The Shadow of the Torturer

Book cover of The Shadow of the Torturer.
Book 1 of the 'The Book of the New Sun'

Review

The Shadow of the Torturer is the first installment in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy. It follows the life of Severian, a torturer and executioner on a dying Earth. The pacing is slow, but Wolfe’s worldbuilding is fantastic, crafting a setting that pulls the reader in.

The book is narrated by Severian, a torturer exiled from his guild for showing mercy by helping a victim commit suicide. It chronicles his life as he rises to become the Autarch of his civilization. Like Hyperion—and the opposite of Consider PhlebasThe Shadow of the Torturer tells a seemingly small, personal story that nonetheless effects and hints at larger forces and events happening just out of sight. The reader only gets glimpses of these looming mysteries, and I suspect part of the payoff of the series will be uncovering what they are.

There are a several motifs, the most obvious of which is the fragile boundary between life and death. Severian cheats death multiple times—once at the beginning of the book when he almost drowns (water is another motif) and again later when he loses the flower duel. He is a torturer and an executioner. He lives amongst the graves and mausoleums surrounding his guild.

Wolfe uses archaic English, mixed with some Latin, to give the world an old and alien feeling. I frequently looked up unfamiliar words, although you can also treat them as a kind of “technobabble” and infer their meanings from context. In this way, the experience is similar to reading The Quantum Thief, which uses foreign words for a similar effect. I think Wolfe’s prose is more successful, because the prosody of archaic English matches the rest of the text better. Still it makes for a dense, slow read.

The Shadow of the Torturer is similar to Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief in another way: they both have very deep worldbuilding at their heart. Again I think Wolfe’s is more successful than Rajaniemi’s because The Quantum Thief feels like it dumps the worldbuilding over you in a torrent, while The Shadow of the Torturer leaves it hidden in the nooks and crannies of the story for you to slowly uncover, making it feel more organic.