Monday, June 05, 2006

The Shadow of the Torturer - Gene Wolfe

An Earth of the far future; a post-technological society living on the ruins of the past; ancient guilds with arcane rituals and origins lost in antiquity; cold and casual depictions of torture... Gene Wolfe describes all of these things in magnificent and luscious detail. Unfortunately, this takes up so much space that there isn't room for a plot.

Severian is a torturer's apprentice, who goes on to become a journeyman, is kicked out of the guild, and fights a duel... and, er, that's about it. Admittedly, this is only the first book in the series and there are hints of a bigger story in the background (the rebel Vodalus, the Claw of the Conciliator, some mention of time travel) but these are too short and inconsequential to count as proper foreshadowing. Vodalus in particular - the young Severian meets him in the first few pages and swears loyalty for no apparent reason, then repeatedly harps on about it for the rest of the book despite its utter irrelevance to the story.

The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Old Man Recording His Past. This is quite a commonly-used technique, as it allows a glimpse of what happened to the character in the end (eg. "As I sit here writing in my throne room..." or "The guards have provided me with pen and paper..."); it's also an easy way to do the foreshadowing ("If only I'd known what awaited me there...") and to reassure the reader that the character's not going to die. Unfortunately, it can also look quite cheesy and forced, and it rather precludes character development. Only one character can be explored, and this is done from the perspective of the same character at a fixed point in the future. This is fine when there is enough action to hold your interest, but action is something that this book badly lacks.

I'll be reading the next one in this series, but only because both books are bound up in the same volume. I'll let you know if it gets any better...



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read hundreds of books, and this series is my favorite of all time. It transformed me! Other Wolfe books are also high on my list...

8:08 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with 'anonymous', heh. These books are beautiful and philosophical. I mean, can you honestly say you weren't affected by Thecla? I would rank TBotNS as one of my top 5 favorite series of all time....

8:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this review is any indication, you are woefully unqualified to read literature, let alone review it. Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is a masterpiece of literature, not just of science fiction, and focusing narrowly on the plot of the book or on your perception of Wolfe's foreshadowing completely misses the point.

10:11 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

Hey, Anonymous 3! Much as I appreciate your opinions of my "qualifications", I hardly think that the status of "literature" excuses the book's sad lack of plot or character development, two things that matter a great deal to me when reading. Beautiful prose is all very well, and if that's what blows your goat then fine, but it's rather rude to assume that everyone wants the same thing out of a book. Personally, I found it very dull, and reviwed it accordingly. If "literature" translates as the inability to tell a story, then frankly you can keep it.

12:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the honest review. I read "Shadow of the Torturer" earlier this year, with much the same reaction that you had. I guess I can't join the "This is the most monumental work of science fiction ever" club, either.

Good work!
Anon 4

11:02 pm  
Anonymous Donya said...

Sorry Alice. You should go back to reading Disney and Enid Blyton.

You have completely missed the point of the story - all it's subtlety and genius just completely went over your head.
You missed the exploration of this strange future world with all its political intrigue. An autocratic dictator sits on the throne – there are rebels plotting to oppose him. In order to keep his reign intact, he has created an organization of torturers, whose function is to crush any opposition to his rule.

Because not many sane people enjoy going around torturing and killing innocent people, the organization recruits orphans while they are still babies and small children, and they get indoctrinated into the guild’s cold and cruel ways from a very small age.

Yet the cracks show- one of the “masters” at least, has gone a bit barmy and has continual nightmares. Severian has not really started torturing and killing yet, on a grand scale, though he has been taught that this is his duty.

Had they managed to turn him into a cold, hard-hearted killer? Unfortunately not, despite their best efforts. He finds a wounded dog, and taking pity on the animal, he nurses it back to health in secret, our first cue that Severian is deep down still a compassionate human being.

One of the plotters against the dictator has been caught- she is a lady of noble birth, and her sister is a concubine of the dictator’s. She is taken into custody by the Torturer’s guild, and given preferential treatment.

Part of the preferential treatment, is that Severian is allowed to keep her company and amuse her during her long confinement. The two of them fall in love, and Severian starts to have wild fantasies that she might be able to escape excecution, if not torture.

Sadly, this is not to be – as he hears the sad news that the lady Thecla is to be executed on a certain date, and that he himself is to aid in the execution- through a method which will cause her a slow agonizing death.

He starts to make wild plans of escape with Thecla, but realizes that this will bring disgrace upon the guild, and ruin upon his direct masters and himself.

She is given a foretaste through means of torture, and Severian finds that he cannot keep his emotions in check, as is expected of a torturer. Her pain and suffering disturbs him deeply. At the very last moment he starts to regret not trying to escape, and, in a bid to at least prevent Thecla’s agonized suffering, He provides her with a knife he stole from the kitchen, which allows her to put herself out of her misery.

Severian feels so broken-hearted at the loss of his love, that he barely cares what his punishment is to be at the hands of the guild, which should in actual fact be his own execution.

However, that quirky little quality humans seem to feel despite their attempts at being cold and dispassionate, yet comes to the fore once again, and his guardian tries to save his life by putting in good words for him, and proposing exile instead.

This alternative is accepted since torturers are in short demand at the far edges of the dictators' realm.

So Severian is sent out into the world to experience a whole lot of other adventures, and meet a whole lot of people who are subtly stereotyped, which I don’t have space to put into my little synopsis here.

In fact, I have by now only shown you what you have missed out of the first third of the book, and have not even started to scratch the surface of the richness and all of the subtleties revealed even in the first third of the first book of the series.

It is perhaps so that you can read, Alice – but can you understand what you read? It would seem not.

It would perhaps do the literary world a favour if you confined your little reviews to action novels, Mills and Boone and kiddies stories, where everything is spelt out to you in detail; please stay away from books written with subtlety and intelligence – since these seem to go completely over your head. :(

9:14 am  
Anonymous Donya said...

In any case - one of the main themes of the book is that of Severians' inner journey of self-discovery. Slowly he starts to see that the values that the guild had instilled in him, are diametrically opposed to what his inner heart tells him - and having once betrayed his inner integrity to obey the Guild rules - by not helping Thecla escape, he starts to break away more and more from what he had been taught to believe from childhood.

It is this inner jouney of discovery that is the biggest delight in this brilliant series of books, amongst the other delights of a description of the interesting technology and political intrigue of the world - written by an author who is an engineer by profession, btw.

9:22 am  
Anonymous Donya said...

I realise that I had posted some spoilers about theplot, and you are welcome to remove the post once read, if it is possible for you to do so, Alice.

It just really got my goat that you harp on about characterisation, yet, completely failed to see characterisation.

Also, you claim that Vodalus is irrelevant to the plot- yet have you read the entire series to know that he is indeed irrelevant? obviously not...

Sorry about the attack, but I've been reading voraciously since the age of 3, so I'd imagine I have quite a lot of reading under the belt by now, and this is one of my favourite series of all time.

Your review simply doesn't come close to doing it justice.

9:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having just read this book, and been perplexed by it, I thought I'd see what others made of it and have to agree with 'Alice's' reasoned review.

The real reason for leaving this comment, however, is to say I'm fascinated by Donya's response - she has totally reinterpreted the contents to fit what she wants it too! Four years on, spoilers should not heurt but if they do, stop reading now. Thecla is not in love with Severien, he actually says 'I'll never be more than a sweet boy to her' - yes he's in love with her but she see's him as her 'last friend' - etc etc.

A book full of verbosity and, maybe great literature if it can effect some of it's readers in this way but the best ever - no.

9:34 am  
Anonymous Jonathan Langford said...

Because this comes up as one of the top "hits" on Google, I want to leave a comment, belated though it may be.

It's certainly fair to give personal reactions to a book: e.g., that you find it difficult to read and the story hard to follow (if not nonexistent). And that is certainly the reaction of many readers to Gene Wolfe. However, the plot and characterization *are* there, for those with whom the book connects. Donya's description of Severian's character growth isn't something she's imposed, but something that does actually happen over the course of the book. And all those parts and pieces that seem irrelevant early on do in fact come back and wind up playing an important part in the story later on.

Part of the problem is that Book of the New Sun is really one story broken into four books (Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator, Sword of the Lictor, Citadel of the Autarch). It's impossible to get a sense of the entire plot from reading just two of the books, any more than one could judge the plot of The Lord of the Rings from reading only The Fellowship of the Ring.

Is this series for everyone? Certainly not. The books are challenging and far from straightforward, and if you didn't like the first two, I see little reason to press on the others. However, please accept that for those who have read and enjoyed the entire book, the character development and plot are actually *strengths* of this book. This isn't a case of style without story -- though as your reaction demonstrates, it may be a case of style that gets in the way of story for some readers.

8:23 pm  

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