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.
In 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.