Usually, once I finish a novel I have a clear idea about what it is, and how I feel about it. Not in this case. I’m still not sure if I like Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer and maybe that’s because I decided to read it on its own rather than looking at the tetralogy The Book of the New Sun as a whole. The Shadow of the Torturer was published in 1981 and stood by itself for a year until The Claw of the Conciliator, so it should stand by itself. Reviewing something labelled a ‘Masterwork’ is daunting because if you don’t like it, then there’s the feeling that there’s something wrong with you – that you didn’t ‘get it’ – rather than a problem with novel. Well, bugger that.
Paradoxically, I’ve found some of the best novels I’ve read are the ones I’ve put down several times and been drawn back to, forcing myself to get past the twists and turns of the rabbit hole during those first one hundred pages (strangely, this length is consistent) and then been drawn in and onwards through to the final page. I’m still not sure if The Book of the New Sun falls into this category.
Labelling it a Masterwork must have been relatively obvious, but classifying it as fantasy must have given some labelling machine at Orion an apoplexy. It’s set in the future, but hey it’s got swords, it’s got flying machines, but hey it’s got swords, it’s got advanced technology indistinguishable from magic, but hey it’s got, no wait, magic? Problem solved. But, this is not the time for genre debates and they’re all rather boring anyway, so on with the review.
The Book of the New Sun is the story of Severian of the Torturer’s Guild. Severian narrates his life in the first person when he is (I assume) an old man and has succeeded to the throne of the Commonwealth to become the Autarch.
Adopted into the Torturers’ Guild in the city of Nessus, he grows up learning the art of excruciation practiced on ‘clients’. The Guild acts at the Autarch’s command, not asking questions of why they must ask questions. There is little discussion about their aims in torturing their clients, at times it seems more like a place of punishment than a tool for truth-seeking.
The first chapters detail his early years in the guild and his growing loyalty with the revolutionary, Vodalus. A one-sided bond established after a chance encounter in a graveyard, it is never quite clear why Severian feels such admiration for Vodalus. Unsure of whether he belongs in the guild this fascination leads him into a strange relationship with one of his clients, a woman named Thecla, who is imprisoned due to her sister being Vodalus’ lover. I never quite believed in these emotional ties as Severian is an opaque character due to his own unreliable narration. This is consistent throughout the book as Wolfe rarely dwells on his characters’ motivations. They do what they do and that’s it. His act of mercy in helping Thecla commit suicide rather than continue being tortured sees him exiled to the distant city of Thrax and, at the same time, he is gifted with the sword Terminus Est. Alongside these plot points Severian explores the local area revealing an ancient city that has forgotten its own past except for a few lonely figures holding a candle up to history. The Citadel is a dark, brooding edifice filled with sects and guilds, yet strangely empty; more like a museum than a living city. Wolfe doesn’t dwell on detail yet creates an exceptionally vivid and realistic setting. My only problem here was that each scene/setting feels a little like the stage of a movie set, filled with props that hide the emptiness behind. Each place Severian travels through feels isolated and cut off like islands in the city-sea.
After leaving the Citadel a series of vignettes (a structure similar to that of Iain M. Banks Consider Pheblas), constructed as pseudo-parables, describe Severian’s journey from the Citadel of the Torturers to the borders of the city, Nessus. During his journey through the city, Severian grapples with uncertainty about whether he did the right thing as he leaves all that was familiar to him. He finds work as an executioner to earn money, which further confuses him as he becomes more and more what he thought he was not.
After being challenged to a duel, Severian, enters the Botanical Gardens where he has several strange encounters on his path to collecting his weapon for the fight, which is a poisonous plant called an avern. The Botanical Gardens is a wondrous creation, with various sections that somehow entrance visitors into not wanting to leave. It is here that Wolfe makes the setting of the distant future clear through a exhibit that Severian and his companions become a part of.
The build-up to the monmachy (single combat) takes around six chapters and the fight itself is over in a matter of paragraphs. I found it singularly unsatisfying, not because I wanted an overworked fight scene, but because Severian’s success doesn’t come from him, but from a deus ex machina immunity to the avern’s poison.
This was not the only thing I found slightly ‘off’ about The Shadow of the Torturer. Severian’s relationships with the various female characters are somewhat unconvincing. Although his age is never explicitly stated, I placed him in his mid to late teens and despite coming from the cloistered environs of the guild he still manages to be irresistible to the women he meets. He often talks of love, yet this never comes across as genuine. This may be intentional as Severian is narrating his own life and this how he interprets his memories, but it still jarred.
Wolfe is an incredibly literate writer; he uses language with purpose – you get the impression that every word is meticulously chosen – and this could be a barrier to some readers. I found myself reaching for the dictionary every couple of pages. The only other writer I’ve had to do that with is China Mieville, who counts Wolfe as one of his influences.
The Book of the New Sun is not an accessible book and whether or not it is worth the work involved is up to the individual reader. I found myself searching for hidden meaning, but found it only rarely as I’m sure much of it went straight over my head. In a little metafictional tongue-twisting, Wolfe (via Severian) cops to his intentions.
“…everything, whatever happens, has three layers of meaning.”…
(I’m jumping ahead here to the third meaning)
“And the third meaning?” Dorcas asked.
“The third is the transsubstantial meaning. Since all objects have their ultimate origin in the Pancreator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will – which is higher reality.”
“You’re saying that what we saw was a sign.”
I shook my head. “The book is saying that everything is a sign.”
From what I’ve read from others more Wolfe-wise than I, he is using the Book of the New Sun as allegorical vehicle for some proselytising. Now, I’ve got no problem with a little preaching. Hellfire and brimstone make great fantasy, but there’s still got to be a story. Now, as I’ve only read the first book, having decided to judge them individually as that was how they’re published, and not having read the Bible, I can’t say whether this is true, but if that’s your thing, then this may be the book for you. In the end, I’m still unsure if I actually like this book. There is no doubt that it is an important piece of literature, and has influenced many modern writers, but somehow by its end I felt like I had just read an academic text rather than a work of fiction. I will be reading onwards with the next books in the series: The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch; and perhaps I will have a far different opinion at the end than I do now. And that may be a good thing, for anything worthwhile does not come easily or simply.
About the Reviewer: Craig Leyenaar is completing an MA (Writing) at Warwick University and then will be prostrating himself before the publishing world in hopes of being granted access. His television was taken away at a young age for no good reason, but was soon replaced with books. He has stuck with them ever since and now after twenty years of reading them he finally feels ready to comment. His tastes include everything from China Mieville and M John Harrison to Isaac Asimov and Peter F. Hamilton to David Gemmell and Terry Pratchett to - he better stop there otherwise there won't be room for anything else.