Listen to more in the Book of the New Sun series.
©1980 Gene Wolfe; (P)2009 Audible, Inc.
"The best science fiction novel of the last century." (Neil Gaiman)
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
There was a time when the fantasy genre didn't just exist to entertain, but sometimes aspired to a higher level of artfulness. The Shadow of the Torturer is such a book. Set in a far distant future, when Earth's sun is fading and human society has lost much of its technological aptitude, Wolfe's novel has a haunting, elegiac quality. It's written in a voice reminiscent of 19th century writers like Poe or Dickens, which adds to the melancholy beauty. Fortunately for the squeamish, though torture is part of the story, it's not described in much detail.
In terms of plot, The Shadow of the Torturer isn't a complex novel. The protagonist grows up under the protection of a strange, cloistered society, learns a few things about the outside world, betrays his guardians, and is thrown out to seek his own fortune -- familiar fantasy stuff. But what sets the book apart from standard swords-and-sorcery fare is the richness of its language and the great imagination in its details; the difference is like comparing a fine oil painting to a crude computer graphic rendering. It has subtlety that forces the reader to pay attention. Wolfe messes with time and space, contemplates philosophical ideas, writes long exchanges whose import isn't immediately clear, and relies on the audience to make sense of the strange, slightly dreamlike events that unfold in the story, rather than spelling out how they're connected.
Without a doubt, this is a book that will absorb some readers and alienate others. Wolfe's ornate, college-level English, though not difficult, is not for everyone. Nor will everyone relate to the protagonist's detached, clinical voice. Basically, if you're looking for a light, Harry Potter-style book with instantly charismatic characters, you're better off going elsewhere. But, for readers who appreciate sophisticated writing and atmospheric, textured imaginary worlds, this is a great read.
Thought-provoking, image-rich and intricately plotted. This series has had a prized place on my bookshelf for years and I was thrilled to see it available as an audiobook. Even better, Jonathan Davis as narrator has a moderately slow (but not too slow) pace, great voice characterization, and handles the author's challenging and singular vocabular with ease.
Wolfe is subtle, profound writer and demands close attention from his readers/ listeners; this is not a surf-along novel. If your attention is distracted for a minute, you could miss something vital, and need to rewind -- I sometimes have had to do that as I listen. But most of the time I am completely engrossed. This is one of the best finds I've made, ever.
I hope to see more Wolfe audiobooks- beginning with this series' sequel/ continuance, "The Urth of the New Sun".
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), the first of the four books that comprise Gene Wolfe's science fiction masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, is a rich, moving, and challenging novel. Just in the first few chapters we learn that narrator Severian (who is writing his life story) was an orphan apprentice of the guild of torturers (the Seekers for Truth and Penitence) in the Citadel of sprawling Nessus (the City Imperishable) in the far future of Urth (earth?), under a dying sun; that the towers of the Citadel are long-derelict spaceships; that Severian has an eidetic memory; and that his youthful encounter with the rebel leader Vodalus set in motion events that will lead him to betray his guild, become an exile, and sit on the throne.
The novel is disturbing! There are glimpses of the appalling "excruciations" the guild performs upon its "clients," and many characters are afflicted with grief, including Severian, who is cursed to remember every detail of his sad experiences. But it is also funny, as in the eccentric and grotesque characters like Dr. Talos and Baldanders and the banter between Severian and Agia.
Severian's history is a demanding read. As in novels like A Voyage to Arcturus, everything seems to bear symbolic as well as narrative meaning. And Severian is not a completely reliable narrator, for he often lies and may be insane, and although he remembers everything, he selectively tells his story, at times eliding painful things and alluding to them later while narrating different events. And some things he recounts question the reality of his world (and ours).
Severian has much to say about reality, memory, history, story, art, culture, justice, religion, meaning, and love. Provocative lines punctuate his text. Symbols "invent us, we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges." Or "time turns our lies to truths." Or "the charm of words … reduces to manageable entities all the passions that would otherwise madden and destroy us."
Additionally, the richness of the novel's language, the elegance of its style, and the fertility of its imagination require slow savoring. In Severian's text common words rub shoulders with archaic or obscure ones, evoking the exotic texture of his world, as in names for officials (autarch, archon, castellan, chiliarch, lochage) and beasts of burden (dromedaries, oxen, metamynodons, onagers, hackneys).
Numerous descriptions yield shivers of pleasure: "She sighed, and all the gladness went out of her face, as the sunlight leaves the stone where a beggar seeks to warm himself." Or "Behind the altar rose a wonderful mosaic of blue, but it was blank, as if a fragment of sky without cloud or star had been torn away and spread upon the curving wall." Or "(A spell there was, surely, in this garden. I could almost hear it humming over the water, voices chanting in a language I did not know but understood.)"
Numerous scenes impress themselves on mind and heart, as when Severian visits the blind caretaker of the Borgesian library, finds a horribly wounded fighting dog, connects Thecla to the revolutionary, receives the black sword Terminus Est, falls into the Lake of Birds in the Garden of Everlasting Sleep, performs for the first time the mysteries of his guild's art, or witnesses a miracle with Dorcas.
Jonathan Davis adds so much to the novel with his witty and compassionate reading, modifying his voice to enhance each character without drawing attention to himself. And it's a pleasure to hear him relish Wolfe's beautiful prose or say words like anacreontic, carnifex, epopt, fuligin, fulgurator, hipparch, paracoita, and psychopomp. (Though it does help to have the text handy!)
At the end of The Shadow of the Torturer, Severian says he cannot blame his reader for refusing to follow him any more through his life, for "It is no easy road." Nevertheless, the next three novels reward the effort to read them manifold.
This is maybe one of the saddest books I've read. An overwhelming sense of isolation and loneliness pours out of each line. It is deeply emotional book, and I don't think such a book is for everyone.
If you need constant action, hope, a quest, a hero with a purpose, and so on, this is not the book for you. There isn't even the hope of redemption for the protagonist and he really could use it. The story really is something quite dark and often times aimless.
Now, I completely enjoyed the book and found myself easily lost in the story. I don't doubt it is due a good deal to the excellent narration. The random wandering, discoveries, and encounters keep the story moving along and interesting. It is a very dream-like tale.
The only issue I had was that the author does ramble more than once, even to the point of being annoying in a few instances. Once during the book, I did sigh and think, "Can we get on with it?" However, this did not spoil my overall enjoyment.
In short, it's a great story if you can appreciate a great setting where hope isn't offered as the protagonist wanders aimlessly into exile.
Having read the New Sun books 25 years ago, I have to say that listening to them narrated by a truly great narrator made them even more enjoyable the second time around. Wolfes' writing is beautiful and hearing it in a different voice other than your own inner reading voice makes you appreciate his amazing ability to string words together, many of which he created for there rhythmic sound, in a melodic way which most authors can only dream of.
"... there are times when silence is a poem." - John Fowles, the Magus ^(;,;)^
I am almost anti-fantasy. I find most derivative at best and banal to the extreme. Wolfe's first book in his famous The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, however, is genre fiction at its finest. Original, difficult and well-crafted, it is easy to see how Wolfe is regarded as a writer's writer.
I read the book years ago and was delighted to see an audiobook version, so I decided to revisit the series. Jonathan Davis is an excellent reader, striking just the right tone for the narrator Severian. I'll be listening to the entire series and would love to see more audiobooks from Gene Wolfe.
I must have read the entire four-book series at some point in the 90s, and I recall that i was fascinated by the story. Fast forward to 2012. I accidentally happened upon the Shadow of the Torturer while perusing some books lists. Wow. I was very pleased to see that Audible has the entire series. The author has written a compelling story, combining sheer horror, symbolism, philosophy. Hearing Jonathan Davis's excellent narration of the author's beautiful prose is a pleasure.
This book is the first part in a five part series, and only the first four books are available on Audible. I would say that this series is the story of the torturer's apprentice Severian, and his journey from lowest and most despised member of society to the throne, set in a far future Earth in which civilization and society are on a slow decline. I would say that, except that this is less a story and more a multi-dimensional mental jigsaw puzzle. The series requires that you, the listener, pay a great deal of attention to the plot, characters and vocabulary, and then listen to the whole thing all over again, possibly a few times, to get the richness, complexity and beauty of Gene Wolfe's vision. If you are prepared to make that kind of commitment, this is a great bargain as it will repay you in many hours of listening pleasure, getting better each time you listen again.
If you are not familiar with Gene Wolfe's work, you would probably be surprised to hear this series compared to Lord of the Rings. After all, how many stories can live up to that kind of comparison? Amazingly The Book of the New Sun series does, and in some ways exceeds it, as these are more adult stories with some added layers of complexity.
Audible really outdid themselves with this production. I can't imagine a finer narrator for this series than Jonathon Davis. His pacing, emphasis, vocal expressions and various character renderings are flawless. The pacing is particularly important, as nearly every sentence contains some clue to solving the final puzzle.
I hope the final book in the series, The Urth of the New Sun, will be available at some point. Although written a few years after the first four in the series, it fits in so well with the rest of the story and solves so many unanswered questions that it appears to have been planned all along.
I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!
The Shadow of the Torturer introduces Severian, an orphan who grew up in the torturer's guild. Severian is now sitting on a throne, but in this first installment of The Book of the New Sun, he tells us of key events in his boyhood and young adulthood. The knowledge that Severian will not only survive, but will become a ruler, doesn't at all detract from the suspense; it makes us even more curious about how he will get there and what he experiences on the way.
What makes Gene Wolfe's epic different from everything else on the SFF shelf is his unique, evocative storytelling style. The reader isn't given all of the history and religion lessons (etc.) that are often dumped on us at the beginning of a fantasy epic. Rather, Severian's story is episodic and seems like it's meandering lazily, taking regular scenic detours, as if there's nowhere to go and plenty of time to get there. Because the story isn't a straight narrative, we don't understand the purpose or meaning of everything Severian relates ??? we have to patch it together as we go. By the end of the book, we're still clueless about most of it and we're starting to realize that Severian is kind of clueless, too. Much of the power of this novel comes from the sense that there is world-building and symbolism on a massive scale here, but that explanations and revelations for the reader would just cheapen it and remove the pleasure that comes from the experience of discovery.
In addition to being unique in style, The Shadow of the Torturer is a gorgeous piece of work: passionate storytelling (heart-wrenching in places), fascinating insights into nature and the human condition, beautiful prose.
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