Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Shadow of the Torturer

Gene Wolfe
Completed 6/7/2014, Reviewed 6/17/2014
5 stars

I struggled in my selection of a Wolfe book for the Grand Master challenge.  I didn’t want to start another series that I wouldn’t be completing for a while, but the title intrigued me.  Torturers and executioners are usually just nameless cameos in books and movies, not main characters.  And I remembered the book and its sequels from the pre-B&N mall bookstores, which must mean something.  I got the book from the library, read it quickly, and immediately put the rest of the series on my TBR pile.  This isn’t your average fantasy novel.  To quote Roger Zelazny’s back cover quote, it’s “…a portrait of a young man as a torturer.” 

The basic conceit of the book is awesome.  It’s the translation of a journal from Urth, i.e. Earth of the future, when the sun is dying.  The summers are short and the days are dreary.  The language of the future is no longer close to ours, and there are some words which are clearly “mistranslations” while others might even be made up by the “translator”.  Fortunately, I read the “Notes on the Translation” before getting to the end of the book, where this is explained.  It opened up a whole new level of understanding of Wolfe’s genius.  I think if I had not read the Notes until the end, I would have been floored as well, but would have needed to immediately re-read the book.  Perhaps that was his intention (evil grin).

The torturer, Severian, is the narrator, with a supposed eidetic memory, though there are times when you wonder if it’s as accurate as he thinks.  He recounts his youth as an apprentice torturer, through his elevation to journeyman.  But his journey is interrupted when he falls in love with a prisoner and helps her commit suicide rather than face death by slow, horrific torture.  For his crime, he is exiled to a life in a small, remote village as a simple executioner. 

Severian is quiet, moody, introspective, one of my favorite types of characters, probably because I can identify with him.   And despite the cultural revulsion of the torturers’ guild, people seem to be drawn to him.  After his exile, Severian accumulates a small entourage of interesting and quirky acquaintances, some trustworthy, some not so much.  But in the end, he’s not alone on his journey.

It should be pointed out that this book was created as a first volume.  Severian doesn’t get to his new home by then.  In fact, his journey barely has begun.  The true arc of the story is that he learns some things about life and himself by the end of the book.  Unfortunately, knowing the series continues kills some of the tension in a key scene where he duels with poisonous, razor-sharp leaves.  But by that time, the story carries itself, and you read on anyway.  I knew how it would probably end.  I was simply too engaged in the story to let that bother me.

When I first began reading this book, I was comparing it to Richard K. Morgan’s “The Steel Remains”, which I had recently finished.  It’s another fantasy with a brooding main character.  There’s a lot of graphic sex and violence.  From the title of Wolfe’s book, I was expecting something similar, at least in terms of the violence.  But that took a back seat to the development of Severian’s character.  The torture was subdued and matter-of-fact, almost incidental.  While I loved Morgan’s book for the in-your-face action and hardened, cynical characters, I loved “Torturer” for almost exactly the opposite reasons.  Severian is na├»ve, and torture is just a backdrop for the Wolfe’s world- and character-building.  Now that I’m reading Morgan’s second book in the series, I wonder if I’m a little disappointed after the experience I had with Wolfe.

It may be a while before I get to the rest of the series, but I want to read them all.  Severin and Urth are engrossing enough that I’ll find a way to squeeze them in this year.  I give this book 5 stars. 


  1. I have read a handful of Wolfe books and think he is an AMAZING writer. More than once I've been verbally bludgeoned for not having read this series. I finally tried Moorcock's Elric books last year and count myself a fan...its time for me to begin to cross off another well-loved series off my list by actually picking up a copy of this.

    1. I'm sadly lacking in the classic SF category. I've only read one Moorcock, "Behold the Man" and loved it! Elric is on my bucket list.

    2. I'm friends with artist John Picacio, who did the artwork for the most recent re-releases of the Elric books. After talking to him a couple of years ago, while hearing his assistant and my best friend talking about how much they enjoyed the books, I finally got around to giving Elric a try. I've read three of the novels thus far and have several to go.

      I was talking to that friend and another friend of ours a couple of Saturdays back and they were both talking about how much they enjoyed other iterations of the Eternal Champion that Moorcock wrote, so I know I have a lot of other good reading to get to at some point.