from multiple readings. I am convinced that I have missed so much in my first reading (and after looking at a few other reviews and comments online I think I have only scratched the surface). I fully expect that the first part of the book would be more rewarding after reading the rest of the Volumes. It does feel like quite a big ask however.

It's also important to note that this book should be considered Volume 1 of a body of work, not book one of a series. Consequently, the book seems to come to an abrupt halt. Nothing is resolved and there are lots of unanswered questions. I'm not sure after reading that I necessarily want to invest time in reading more of the series.