The shadow of the torturer (Gene Wolfe, 1980)


The shadow of the torturer, by Gene Wolfe (1980).

Score: still trying to figure out the point.

See, I was very hyped about this book. I had read that it was complicated, subtle, explained very little and at the same time inspired a lot of theories and interpretations, and all of those were selling points for me. But for some reason I just couldn’t get submerged in it.

The shadow of the torturer tells the story of Severian, an apprentice since childhood of the Guild of Torturers. He lives in a feudal society that is quite obviously implied to be a Dark Era after a Space Age gone wrong. One night, he saves a nobleman from death while the nobleman and some others are in the middle of grave-robbing and as a prize he’s given a gold coin. Severian grows up, teaches the younger apprentices, becomes a journeyman, never leaves the small precinct where his Guild dwells. Falls in love with a noble prisoner, does something very wrong and gets expelled from the guild.

***Mild spoilers from here on*** Up to here it more or less made sense. The learning curve is quite steep and it’s already clear that something similar to magic must be going on somewhere but we’re good. Then Severian comes across two charlatans and looks like he’s going to join them but doesn’t, so he goes to buy a cloak. He’s there buying the cloak and minding his own business when he gets challenged to a duel to the death for no apparent reason. Like us, he has never heard of such a thing but he’s not surprised or anything. He leaves the shop with the shopkeeper’s sister and they go to the botanic gardens because apparently you need a weird flower to go to this duel. Severian and the shopkeeper’s sister fondle each other on the way to the gardens despite having known each other for about five minutes and crash into a temple when racing another cart to the gardens. Something’s fishy with the gardens because lots of weird things happen there that I can’t begin to relate to the rest of the story, including Severian telling a story about a friend of a friend who got lost in her own neighbourhood and there was a guy bouncing photons between two mirrors. When they fished a strange woman from a formaldehyde pond I decided I had completely lost interest in what would happen next.

It’s not that it’s badly written. It’s just that I couldn’t figure where the story was going so I stopped caring about what happened to the characters. It’s been said that Wolfe deconstructs the hero’s journey and maybe that expectation was detrimental to my reading, because as much as I looked I couldn’t find it anywhere. There’s a continuous feeling of “okay, but why do I need to know this?” that makes the reading increasingly annoying. I suspect it gets better if you keep reading and if you look at the Book of the New Sun as a whole, but it just couldn’t retain my interest. Or maybe if I did read the whole of it I could find that behind all the barely explained lore and events there is nothing that interests me after all. It’s like Wolfe took the iceberg writing technique too far and what you’re left with is a tiny, very boring visible part of the ice giant.

Nevertheless, it’s an acclaimed classic. I’ll be happy if any of you enjoys it more than I did.

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