Gene Wolfe defies genre in Shadow of the Torturer. Review by S.K. Slevinski
In the first book of his four part Book of New Sun, Gene Wolfe proves the viability of alternative reality literature.
Shadow of the Torturer details the early life of series protagonist Severian, as he is reared through apprenticehood in the guild of torturers. Many people outside the Citadel believe the guild to be a myth, but it is a concrete daily reality for Severian, who comes to regard the guild with both affection and resistance. In a chance meeting at the opening of the novel, Severian chances to save the life of Vodalus, a man on the run from the current regime in power. When the sister of Vodalus's consort is sent to the hall of the torturors in the hopes that the woman will betray Vodalus to the authorities, Severian finds himself uneasily enchanted by the unusual prisoner. When she demands of the heads of the guild that Severian pay her social visits during her internment, the young apprentice finds himself torn between his dedication to his craft and his peculiar friendship with the Chatelaine Thecla.
Conceptually, this novel is both science fiction and fantasy. It is a future world with some industrial technologies, and yet it is also rudimentary, with the intrigues and customs we would expect in a fantasy world. The world, however, is subtle. Wolfe, to his credit, does not dwell on the world-building aspects of his fiction. It is setting, no more. It creates an environment in which the character explores his condition, meets challenges, makes decisions. At its heart, this book is a literary character study. Severian's plight is one of coming to terms with the cruelties of life, and learning how he wants to react to them. The prose is well-written, and direct. Despite the clean style, some readers may find the prose unconventional, especially if they are used to more typical fantasy fare. It only takes a few chapters to grow accustomed to this unique style, and it is well worth stretching one's comfort zone to do so.
This story is fast earning a well-deserved reputation as an alternative reality classic. Sophisticated readers of science fiction and fantasy who have not already read this novel are missing an important part of the canon. Readers newer to these genres who are looking for something deeper than the typical fare should seek out this book forthwith.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.