The Shadow of the Torturer: SFF’s greatest and most challenging epic

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The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, 1) Hardcover – May, 1980 by Gene Wolfe fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIn 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.

~Kat Hooper


two-volume omnibus edition

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsTHE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is considered by many SFF readers as the greatest, most challenging, and most rewarding SF-fantasy epic ever written in the genre. At the same time, its baroque language, ambiguous plot, unreliable narrator, and depth of symbolism are likely to discourage most casual readers. Therefore, new readers need to dedicate themselves to unraveling the many layers of plot, religious symbolism, literary references, and narrative sleight-of-hand. They also need to understand that it is essentially a single integrated work, so reading individual volumes is not enough to render judgement. You need to read all four volumes to appreciate what Gene Wolfe has painstakingly crafted. If you do so, you will be rewarded richly indeed.

I’ve actually read the entire series twice in the past two decades, and decided that I would listen to the audiobook editions narrated by the excellent Jonathan Davis to give me a new perspective on the whole creation. He is the ideal narrator for a work this ambitious, as he tackles the baroque story with gravitas, confidence, and enthusiasm. I can’t imagine a narrator better suited to the task.

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is that type of work, one that rewards multiple readings and reflection and still retains many of its mysteries tantalizingly out of reach. If you are someone comfortable with complexity, mysteries, and a lack of explanations, you should be able to enjoy Wolfe’s elusive style.

This time I also prepared myself by reading Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, an 826-page analysis covering Wolfe’s output through 1986, including all of his short stories and his novels The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, Free Live Free, and THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. Aramini’s analysis sheds much light on the key underlying themes of the story, namely the death and resurrection of the Urth via the coming of the New Sun, the ambiguous messianic nature of the protagonist Severian, the healing power of the Claw of the Conciliator, and Severian’s duty to undergo testing by alien powers to determine if humanity is indeed worthy of this rebirth.

There are so many themes and ideas in Wolfe’s epic that it has spawned an informal school of analysis, including books such as Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus, Robert Borki’s Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun” and Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader. Therefore, it would be presumptuous of me to try to analyze his magnum opus in a brief review such as this. Rather, I will just touch on the most important themes of the book and dispense with a discussion of plot details, which you can discover on your own.

To drastically simplify things, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is the story of the young apprentice Severian raised in the guild of torturers called the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. He recalls to the reader his complex path from lowly apprentice to the Autarch of the Commonwealth, the most powerful ruler on far-future Urth. This world lies millions of years in the future, to the point that our own world is no longer even a memory. It is a baroque fantasy world filled with mysterious terms such as archon, carnifex, cataphract, chalcedony, fuligin, hipparch, lazaret, monomachy, optimate, pelerine, psychopomp, quaesitor, thaumaturge, and uhlan. None of these terms are coined by Wolfe, but rather reflect his erudite love of obscure and archaic terms. They lend an air of incredible antiquity to the world of Urth, and the story takes direct inspiration from THE DYING EARTH of Jack Vance.

Severian encounters all manner of friends & foes, allies and enemies, lovers, thieves, soldiers, actors, priests, witches, commoners, malevolent creatures, inscrutable aliens, and other powerful beings whose intentions are unclear. What they all share is an interest in the fate of Severian, for though he does understand this himself for much of his journey, he is destined to not only become Autarch but to serve as the representative to the stars to determine if the dying red sun of Urth is worthy of being renewed in both a symbolic and literal sense, ushering in a New Sun and renewed era of humanity. It is an outcome that is constantly alluded to but never fully explained, though Wolfe later explored this is more detail (while still retaining much mystery) in a companion coda called The Urth of the New Sun (1987).

The religious symbolism of the story is both explicit and complicated. Severian is positioned as the obvious messiah, the living embodiment of the New Sun, and as he wields the cross-shaped executioners’ sword Terminus Est, the Christ-like imagery is plain for any reader to see. And yet throughout the story, Severian himself is a naive and conflicted character, one who struggles first to set aside his training as a torturer and executioner, and later as a man fighting to understand his role as a possible bringer of redemption and resurrection to a corrupt and dying world. This goes far beyond a Christian allegory such as C.S. LewisCHRONICLES OF NARNIA, for instance. Of equal importance is the religious talisman that comes into Severian’s hands by accent, the Claw of the Conciliator. This object seems capable of bringing the dead back to life and healing fatal wounds when Severian wields it, and is associated with the Conciliator, a figure of the ancient past who is both Christ-like and may also have extra-terrestrial origins.

THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN also incorporates a number of stories-within-stories, told by various characters and also in the form of stage plays performed by the characters (echoing the story itself from the author’s perspective) during key moments in the narrative. One could write a dissertation on interpreting the meanings of these stories as they relate to the overall themes of the book, and this effort is far beyond me, but Marc Aramini does discuss the implications of a number these stories in his book Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, including Dr. Talos’ play “Eschatology and Genesis”, “The Tale of the Student and His Son”, “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog”, “The Cock, the Angel, and the Eagle”, “The Armiger’s Daughter”, as well as some extremely vivid dreams of Severian. This literary device is equally vital to understanding the layers of meaning in his book Peace.

The story is further complicated by the roles of Abaia, Erebus, and their servants the undines, underwater beings of great power that seem intent on conquering humanity, but at the same time provide aid to Severian at times and may even benefit from the inundation of Urth if Severian is to succeed in bringing the New Sun. They are constantly observing Severians’ progress, but it is unclear whether they seek to aid or prevent his quest.

We also have the even more inscrutable role of the Hierodules, alien beings from other worlds that reside on Urth and also take a keen interest in Severian and his path to becoming the Autarch. Despite their implied powers, they sometimes seem to indicate that they serve him, but this in never made entirely clear. They appear to have a connection with the current Autarch, but it is not apparent whether they favor Severian over his rule.

Finally, there is the ambiguous role of the reigning Autarch himself, and his mysterious advisor Father Inire. They obviously wield great power, and if they were to decide Severian were a threat to them they could easily have him killed. Yet they instead appear in various guises in his adventures, never clearly his ally or enemy, always with opaque intentions and tantalizing comments. Father Inire in particular seems to control the power to travel between the stars via the sinister power of mirrors and labyrinths (an obvious nod to Jorge Luis Borges), but does not demonstrate to what end he might use them.

In the end, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN does not easily yield up its secrets to interpretation or analysis, but this is most certainly the source of its lasting appeal to discerning literary SFF readers over the last 35 years. There are layers of meaning that remain obscure even after multiple readings, but it is clear that Wolfe has crafted a masterpiece that is worth the attempts to conquer it, a literary Mt. Everest that every serious reader in the genre will be drawn to again and again, and there is much to be gained in each attempt, whether the peak is attained or not.

~Stuart Starosta


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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7 comments

  1. Great review, Kat! :thumb:
    It’s easy to tell when you really,really like a book and you are so good at putting into words why you liked it. Plus you’re enthusiasm is contagious, because your 5 star reviews always make me want to get the book.

  2. Thanks, Greg! And, BTW, I’ve put the Enge book you recently reviewed on my list!

  3. I’m to the point now that I think I need to stop saying I’m putting another book on my list. At this point, I’ve probably got a good year or two back-logged… But I think this one is now on it too, whether I really admit to it or not.

  4. Yeah, but you plan to live longer than a year or two, right? That’s how I look at it.

  5. Wow! I can’t believe you went there! LOL!
    I can’t deny that I’m absolutely a book-geek because thoughts like; “Wouldn’t it suck if I die before getting to finish this great series?”, actually enter my twisted little mind sometimes.
    Well, yeah, it would suck, because I’d feakin’ be DEAD!!! :idiot:

    I swear, there’s a shrink out there just beggin for me to sit on their couch. They could probably do a study on me and retire. :crazy:

  6. oprah also makes some good book reviews, i always wait for the book reviews of oprah *”;

  7. THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN has long been one of my favourites. Time for a re-visit, I think. Thanks for the nudge.

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