Pocket Books, 1980, 262 pages
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume in the four-volume epic, the tale of a young Severian, an apprentice to the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession - showing mercy towards his victim.
Since The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume in Severian's fictional autobiography, we learn early in the story that he's destined to become Autarch of the world known as Urth. This is one of the framing elements in this leisurely, baroque novel that only slowly reveals itself to be science fiction rather than fantasy.
Severian is an apprentice in the guild of Seekers for Truth and Penitence - i.e., the torturer's guild. Although viewed by the populace at large as you would expect, with fear and loathing, the guild is in fact not made up of amoral sadists, but highly skilled and educated professionals whose job is torturing people according to the strict guidelines of the law. Which doesn't make what they do any less cruel, but you start to think of them as being no different than blacksmiths or soldiers - exactly as they think of themselves - when Severian finally gets around to describing the ghastly things they do to prisoners, in a casual, offhand manner.
This casual way in which Severian reveals secrets and details about the world is part of the rich, literary style of this book. That cheesy 80s cover disguises a literary novel in grimdark fantasy clothing. The story is very reminiscent of the kind of sci-fi that flourished in the Eighties - dark, apocalyptic futures in which the world has been brought to such ruin that people live in medieval slums even though mankind has gone to the stars. Wondrous technological artifacts may as well be Palantirs and magical rings. This tradition continues now, of course, and Gene Wolf wasn't the first, but he's one of the best. He accomplishes more in fewer words, and better words, than contemporary novels that try to convey grim darkness with gratuitous amounts of blood and rape.
Severian begins his quest when he's cast out of his guild after showing mercy to a prisoner - a woman of high caste who was unfortunate enough to have a sister on the wrong side of a political dispute. Severian is sent to a remote village to take up the post of executioner, but at the very beginning of his journey, he encounters a wily woman of inscrutable motives and an amnesiac woman of uncertain temperament who become his traveling companions. Before they make it out of the city gates, Severian is challenged to a deadly duel on the Sanguinary Fields, supposedly by his vengeful guild that wants to off him without political embarrassment.
On the surface, this is your basic grimdark quest story with an Apprentice Torturer instead of a Farmboy of Destiny. Even in the 80s, the premise was rooted in already-hoary tropes. But Gene Wolf's award-winning prose makes him one of the most frequently-cited "literary" authors of genre fiction. It's not just the words he uses, though he plays many word games, using archaic vocabulary in his alien, far future-medieval world with its dying sun, with descriptions that are sparse but elegant. He also uses lots of metaphors and allusions, Severian is an unreliable narrator, and there are so many riddles wrapped in the text that entire books of literary analysis have been published about this series.
"Thecla and I used to read them and talk about them, and one of them was that everything, whatever happens, has three meanings. The first is its practical meaning, what the book calls 'the thing the plowman sees.' The cow has taken a mouthful of grass, and it is real grass, and a real cow. That meaning is as important and as true as either of the others. The second is the reflection of the world about it. Every object is in contact with all others, and thus the wise can learn of the others by observing the first. That might be called 'the soothsayer's meaning,' because it is the one such people use when they prophesy a fortunate meeting from the tracks of serpents or confirm the outcome of a love affair by putting the elector of one suit atop the patroness of another."
"And the third meaning?" Dorcas asked.
"The third is the transubstantial meaning. Since all objects have their ultimate origin in the Pan-Creator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will, which is the higher reality."
Fortunately, the entire book does not consist of conversations like this, but it isn't a light read. That's not to say it's hard or boring either - some readers say it's hard to wade through Wolfe's prose and obscure lexical games, but I didn't find it particularly difficult, especially if you're used to reading SF&F. It's definitely not a fast-paced book, though, and with all the clues Wolfe drops and mysteries he leaves for you to solve, it demands a leisurely reading.
Verdict: This is a book to show off to people who think pure speculative fiction can't be literary. It's got far more depth and elegance than the doorstoppers filling SF shelves today, and few modern spec fic writers have Gene Wolfe's writing chops. (Catherynne Valente is one of them. China Miéville, maybe. Neil Gaiman, no. Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, Brent Weeks? Fuhgeddaboudit.) But, that's not to say The Shadow of the Torturer is a favorite. I liked it, I will read the rest of the series - eventually - but it's a thoughtful read, not a fun read. Pick something else if you want a story that moves at a fast pace or a fantastic adventure. This is a fantasy, and it is an adventure, but it will make you slow down to pay attention, and in the first book, you'll spend so much time appreciating the world that you'll only realize at the end that you haven't gotten very far.
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