The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
A young man breaks the cardinal rule of his guild and instead of the expected torture and death is sent out the only home he’s known to be a travelling executioner. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe is the first volume of The Book of the New Sun tetralogy following the life of Severian, an apprentice torturer who betrays his guild and brothers.
Raised within the ancient Citadel of Nessus by the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, aka the guild of torturers), Severian almost drowns in the River Gyoll and with some of his fellow apprentices goes into a necropolis where he encounters the legendary revolutionary Vodalus robbing a grave and helps him in fight with volunteer guards, earning him a gold coin from Vodalus. Later just before Severian becomes a journeyman, he meets a new client Thecla who is being used as a pawn to get to one of Vodalus’ associates. Because of her position, she asks that Severian talk with her and the two becomes friends even though Severian knows she’ll get tortured eventually. After her first torture session, Severian gives her a knife and after she slits her throat he turns himself in. Instead of torture and execution, Severian is sent out into the world as an executioner and given sword named Terminus Est. Venturing out further into Nessus than he ever had before, Severian scares people and is advised by the local guards to put something over his executioner’s garb. The next day after sharing a room with two charlatans he goes to a rag shop and when buying a mantle is challenged by a cavalry officer to a duel using an alien plant. The shop’s owner feeling responsible for this happening in his shop tells his sister, Agia, to show Severian how to prepare for the duel. The two journey around city to get his plant weapon and are joined by the mysterious Dorcas, who Agia dislikes though Severian is intrigued with. Facing his challenger, Severian survives a strike from the plant weapon surprising his opponent who attempts to run but onlookers attempt to stops him but he attacks him and kills several of them before he’s arrested by guards. The next day Severian wakes in a hospice and learns he is needed for an execution, visiting his client he finds Agia and her brother, who was his challenger, then realizes how naïve he was. After Severian executes Agia’s brother, he and Dorcas meet up with the charlatans while looking for some religious fanatics that Agia stole from only to learn they’ve left the city. The story ends on a cliffhanger because Severian decides to finish writing at that point.
There were a lot of things happening in this volume, which resulted in the story being both engaging and disengaging. The first person narration made the story very intimate, but also didn’t allow for the traditional world building which forced the reader to figure a lot of things out while trying to get a grip on the story itself. Yet once you figure things out the story becomes intriguing until Severian confronts the brother and sister in the prison cell and the brother’s reasons for challenging Severian are stupid. And the ending of Severian just deciding just to quit writing at the end of the story is weird as well. The fact that an older Severian is “writing” means that readers know he survives whatever happens, thus forcing Wolfe to take another direction which had both good and bad points.
The Shadow of the Torturer is a good story overall, though there are issues in the beginning and at the end that are somewhat disconcerting for a first time reader. Gene Wolfe created a very interesting protagonist and created several interesting twists throughout the story though some didn’t pay off as well as others while also laying seeds for future stories around Severian. This is an enjoyable volume that I’ll have to revisit with a reread in the future after completing the rest of the tetralogy.