The Shadow of the Torturer

Gene Wolfe
The Shadow of the Torturer Cover

The Shadow of the Torturer


Severian is a lowly apprentice torturer, blessed and burdened with an eidetic memory, who is exlied from the guild of torturers after allowing one of his victims, with whom he has fallen in love, to kill herself to avoid a death by excruciating torture. Armed with his ancient executioner's sword, Terminus Est, he travels through the strange far future Earth, where the sun is slowly dying, to travel to a distant city to be an executioner. But there are all sorts of machinations, Severian for all his purported exact memory and straightforward tale telling, will prove to be an unreliable narrator.

Master storyteller Wolfe in a series of four books, known collectively as The Book of the New Sun weaves together all the classic tropes of the fantasy genre, coming of age, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved in a way that is haunting and original. No Tolkien imitator here. And the language is distinctive. Notable throughout the series is Wolfe's use of words which appear perhaps to be invented to describe this world but are mostly old words long fallen into disuse. His use of language helps set the atmosphere, alien but strangely familiar. Descriptions of the world are precise and clear, yet somehow almost hallucinatory. Severian himself is an enigmatic and fascinating characterthough his matter of fact acceptance of his gruesome carreer is disturbing yet logical, since he was brought up to it from a very young age.

30 years ago a friend had read this book, then newly published, and raved over it. I was put off by the title and the fact that the hero - antihero?- had such an unsavoury profession, and declined to read it. Again, it has been sitting on my shelf unread for six months. Now I am wishing I read it all those years ago. Somehow the torture scenes are written in an almost. . . . tactful?. . . way, clinical, remote, not at all sensationalist, and mercifully only a very minor part of the story. Now that I have read it, and know a little of the whole series, I have to wonder how Gene Wolfe had to wait till 2012 to become one of Damon Knight's Grand Masters. And why is he not such a household name as many less gifted authors? Probably because the books may be esoteric, complexand with difficult language, with an unreliable narrator. However this book is excellent, and I look forward to reading the next three, so that I can then go back and reread with knowledge, and will understand what the shake of the kaleidoscope of the revealed plot ultimately reveals. Looking forward to it! A book well deserving its classic status.