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|Shadow of the Torturer
by Gene Wolfe
Published by Simon & Schuster, 1980
Amazon.com: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.ca: hardcover, paperback
Amazon.co.uk: hardcover, paperback
Highly recommended by: Elliot Hanowski
This is the first of a four-volume work, collectively entitled The Book of the New Sun. The second volume, The Claw of the Conciliator, won the Nebula award in 1981. A fifth volume, entitled The Urth of the New Sun, came out several years later, and both extends and illuminates the original work. While The New Sun will likely never be as popular as, say, The Lord of the Rings, in terms of style, depth and originality Gene Wolfe is a worthy successor to Tolkien and Lewis as a Christian fantasist.
In this volume, Wolfe introduces his readers to a detailed, byzantine world of the far future. The sun is dim and red, and the moon was long ago planted with great forests. Severian, raised by the guild of torturers, relates the events of his life, as he explains how he has 'backed into the throne.' He describes his upbringing in the crumbling Citadel, the act of mercy which sees him cast out of his guild, and his picaresque wanderings through the vast city of Nessus. We encounter Ultan the librarian, the cunning Dr. Talos, Baldanders the giant, the waifish Dorcas, and a host of other unique characters.
Wolfe's prose is beautiful and rich, and the reader can be borne along by it without giving too much heed to the depths below. But depths there are, and every detail is vested with significance, though it takes several readings to grasp many of them. Rather than inventing new words, Wolfe employs archaisms and little-used names, adding to both the strangeness and familiarity of his world. Severian has been called a dishonest narrator. I don't believe he is, but he can be guarded and misleading at times. There are hints and clues scattered through the text, but they're generally only given once, in off-hand remarks or in double meanings.
Christians will find much to reflect on. Severian and other characters muse on philosophical and theological questions. People of this time remember an enigmatic figure called the Conciliator (Severian encounters a relic known as the Claw of the Conciliator), and hope for his coming again as The New Sun. Severian is not a particularly good man, being promiscuous, dishonest, and violent, but throughout there is sense that he is being reshaped by a dark and mysterious Providence. (June, 2006)
This four book series, Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator, Sword of the Lictor, and Citadel of the Autarch are extremely complex but delightful renderings of a world so far in the future that it is hard to recognize as our own. Yet Severian, the torturer who shows mercy, becomes a strange Everyman, who shows us decency and wonder in a strange, but absorbing place. Christians will not find an obvious tract here: this is a dense literary journey, but it will bless you. Diane Joy Baker
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