‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ is the first of five installments to Gene Wolfe’s saga, ‘The Book of the New Sun’. It is written as a translation for us, in our time, of a memoir written in another dimension of another galaxy in the future-yet-irrelevant time. Or, perhaps the time is relevant though undisclosed. And, I am left wondering how?! -If Gene Wolfe is in fact the translator of these foreign documents, just how he came to possess them and by what means and/or knowledge aided their translation? Or, is the translator not Gene Wolfe at all but only another character of unknown relevance to the plot a step outside the initial story as his voice is only unique from the narrator of the memoir to which it is translated from in the appendix at the end of each book?! WTF?! Two Gene Wolfes maybe? A lot is brought up but little is explained of the enigmatic universe depicted in this epic by the end of book: 1.
“Yeah, but is it any good?” you may ask. Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles! This is top shelf SciFi. If you’ve rolled a D-20, read DUNE, seen La Planète Sauvage on Blu-Ray and own a few prog-rock albums you’ll be fine.
Our narrator is Severian. An apprentice (and eventual journeyman) in the Seekers for Truth and Penitence (the guild of torturers). He opens his narration describing a pinnacle moment in his childhood where he helped a notorious revolutionary named Vodalus escape the necropolis (an intricate cemetery-garden) where he was stealing a body from its grave. The book takes us through life in the guild. The Torturers are housed in a mighty citadel amongst several dozen other unique guilds in the center of a sprawling metropolis autocracy called Nessus on the planet Urth. In the course of his duties Severian befriends a prisoner whom he betrays his guild for. Instead of putting Severian to death the guild masters instead banish him from the citadel – sending him to take the role of executioner in the far off city of Thrax with nothing but the clothes on his back and a really cool sword called Terminus Est. Severian might not be the Harry’est of Potters but he is head strong and unpredictable and I like that in a narrator.
In ‘The Shadow of the Torturer’ you are taken from gate (the citadel) to gate (the boundaries of Nessus). The environment is complicated but seeing as it is Severian’s first time out of the citadel you and your narrator get to learn together. There is a lot to learn. Gene Wolfe’s language has a strong Latin European influence which shouldn’t be too hard for those of you who didn’t cringe through the vocabulary section of the SAT’s. Even still, the prose works. There are an intricate cast of characters which bring about continually evolving subplots and that keeps the pages turning. Thrax is far away and understanding Severian’s destiny is beyond your immediate understanding but the interconnected encounters color in the world of Urth and explain its politics so by the time you get to the point, hopefully, you understand it.