Summary: Possibly one of the best science fantasy novels Ive ever read. What makes it so? An eye for detail, a use for antique language in a novel and clear manner and an incredible sens of wonder.
Shadow of the Torturer is a book I literally turned my nose up thirty odd years ago. The covers didnt sell me, nor did the back of the book. It looked like a Conan rip off. Then, I recently decided to read it after I saw it listed as an example of the Dying Earth subgenre on Wikipedia. And since the books were readily available on PaperBackSwap.com, it made sense to snag them.
After I read it, I cannot believe I ignored this book this long. It is a great piece of science fantasy verging onto literature. And I honestly would not have appreciated it as a teenager.
What is Shadow of the Torturer about? Its about Severian, a apprentice, then journeyman torturer who finds himself involved in the intrigues and campaigns for and against the Autarch of the Commonwealth, a region of a far future Urth (Earth). It all starts when he saves the life of the famous insurgent, Vodalius. From there, we get a view of the guild, the Citadel of the Autarch, the city of Nessus and world through Severians eyes.
Severian makes an excellent viewpoint character with his cloistered upbringing in the guild, allowing 20th and 21st century eyes to look around at the end of history and Nessus without too many As you know Bob moments. Or at least making them fell more natural as the naive Severian gets an education
The plots Severian gets tangled up in range from the mundane (steal his stuff) to the grand (overthrow the Autarch and restore the Monarchy). He also takes a tour of Nexus culminating at the Sanguinary fields and a duel.
Wolfe has an amazing command of history and language, with a keen eye for detail that moves toward lush, but doesnt go overboard. The historical words he uses in the far future are obscure, but he explains them well enough through what they do. Also, having an internet connection and Google up will help as well to explain the meanings and origins of many of these words. This is a nice change from authors that make up words. Instead, Wolfe appropriates them and uses them in a manner that lends weight and meaning to his work. On a related note, The Lexicon Urthus by Michael Andre-Druissi is well worth acquiring to explain and define these words and many other things.
While this is identified as part of the Dying Earth sub-genre, the only characters remotely like Cugel are Dr. Talos and his companion, the giant Baldanders. Dr. Talos seems related to Cugel by his looks, vocabulary and a tendency to brazen things out.
This is an amazing book, layered with meaning and really dense. This can be a bug or a feature depending on your tastes. The density and vocabulary presumes the reader will put forth some effort. Ill say its worth it.
Finally, I doubt there is a better example of the old saw History is the trade secret of science fiction. Wolfe liberally steals from Medieval history for the world building as well as vocabulary. Its a beautiful world, full of wonders from the Autarchs Botanical Garden, to the libraries of the Citadel. Its also one, I wouldnt want to live in, with its casual cruelty and harsh laws.
This is is easily a five star book. Its inspired to get as much of the series as I can. Ive gotten everything except Urth of the New Sun from PaperBackSwap.com and I hope to get the related series Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun.
Likes: The eye for detail; The sense of wonder and weirdness; Severian giving us a walking tour of Nessus hes great for relating the world to the readers.
Dislikes: Some of the coincidences, though Ive been reassured that those are dealt with and explained; Severian can be a little too honest and serious some times.
Suggested for: Fans of Gene Wolfe, science fantasy, the New Weird, Jack Vance. Also for anyone who enjoys a book that can be a bit of a challenge.
One of the best books I've ever read.
Especially for lovers of words (and Latin!), June 9, 2005
Reviewer: John Bonavia (Needham, MA USA)
What an amazing saga of Earth ("Urth") perhaps millions of years into the future - the sun is weakening, there has been a major glaciation, but somewhere in the southern hemisphere exists a complex civilization, rich in hierarchy and tradition, and still using some of the ancient artefacts whose power source is almost inexhaustible. (In the top of the Matachin Tower - which we realize is actually a spaceship that has not moved for millenia - voices occasionally speak out, in forgotten tongues, to whomever is present, or to the other "towers". . .) But the residues of technology are secondary in interest to the wanderings of Severian, initially an apprentice in the order of Seekers After Truth and Penitence, commonly known as the Guild of the Torturers...
Inside the back cover of my copy, at one of my readings, I listed the dozens of words that Wolfe invents or modifies to suit his needs. . .many based on Latin or Greek, all with a phenomenal rightness to what they identify or - often - suggest. Badelaire, lansquenet, amchasphand, chrisos, orichalk, pinakothek, salpinx, ephor.. . . .And the tricky thing is that every now and then one of them is a real word . . did you recognise lansquenet and salpinx? Wonderful wordcraft.
Do read the four books of the series in order (this is the first). Otherwise you will certainly be confused, especially after Severian's encounter with the alzabo (the hideous animal that feeds on corpses and for a while thereafter posesses some of the dead person's ability and can mimic his/her speech: not a good voice to hear at your door in the middle of the night).
I remain indifferent to this "literary magician" whose work is "the classic stuff of sword and sorcery." More often than not, the author (or the narrator's) literary genius interfered with my enjoyment of the book and pissed me off. Severian, the first-person main character, at the end of this book says: "If you wish to travel no farther with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road." Good luck, Severian, we are parting company.