Review: The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun Book 1 of 5)

The Shadow of the Torturer - Gene Wolfe

It took me a long time to read such a short book due to my work schedule.  I often only managed to read for a few minutes at a time because I kept having to drop what I was doing at a moment’s notice.  Today was supposed to be a day off (my first after 14 days), and I ended up working for most of it.  But there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s called “September”. :)


So the above paragraph probably explains why this book felt a little disjointed to me.  I’m pretty sure it was me who was disjointed, rather than the book.  Usually though, once I picked the book back up, I had no trouble with remembering what had happened before or with getting back into the story again.  It grew more entertaining as it progressed, but it held my attention well from the beginning.  I do think the narrator had a tendency to stop at some odd spots and skip over things I was interested in reading about, though.


This reads very much like epic fantasy, but there are some hints from the very beginning that this might actually be more of a science fiction setting.  In any case, as is common with epic fantasy, we start with off with a character whose life is soon dramatically altered from what he had anticipated.  The main character is Severian, and the book is told from his first-person perspective.  It's told in the form of a written history and he occasionally speaks, or rather writes, directly to his readers.  He is a young man when we meet him, and an apprentice to the Guild of Torturers.  He’s grown up with the guild from his earliest memories.  Beyond that, I can’t say much about the story without spoiling it because it takes a little while to move from that point.


This book is not at all as gruesome as one might expect based on the title, although it does have a few moments.  I also think that, in my experience, this book is pretty unique both in terms of both style and story.  If the word “torturer” makes you immediately think of Glokta from Abercrombie’s First Law world, there is little if any similarity between the characters.  I never formed a definite opinion about Severian.  He was a bit of a contradiction.  He’s compassionate in some ways, harsh in others.  Sometimes he made decisions that I agreed with, and yet his motivations for those decisions were often questionable.  He also had a tendency to “fall in love” with every pretty face he saw.  Obviously he’s had a weird upbringing, so much of his behavior can be explained by that, but it did make him a little difficult to enthusiastically root for. 


As I was warned, this book does not remotely tell a complete story.  It just tells one phase of the story, with no real resolution to events begun much earlier on.  I was planning to read the entire series anyway, at least for as long as I continue to enjoy it, so I’m moving on to the second book right away.


Next Book

The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe, the second book in this series.