“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”.