The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe (1980) 303 p.

When I was researching acclaimed fantasy series towards the end of 2011, trying to get back into the genre, two names came up more than anything else: A Song of Ice And Fire, and The Book of the New Sun. With the TV series spurring its popularity, last year was clearly the time to read A Song of Ice And Fire, and I’m glad I devoted much of my reading time in 2012 to digesting George R.R. Martin’s five-book epic. Now, though, I look forward to reading Gene Wolfe’s much more manageable four-book series. (Actually, having just finished The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book of the series, I must warn that it doesn’t even attempt to reach any kind of conclusion, and I’m glad that I have The Claw of the Conciliator on hand so I can continue immediately).

Wolfe’s series is very different from Martin’s. A Game of Thrones is set in a largely traditional fantasy world, and achieved prominence through Martin’s inversion of genre tropes. The Shadow of the Torturer is set in the real world, in the far future, after who knows how many civilisations have risen and fallen. (It’s not really relevant, given that apparently no remnants of modern civilisation remain, but from the vague details dropped here and there I suspect it takes place somewhere in Argentina.) It’s therefore technically science fiction, but I wouldn’t hesitate to call it fantasy, given its diction and tone. Unusually for a fantasy novel, it’s narrated in first person, by Severian, a young apprentice at the guild of torturers in the city of Nessus.

The first half of the novel plays out extremely well, detailing Severian’s life in the guild and the circumstances leading up to his departure. The second half of the novel, covering what happens to him after he leaves, is unfortunately not as enjoyable. Severian has a destination and a purpose in mind, but is led about at the whim of strangers and keeps encountering people and places which have a bizarre episodic nature to them. There’s a lot of apparently irrelevant scenes and deus ex machina, only some of which are resolved by the end of the novel. The Shadow of the Torturer is, however, clearly the first book in a larger work, and hopefully the future books will improve on this.

Wolfe’s writing style – or Severian’s writing style, rather – is very different from the bog standard fantasy prose one finds elsewhere. This is clearly “literary” fantasy, which means that it’s often bogged down with philosphical meandering and dream sequences that probably have a deep symbolic meaning I couldn’t be bothered ferreting out. On the plus side, however, it also makes Severian’s future one of the more interesting fictional worlds I’ve read about, purely because of the way Wolfe uses his first-person narrator to carefully drop intriguing details. Early in the novel, for example, Severian is describing the Citadel at the centre of the city, a massive and ancient structure where he and many other guild members reside, and casually mentions that “the examination room was the propulsion chamber of the original structure.” Equally fascinating are the references to “the pale cacogens who sometimes visit Urth from the farther stars.” Then there is the concept within the series’ title itself, The Book of the New Sun – it becomes apparent, again not through explicit statements but rather mentioned in passing, that the sun is dimming and dying; Severian mentions a structure reaching up into the visible stars during a scene that takes place at midday, and characters seem to hold some prophesised, possibly religious belief that a “New Sun” will one day come (to the best of my recollection, this is only mentioned twice).

Heightening this technique is Wolfe’s brilliant use of language, which he discusses in a brief afterword, saying that he could have “saved [myself] a great deal of labour by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so.” The Shadow of the Torturer is full of terms like peltast and fiacre and chatelaine, which have the effect of lending a foreign air, as the made-up words of a fantasy novel would, but which are perfectly real words (at least, most of them are – googling a few of them only turns up sites referencing the novel, whatever Wolfe claims, though perhaps they’re from another language.) And despite taking place in the real world, there’s still plenty of exotic fantasy, as the genetic engineering of some past civilisation has resulted in strange beasts and altered humans, and – as any science fiction reader knows – “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The Shadow of the Torturer presents a fascinating fantasy/sci-fi world in an excellent style. Whether it tells a good story or not is a matter of taste. Personally, I found the second half a little too rambling, a little too aimless, a little too strange, and the authorial voice which works so well at creating a world often stumbled when it came to imparting a sense of urgency and presence in the narrative. Severian is writing about the events from some point in the future; although it wasn’t so much this narrative method as it was the sense that the plot was unfolding not in a natural manner, but rather by the iron fist of the author. (I’m actually quite interested to see how Wolfe employs Severian’s future vantage point in the future; at one point in this book, not even very far into it, he casually mentions that he is now “on the throne.”) I can’t say I found The Shadow of the Torturer easy to read, or that it was always enthralling, but I did find it refreshingly original and I definitely look forward to reading the rest of the series.