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“the shadow of the torturer” by gene wolfe

 

the shadow of the torturer is a first person narrative told by severian, an apprentice in the guild of torturers. it is the first part of the quadrilogy the book of the new sun. in it we follow severian through his last year of apprenticeship, his departure from the guild and the beginning of his journey toward the distant city of thrax.

for his journey severian is equipped with a fuligin cloak , which is a colour that is blacker than black (as upon observing it one cannot detect any shadows or folds). being the uniform of his guild, this cloak naturally inspires terror in others. he also receives the sword terminus est, as a gift. the sword is huge and black, very sharp and seriously bad-ass – i mean, how much more bad-ass can you get than a sword that is called this is the end! as you can imagine severian is a very cool guy, he’s a torturer who walks around with an inky black cloak and a massive black sword!

 

on the way to the citadel wall he meets a few interesting characters, a giant (not a giant giant, just a very big man), an actor, a mysterious woman who has escaped from a lake and a pair of twins – the sister whom, he finds himself strongly attracted to and the brother who covets his beautiful sword.

i really enjoyed reading this book, it was fun, exciting and interesting – this is high fantasy with a touch of darkness. however, thinking back on the plot and its characters i find it somewhat strange that this isn’t one of the best books i’ve read this year. as much as i enjoyed it, i do have one reservation, and i want to get that out of the way before i describe what i liked so much about it.

its hard to pin-point exactly what my reservation is, it was more a feeling i had while reading the book. the best i can do is describe that feeling. it was like reading a book in a language that you are familiar with and can converse in, but are not fully proficient in. or a book that has been badly translated. or one could say it was like reading a book in english when you were too young to fully understand all the words and all the adult nuances of words you are familiar with. i could imagine reading the lord of the rings or dune at the age of 9 must be like that (although there are those who claim to have read them that young – if they fully enjoyed it their grasp of english was certainly better than mine at that age!).

and yet, of course, i am not 9, english is my first language and wolfe wrote it in english. wolfe does use invented words, but not to the degree that they are the cause of any lack of understanding. at times the pacing just felt odd, or sometimes it took me a while to get my bearings. there would be whole passages where i would understand the words he was writing, but i nevertheless only had a vague sense of what was being described – it was hazy like a dream. and yet, i can’t say exactly what it was that wolfe (or i) was doing wrong. this is a real pity as this is exactly the kind of semi-serious high fantasy that i love. the haziness and confusion didn’t entirely spoil it, of course, i enjoyed the book tremendously, it just meant that instead of potentially being the best book i’ve read this year, it was a book that i enjoyed a quite a lot. and did i enjoy it!

i absolutely loved the world of this book. it reads and feels like fantasy, but it could technically be termed as science fiction, as it is actually set in the far future.

our sun is dying and has lost much of its energy, and as such you have a world which is a mixture between a post-apocolyptic future and elizabethan england. for instance, i don’t think they use electricity but there are remnants of it having been used in their past. everything seems at once recognisable as well as alien.

 

there is also a wonderful sense of history and an awareness of a distant past. this ancient past comprises tantalising glimpses of our own ancient past, our present and an intriguing period which is our future but still in the distant past to the characters in the novel. severian’s world is so different from ours that i yearn to know what happened between now and the time he is living in. his world shows signs of great technological advances, as well as signs of decay, so that we can only surmise that there had been a period of great intellectual and cultural advancement that was followed by a decline. as such everyone that currently occupies the world has already forgotten much of what their predecessors, and our future offspring, had learnt.

machines that we almost recognise and no-one knows how to operate, stand unused, or those that they do know how to use are treated as mystical. books in a now forgotten tongue are left never to be read and the buildings are made in styles from periods – some classical, some futuristic – that no-one understands or would know how to replicate. and all this is often shrouded in shadow or poor light, as the sun’s dim rays softly illuminates the world.

wolfe’s use of language is also very interesting. the book is full of terms unfamiliar to us and yet not a single one of them is invented. he uses ancient words for his new terms, and this enhances the sense of a historical connection to the future time in which the novel is placed.

the social structure resembles a medieval england with guilds and a rigid class system. i was extremely curious about severian’s guild of torturers, but it takes wolfe quite a long time to describe them and how they operate, as we slowly learn about them through the events that take place in the story. i quite liked this as it added a sense of realism to the story for me – as if the guild just is and isn’t something that needs an introduction. there are some wonderfully macabre torture devices that the guild uses and as one would expect they don’t just implement them willy-nilly, but each device fits the crime.

the torturers themselves aren’t a bunch of sadists, though – they are absolute professionals and approach their tasks with the cold objectivity of a surgeon. it is also not a vocation that is chosen – the guild, in fact, comprises of unwanted babies who have been taken in. they are not forced to stay, but when they have served their apprenticeship they have the choice to leave. few do, however, as apprenticeship obviously prepares one very well for a career in the guild, but more significantly guild members of any kind (even apprentices) are feared by the rest of society and would struggle to fit in.

as professionally as the torturers approach their job they are nonetheless tainted by what they do. they naturally have a dark view of the world and don’t appear afraid death. ingrained in them is an understanding of the potential weakness of the human body and mind and they have a macabre respect for torturing and executions that are done well. thus, in severian, we have a very dark hero – while he is very gentle, honourable and caring, he is (at times) unsentimental and capable of very cold reasoning, and he also knows how to chop a bloke’s head off! in fact his unique combat skill, from having an intimate knowledge of how to cause pain, makes him a deliciously dark hero.

throughout we suspect him of being quite capable in a fight, but for the longest time severian doesn’t find himself in that sort of situation. then, half-way through, wolfe depicts a moment which illustrates his skill, which i absolutely love. severian’s narrative is so off-hand and calm – and he knew exactly what he was doing:

the peltast relaxed, so there was no great difficulty. i knocked his shield aside with my right arm, putting my left foot on his right to pin him while i crushed that nevrve in the neck that induces convulsions.

the fact that it takes half of the book for severian to be engaged in any violence illustrates that this isn’t some hack-and-slash fantasy romp. throughout there is a mixture of action, adventure and great drama. severian falls deeply in love with a noble who is to be tortured; is challenged to a duel; is chased; and goes to the magnificent botanic gardens to find a flower which is to be his weapon in the duel. the botanic gardens are mystical and magical and there is a very real danger that once you have entered it you may never leave.

as you can see from my long review, this was an enjoyable book to read. the setting is very colourful and the plot is a lot of fun. severian is a surprisingly believable character and a lot of this is down to his dry and matter-of-fact narrative voice. he is also very cool – that big black sword and that blacker-than-black cloak of his! i think anyone who likes fantasy will enjoy this and i’d be curious to see whether or not other people feel there was something “lost in translation”.

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Categories: books
  1. July 29, 2007 at 7:46 pm

    What a great review, Jean Pierre! I like how you included a lot of details. Gene Wolfe is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for years, but so far I’ve only read short stories in random anthologies. I think one of the problems is that I never quite know where to start – “The Books of the New Sun”? “Peace?” “The Wizard/Knight”?

    I’ve had that experience of haziness with some books too. I normally tend to blame myself when that happen – perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention. It doesn’t sound like that was the case at all with you, though. It’s too bad it happened, but the book really sounds worth reading all the same.

  2. July 29, 2007 at 8:10 pm

    Great review JP. I have Shadow and Claw sitting patiently on my bookshelf right now. I’ve yet to read any Gene Wolfe and I’ve been meaning to for ages. This one really sounds good. I bought Shadow and Claw having no idea what it was about. I just liked the cover and had heard really good things about Wolfe. Definitely sounds like it’s time to pull him off the bookshelf.

    I agree with Nymeth, I know what you mean about that haziness as well and I’ve always attributed it to a problem with myself too. It always seems to happen with high fantasy type stuff though…or with really detailed Sci-fi…sometimes I’ll just be reading and then think “ok..whatever that meant” and then just carry on. As long as I’m not missing anything central to the plot, which usually isn’t the case, I’m not too concerned. Glad you enjoyed this one!

  3. jean pierre
    July 30, 2007 at 11:32 am

    thanks guys!

    i’m glad you liked the details, nymeth, the book was so rich and full of interesting stuff that i had a lot to share.

    i’d only ever heard of gene wolfe, as a name, but i was never aware of any specific books, so thankfully the decision was quite simple for me. in fact, like you chris, the cover was the reason i bought it! the picture at the very top is whats on the cover and back of my edition. i love that kind of fantasy art!!

    out of those series’ “peace” “new sun” and “the wizard/knight” which are considered his better works?

    nymeth, you’re absolutely right, in spite of the haziness the book was definitely worth reading.

    chris, you’re right, this tends to happen with detailed scifi and high fantasy.

    sadly, with regards to the haziness, i do feel that i missed something. especially in the beginning – there literally were times when i didn’t know what was going on! 🙂 it was like they were running around in the fog or something. i had to take the accounts and references that come after the event to get an idea of what happened… 😉

    i’d be very interested to see what either of you make of this one!

  4. July 30, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    What a great review!! I have actually never heard of Gene Wolfe!! Isn’t that terrible? Of course, I’m a total newbie to the world of sci-fi and fantasty, so I guess it’s not all that surprising! But now that these books are on my radar, I’m definitely going to have to read them!!

  5. July 30, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    Well now you have Stephanie! 😀

    JP, From what I’ve heard, The Wizard/The Knight is his most popular series…I’d wait for Carl to get over here to confirm that though, he’s actually read that series and he seems to know Wolfe better than anyone else I’ve met here in blogland so far 😉

  6. July 30, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    Actually the series you are reading is his most popular, and I had to skip all this simply because I want to read this series and don’t want to be spoiled. The Knight and The Wizard, along with some short stories, are all the Wolfe I’ve read, but those two books are amongst my favorite…they blew me away when I read them for the first time. As much as I want to read some new
    Wolfe, I have such a strong desire to go back and read those two novels, they are amazing. Lisa Snellings-Clark is a big Gene Wolfe fan and she has told me more than once that I need to read the series you have begun.

  7. July 30, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    I’ve never read any Gene Wolfe and I know I really should, but I have that whole indecision thing going on and I don’t know where to start. Maybe I’ll give this one a try.

  8. jean pierre
    July 30, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    aah! thats good to know, carl!

    and its cool that you like “the knight” and “the wizard” so much, it lets me know i’m in safe hands with this bloke. 🙂

    i can totally understand that desire to revisit a book you like so much! perhaps what we should do, is along with all those lists of books we compile for ourselves to read (fantasy, classics, etc), perhaps we should give ourselves the treat of rereading a book we really enjoyed.

    reading is about enjoyment after all, and if we love a book, why not read a book that we know we enjoy! aah… now that would be a cool challenge.

    has lisa snellings-clark done any artwork based on his work? that would be very cool! his world in “the book of the new sun” is so rich and colourful, any artwork based on that would be great.

    i’m glad she likes it this series, though. so far i’m really enjoying it!

    fence, oh dear… i’ve seen your librarything list and you’ve got loads to chose from. and with so many bloggers writing so many interesting reviews it makes it even harder to choose! i’d be very interested to see what you think, if you do decide to read it, though.

  9. July 31, 2007 at 12:34 am

    Lisa Snellings-Clark actually did a chapbook WITH Gene Wolfe. It’s called Strange Birds. I actually own a copy….you can get it through Dreamhaven Books. It’s two short stories written by Wolfe and they are inspired by Lisa Snellings-Clark’s paintings and the paintings are beautiful. Best thing is, if you get it from Dreamhaven Books’ website, you can get it signed!

  10. jean pierre
    July 31, 2007 at 6:44 am

    ooh… very cool chris! thanks for the info. i’m over to dreamhaven books! 🙂

  11. August 1, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    New teaser trailer for The Dark Knight! Here: http://www.slashfilm.com/2007/07/28/the-dark-knight-teaser-trailer-and-new-joker-photo/

    Not much…mostly just dialogue, but a little something!

  12. jean pierre
    August 1, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    oh chris, you badass!!

  13. August 3, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks Chris, just reminding me of one more thing I haven’t purchased that I need to purchase. 😉

    JP, I like the rereading idea although I must admit that I give myself permission to do it all the time and am a frequent rereader of books. My year in review book posts are always littered with rereads. I’ve done less of that this year, but there is still plenty of time left! 🙂

  14. Jeff S.
    August 6, 2007 at 11:28 pm

    Wonderful review! The only Wolfe I’ve read so far is The Knight and I’m a third of the way through The Wizard. They really are great books but it’s funny I also have had those kind of fuzzy momments when reading those Wolfe books too. I will read along fine for awhile then a character will say something and I just have this sort of nagging ” I missed something feeling ” I think it’s just Wolfe’s writing style though. I think he does it on purpose. He doesn’t give us everything on purpose in order to engage us more I think. I really have enjoyed the two books immensley and that lead me to buying a copy of Shadow of a Torturer already.

  15. jean pierre
    August 8, 2007 at 8:42 am

    thanks jeff!

    hmmm… you’ve also had those hazy moments… and its exactly that, that i feel i just missed something.

    i hope you’re right that he does it on purpose. i’ll pay more attention to it when i read book 2 of the new sun.

    i’m glad to hear that you’ve enjoyed him too – it confirms that wolfe is a real find!

  16. Sinatrapod
    November 9, 2007 at 9:33 am

    I’m just finishing these books up myself and I’d have to say you’ve got it spot on. I think the haziness is partly due to the typical density of Wolfe books; it’s just a lot to sort through.

    I have to ask, though: that first image is absolutely fantastic. Do you happen to know where I could find a larger size of it?

    Thanks!

  17. jean pierre
    November 9, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    you reckon the haziness is ’cause of the density…? hmm, that may well be. at any rate, it was less of an issue for me with the second one, which leans toward proving your point (as by now i’m probably more used to his style…

    i’ve just finished claw and really enjoyed that too. i especially like the way he ends them, if we don’t want to join him for the next one he understands and it being “no easy road”.

    i love the cover of shadow, and the wrap-around version is gorgeous, isn’t it?!

    i had a quick look and couldn’t find it online again. the version of it that i have on flickr is about 1/3 larger. chances are, thats probably the size of the one i originally found. here’s the link for it.

    http://www.flickr.com/photo_zoom.gne?id=1933201472&size=o

    that should work. if it doesn’t then just google “flickr jpderosnay” and you’ll get my profile. there are only two pics up there, so you’ll find it easily.

    thanks for stopping by!

  18. jonathan paul
    January 6, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    I read the first two books when i was about 12 myself, they were difficult to fully comprehend at that time however they remained in my mind from that time until i recently read the whole series at 42, they are still difficult to comprehend on a single reading , but the sense of severian’s journey is wonderfull,the use of obscure language adds to the sense of future antiquity and the presense of technologicaly magic items has echoes of our own futuristic visions gone dark, all in all a most excelent read

  19. jonathan paul
    January 7, 2008 at 2:24 am

    my own memory fails me frequently , looking at the dates they were written it is plain to see i was 15 not 12 lol,my teenage years were a long time ago,alas.

  20. January 27, 2008 at 10:23 am

    “it was like reading a book in a language that you are familiar with and can converse in, but are not fully proficient in. or a book that has been badly translated. or one could say it was like reading a book in english when you were too young to fully understand all the words and all the adult nuances of words you are familiar with.”

    This is a perfect description of what reading The Book of the New Sun feels like, and I was 40 when I first read it. I’ve now read it four or five times, (and the Long Sun and Short Sun three or four and don’t get me started on the Fifth Head of Cerberus), and have gone down the rabbit hole of the Whorl mailing list, and all I can say is that there are few works in any genre that reward rereading as much as Wolfe’s novels.

  21. jean pierre
    November 11, 2008 at 11:26 am

    JONATHAN:

    i’m glad to hear i’m not alone in that fuzziness i experience with these books!

    i totally agree, that journey of his is so cool. for me, its not so much what he experiences and sees (which is of course very interesting) but the way in which its related to the reader – so matter-of-fact. that makes it that much more realistic for me and as a result quite thrilling!

    i also love how you can never know where his journey will take him – which is such a contrast to other books. you literally don’t know what’ll happen next 😀

    the language is also very cool – and, as you say, definitely adds to that feeling of antiquity, which in itself is a bit of a mindbender, because the world is in the far future – an impression which is only strengthened by the technogically magic items (you put it very well)!

  22. jean pierre
    November 11, 2008 at 11:52 am

    BOB:

    haha! it seems i’m definitely not alone! i must say i’m glad i’m not the only one.

    and i totally agree with you, it is definitely very rewarding. as i’ve read on i’ve gotten a little bit better at picking where wolfe is coming from. and when it still gets a little hazy i accept it ’cause it seems to work somehow…

    what are his other books like? are they good too? i’ll be starting the last book of the new sun soon and am savouring it because i don’t know how much more of this wolfe goodness awaits me!

  23. Adam A
    December 4, 2008 at 1:29 am

    nice review and I read the comments with great interest.I found the Shadow in a gutter when I was 15 years old and it was like it was meant to be.the balance of the series I picked up in a variety of second hand book shops over a number of years. Each read reveals something new and I’d interpret the ‘haziness’ as almost an induced amnesia that will reveal a new twist on the next read. Wolfe is truly a genius. Urth and the Whorl are so complex and intertwined that after 20+ years of reading, I almost feel that they exist – somewhere.

    A point on it being perhaps a bad translation – it is a translation from a language yet to be devised, so I would suggest Wolfe has weaved his spell on the reviewer! Just as the manuscript was re-written by Severian’s flawless memory, the story is designed to be re-read.

  24. Flux
    May 15, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    that hazyness you describe, comes from the circumstance that wolfe likes to include contradictions, little lies from the narrator, half-explained things, and the answers hidden in a completely different place, somewhere before or after in the story.

    it is thus necessary to read the book again, and then again, and it will make more and more sense and you’ll discover ever more details and insights.
    it’s like an interactive game 🙂

    also, when you’re through with the whole book, search the internet for hints and interpretations.

    regards,
    flux

  25. YamiNoSensei
    December 3, 2009 at 2:45 pm

    Gene Wolfe does not, in fact, use any made-up words in The Book of the New Sun. Archaic, seldom-used, yes; made-up, no. There is actually a companion book, The Castle of the Otter, where he explains all the unfamiliar words in the first two New Sun books (good luck finding it though, it’s long out of print). A lot of other interesting tidbits, too… I never in a million years would have figured out that Famulimus speaks exclusively in iambic “feet”.
    As other posters have mentioned, this is a book that requires multiple readings to really “get” and appreciate fully. I first read “New Sun” more than 20 years ago, have re-read it countless times, and discover something new every time.

  1. September 1, 2007 at 7:30 pm
  2. January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

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