The Book of the New Sun: The Shadow of the Torturer

Novel * Gene Wolfe * Post-Everything * 1980


This series is new to me, as the first novel is something I picked up on a whim while browsing the old Gold Room at Powell’s. Turns out that it is something of a hallowed sci-fi classic that I’ve managed to have never heard of, which goes to show that are simply too many books. Anyway, The Book of the New Sun seems to use a similar setting to an even older fantasy/sci-fi classic The Dying Earth, in which the human race has survived for millions of years to the point where the sun is getting bigger and redder. The Dying Earth (which is a series I should probably get back to) was a strange mish-mash of magic and science written in an off-kilter, fractured narrative about a bunch of fuckin’ weirdos waiting for the Earth to finally croak-boat. That first novel suffered from a 1950s world-view that Wolfe, with his shiny 80s veneer, avoids. That said, The Shadow of the Torturer introduces a world that is even denser, more archaic, and vastly more complicated than most fantasy/sci-fi worlds this side of Middle-Earth or Westeros.

Gene Wolfe expects you to pay attention. Each individual novel in this series seems to be fairly short. This first volume checks in at 210 pages, which would serve as a prologue for a Song of Ice and Fire book. I only bring this up because of how much information is packed into those 210 pages. This story is dense to the point where each sentence does its share in conveying this strange, far-future world. Wolfe throws the reader into the narrative with zero backstory or preparation. The story is told as if you are of this society. Since you are not, you have to basically figure everything out from context. This includes the language itself, to a certain degree, because Wolfe is fond of using incredibly archaic words to describe the world and the action. Your task, as an active reader, is to piece together how the society of Urth (get it?) functions while following the adventures of the young torturer Severian.

Wait, so the protagonist and narrator tortures people? Well, yes, but he’s not so bad for all of that. He’s a member of a guild, in a society which seems to have reverted to a quasi-medieval, guild-based civilization loosely built around a sole dictator, called the Autarch. There are many references to a previously high-tech society that decayed to the current state, although there are remnants of technology all over the place. Severian, like the reader, is fairly ignorant of how the world works outside of his narrow niche as a torturer. Not only has he never left his home city of Nessus, but he’s never left his own tiny corner of it. The early part of the story tells of a couple of important events in Severian’s life, which include him nearly drowning and a chance meeting with a revolutionary named Vodalus. We get a sense of life within the torturer’s guild until Severian goes and gets himself exiled.


This dope alternate cover/prog rock album by Bruce Pennington.


I suspect much of The Shadow of the Torturer will be enlightened by finishing the rest of the series. Wolfe has crafted a finely detailed, evocative world of the future. However, since it is up to the reader to piece together the trajectory of humanity over the last few million(?) years, more information is needed. Since these details are conveyed to the reader in an off-hand manner, it’s up to the reader to first notice them, and then weave them into the world-building process. Here’s how this works: Oh, the moon is green? Oh, snap! It’s terraformed, which means people live there maybe? But there doesn’t seem to be any kind of infrastructure set up for like a shuttle service, so maybe those on the surface have been cut off due to social decay? Oh right, earlier Severian made an aside about returning to the stars someday. Man, what if humanity colonized the stars, but civilization on Earth devolved over the millennia and now space has a bunch of super-evolved humans, but the homeworld is this fucked-up backwater now? Who knows! It’s all questions with very few answers, and with a book like this, the technique is effective. I get the sense that Wolfe has the answers, but finds it unnecessary to convey them outside of a few odd details.

This is because The Shadow of the Torturer is Severian’s story, and while Severian is a curious, adventurous young man, he’s still ignorant as all hell. He’s also a romantic, which is why he gets kicked to the curb in the first place for allowing a client to off herself because he loved her. This isn’t the only instance of dumb love, either. Literally the first woman he interacts with he falls for, even though she is actively trying to kill him. Like the rest of the narrative, though, nothing about the way in which the story is told comes off as particularly intense. Severian tells his story in distinctly detached, almost observational manner. There are scenes where he nearly dies, where he kills a dude, and where he makes sweet love to a hot young lady. All of them read in the same dreamy, almost listless manner.

This odd tone is due to two aspects of the narrative, both of which stem from the fact that it’s a first-person viewpoint. Right away Severian tells us that he doesn’t forget anything. He recalls every detail of every moment of his life with absolute clarity. So he says. Setting aside Severian’s reliability about this matter for a moment, the detached tone of the work partially stems from his having to transcribe his perfect memory detail-by-detail. This makes sense if he’s focusing on the particulars of his surroundings rather than how he felt at the time (he does speak of emotion, but it is generally in a tell-not-show sense). The other reason for the odd tone is by virtue of his training and his self-identification as a torturer. He has been trained since earliest youth to inflict horrors upon others while still maintaining his own humanity. We see that the torturer’s guild is like any other, and that its members are no more cruel and evil than any other profession. It seems that the only way to achieve this is to learn to strictly partition what they do from who they are. Which is to say, they must inure themselves against strong emotion.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of things happening which I think would illicit strong emotions. This is, at heart, a fantasy adventure novel. We know pretty much right away that Severian ends up as the Autarch – it is clearly stated at the beginning that this story is being written from this perspective. The first novel ends with Severian having made his way from his home to The Wall, which is a crazy mega-structure that surrounds the massive megalopolis of Nessus (located somewhere in South America maybe?). He still knows very little of the world and even less about the kinds of people which inhabit it. He has a dope sword and a cute girlfriend, which is more than many folks can say, but other than this he’s pretty much adrift in a confused, decaying civilization which may or may not be waiting for its final extermination at the hands of the sun. So far, so good.

Jump to the rest of the series: The Claw of the Conciliator; The Sword of the Lictor; The Citadel of the Autarch

This entry was posted in Book of the New Sun, Books, Entropy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s