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The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)

by Gene Wolfe

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Solar Cycle (1), The Book of the New Sun (1)

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2,619845,357 (3.83)3 / 104
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume in the four-volume epic, the tale of a young Severian, an apprentice to the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession--showing mercy towards his victim.

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» See also 104 mentions

English (81)  Spanish (2)  Finnish (1)  All languages (84)
Showing 1-5 of 81 (next | show all)
I've been getting back into and reading more sci-fi these days and really enjoying it. I've heard a lot said about The Book of the New Sun series and what I heard was always "it's one of the best sci-fi series of all time that really sci-fi fans know about" and then "don't ask me anymore until you read the book". So the fans care about the reading experience and that says a lot. So my review will follow that similar pattern of no spoilers but a few tidbits of help that might help you in deciding to read it or in your reading.

The story is told from a first-person perspective from our main character, Severian. He is part of a guild of torturers (him in training) who are tasked not with the extraction of information but just carrying out torture and executions in this world. Wolfe also has this higher metanarrative concept from him that the autobiography of Severian is given to him through some sort of time travel means. While not actually central to the story this helps further build the lore of the book.

Just a straightforward reading of the book makes one believe that this is a typical fantasy setting and even most of the book artwork you see has that old-world feel to it. However, this book takes place far, far into the future where it does seem that adage, that almost is never true is true here, "technology looks like magic from some perspectives". So here is your hint, dear reader, to look for things that seem like they are out of place in a fantasy story are supposed to be there because you're in a sci-fi story. So there are maybe elements of aliens, robots, clones, and maybe other sorts of sci-fi elements there.

Another interesting concept that I haven't had much experience with is the possibility of Severian being an unreliable narrator. After watching some discussion videos on just this first book, I'm not sure if Wolfe is writing Severian as unreliable or just adding in aspects that we, ourselves, use in our everyday talk. "I have a perfect memory of this incident" and then later you say you didn't remember this one thing happening isn't necessarily a "liar revealed" trope. However, this is only the first book. Severian is telling the story from his position as leader of this world and that's another element I missed until I saw it come up again in the book later.

As for the story, the plot is there and it is interesting but it's the way Wolfe unfolds the world you're seeing and experiencing through Severian. Not everything is explained to you because Severian doesn't have your context to explain why "this picture" or "this structure" is the way that it is because of a) Severian limited experience based on his position of this Torturer and b) to Severian those items aren't of note in his world because they've been there or are just there. Wolfe does a great job of crafting this story and he does have two, almost three, different layers to this story. I get why hard sci-fi folks like this because to get a lot out of it you need to put in the effort of paying attention and asking questions of you to what you're reading. I gather re-reads of this book are common for fans and multiple reads still reveal new questions or observations.

This story stuck with me after finishing it almost a week ago now. That's usually how I know something that's a good slow burn is there to stay in my mind. Just now getting into a bigger world of sci-fi than I have before I'm kind of surprised I hadn't heard about this before. Whether this is post-modern sci-fi or hard sci-fi or fantasy with a veneer of sci-fi is up for discussion but the story is just plain good. I will continue this series and believe I'll go on enjoying it. Final Grade - A ( )
  agentx216 | Aug 27, 2023 |
Great work of fantasy. Gene Wolfe's use of language is incredible, and I'd probably read pages of him describing how toast is made. Bit slow going at first but the story really picked up right at the end. I look forward to reading the next volume about Severian. ( )
  mindrot | Aug 22, 2023 |
The tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession -- showing mercy toward his victim -- and follows his subsequent journey out of his home city of Nessus.

So this week may not have been the appropriate week to read this book. Like, by a long shot. This week may have even been one where I’d have had trouble digesting something simple and YAey since we had lots of family drama, which usually (and this time, too) leads me to indulge in weird daytime TV that mostly involves HGTV and little else.

SO. I read the first half of this pre-drama, enjoyed it but didn’t really look too closely at it, which I gather is not the way to read this book. Then drama happened, I took a day or two off from reading, and came back to it a bit lost. I gulped the second half of the book down today with the frequent periodic outbursts of a video gamer cursing at his game coming from my husband, and I totally did not understand the significance of anything that happened. Woo. From about where we met Dr. Talos, I felt like the whole story took a loop for the genuinely odd, and while I got the greater riffs of the story I don’t really see what was so significant about them or whether I should continue on. Sigh. ( )
1 vote lyrrael | Aug 3, 2023 |
From the highly regarded science fiction /fantasy author jointly responsible for the creation of Pringles crisps, comes an epic and elusive cross-pollination of Ursula LeGuin and Christopher Priest.

A lot has been said about this series, most of which is overwhelmingly positive. It's so rare for a book to live up to its hype, especially when it comes to epic fantasy, and I really hoped this would. Granted, these are impressions of the first book in the series only, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed.

The prose is its ultimate strength, often making it a pleasure to read in spite of its convoluted diction and archaic terminology. Wolfe knows how to weave a sentence, and there is many a pretty turn of phrase.

Unfortunately, the characters are terribly drawn, including our protagonist. They are rarely described on a visual level, let alone revealed on an internal level. I wouldn't have been able to predict or refute any decision made by anyone because I did not know who any of them were. I knew their names, but nothing more. Some like Roche and Drotte could easily have been merged into a single character; similar with the masters. Our protagonist is detached and without passion, and I blame that on the voice of the author; that it is meant to be emotionless and impenetrable is not an excuse (should it be presented as one), because all the characters have the same issue. They are names on a page, occasionally rising to the status of cardboard. The women are particularly poorly presented. The possible exception is that of the theatrical Dr. Talos, who is just animated enough to set himself apart from the rest of the cast.

The world building is at least what it claims to be - original and well thought out. This, combined with the novel and seemingly implied concept of an unstable narrator, lays an interesting foundation, though I didn't find myself as drawn in as much I would have liked.

Still, there are sparks that show promise, and I intend to check out the next entry before dismissing the series. A further pull comes from my mild to moderate curiosity, the annoyingly abrupt ending, and the fact that I already own the next 3 books.... So, you know, may as well. ( )
  TheScribblingMan | Jul 29, 2023 |
This feels akin to an acid trip. Starting off in an enclosed and understandable space, it then opens up to the bizarre and surreal. You slowly begin to understand that this is very much the beginning of a high fantasy story, so the many questions that build up become much more palatable. Still though, one of the more thought provoking books I’ve read in a while. I was surprised by how many philosophical insights were sprinkled throughout. ( )
  addysh | Apr 17, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 81 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Wolfe, GeneAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Davis, JonathanNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Desmond, William OlivierTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Domènech, LuisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ewyck, Annemarie vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heinz, ReinhardTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lindgren, NilleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maitz, DonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Masera, RubénTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pennington, BruceCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tamás, GáborTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vainikainen-Uusitalo… JohannaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun
First words
It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.
To those who have preceded me in the study of the posthistoric world, and particularly to those collectors - too numerous to name here - who have permitted me to examine artifacts surviving so many centuries of futurity, and most especially to those who have allowed me to visit and photograph the era's few extant buildings, I am truly grateful. G.W. (Appendix)
That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin.
All of which is only to say that there exists between them [beast handlers] and the animals they bring to the pits a bond much like that between our clients and ourselves. Now I have traveled much farther from our tower, but I have found always that the pattern of our guild is repeated mindlessly [...] in the societies of every trade, so that they are all of them torturers, just as we. His quarry stands to the hunter as our clients to us; those who buy to the tradesman; the enemies of the Commonwealth to the soldier; the governed to the governors; men to women. All love that which they destroy. [32]
"But now, dear friends," he rose and dusted his trousers, "now we are come to the place, as some poet aptly puts it, where men are pulled apart by their destinations." [Dr Talos, 377]
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Wikipedia in English (1)

The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume in the four-volume epic, the tale of a young Severian, an apprentice to the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession--showing mercy towards his victim.

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Cloîtré depuis l'enfance entre les murs austères de la tour Matachine, l'apprenti bourreau Sévérian ignore tout des ruelles bruissantes de Nessus et, au-delà, des merveilles et dangers de la planète Teur... jusqu'au jour où il est témoin d'une scène mystérieuse dans la nécropole. Sa rencontre avec la châtelaine Thècle, qui attend sa mise à la question, finit de sceller son destin. Sa vie prend alors un tournant inattendu et la brillante carrière qui lui était promise débouche finalement sur un voyage plein de surprises.
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