The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in the four volume Book of the New Sun series. The Shadow of the Torturer was first published in 1980 and was nominated for the Locus Award in that year. This is the first novel that I have read by Gene Wolfe. The book is told as if it were the reminiscences of Severian, a member of the Torturer’s Guild in the City.
This is a very weird book. If there is a category called books that are weird (Paul Auster and China Mieville come to mind as weird-book-authors), then this surely fits in that category. The first scene in the novel, after a bit of meandering by the main character, takes place in a cemetery and involves the desecration of a corpse and a fight with a shovel/ax. It also introduces us to the character Voldalus, who gives Severian a coin. This scene seems to be really important, but it’s not easy to grasp what actually occurred there. Suffice to say, this event is a major event for Severian, who often remembers it as a pivotal point in his narrative.
Severian, being a member of a Guild of Torturers, meets one of their “clients.” Client is what the guild calls it’s inmates who are to be held and tortured and/or killed. Clients are sent to the guild by the authorities, presumably for crimes they have committed. The torturer’s guild consists of only two master torturers, many journeymen, and many apprentices. When the novel begins, Severian is only an apprentice. We follow some of the timeline until he is made journeyman.
One of my biggest complaints about the novel is that we are given so little regarding the guild of torturers itself. This is a neat creation, a unique twist on medieval-like fantasy, and yet, we are not provided much information. The author just does not give us any real glimpses into what the training of torturers is like, what the actual tortures consist of, etc. It’s not so much that I want to read graphic accounts of torture, but if one sets up such an entity as this guild, I feel it is natural to give us something more to work with.
Severian is sent away from the guild because he mishandles (let us say) one of the clients. He is assigned to a “village” far outside of the city to be their executioner. He does not make it out of the city, even by the end of the novel. Instead, the storyline gets really weird. There is a duel, there is a botanical garden that is a lot like Alice’s Wonderland, there is a deceitful brother and sister, there is a love interest (who is as batty as all the rest of the characters). Frankly, the time Severian spends in the bizarre botanical garden takes up most of the book, and there are some really absurd sections in there that are just plain weird. I actually began to despair – thinking the author had abandoned all of the plotlines he had originally set us upon and had permanently diverted to the world of the gardens. Luckily, we make it back out. For the duel. And then the spontaneous and utterly random theatre act that Severian gets involved in.
Amidst all the weird, there are some interesting ruminations that Severian engages in. One of these is in his position of the writer of his memories. Late in the book there is a really unique passage in which the author, through the pen of his character, compares writing literature to being a torturer/executioner. It’s worth my typing it out here, I think.
Many scores and sometimes many hundreds of persons come to watch an execution, and I have seen balconies torn from their walls by the weight of the watchers, killing more in their single crash that I in my career. These scores and hundreds may be likened to the readers of a written account.
But there are others besides these spectators who must be satisfied: the authority in whose name the carnifex acts; those who have given him money so that the condemned may have an easy (or a hard) death; and the carnifex himself.
The spectators will be content if there are no long delays, if the condemned is permitted to speak briefly and does it well, if the upraised blade gleams in the sun for a moment before it descends, thus giving them time to catch breath and nudge one another, and if the head falls with a satisfactory gout of blood. Similarly you, who will some day delve in Master Ultan’s library, will require of me no long delays; personages who are permitted to speak only briefly yet do it well; certain dramatic pauses which shall signal to you that something of import is about to occur; excitement; and a sating quantity of blood.
The passage continues – and is worth reading. The comparisons are striking, and perhaps, give me pause in rating this novel. I suppose I wanted to give it two stars, but judging it by the very criteria of Severian in this passage, I was able to give it three.