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)
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.
I've been a fan of The Book of the New Sun for 30 years, and was delighted that Audible took a chance and recorded it. Though its large and unfamiliar vocabulary may daunt listeners who have never read the text, those who persevere will know a world and a man unlike any other, and find them worth the knowing.
This was the first work of fantasy I read where such magic as it contained was the magic of Clarke's 3rd law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." There are no dragons, sorcerers or wands, and the only sword is a blunt ended executioner's tool. The magic is in Wolfe's imagination as he builds a story set on an Earth so far in the future that the sun is dying, men mine the ruins of abandoned cities and their middens for raw materials, and so much has happened to the human race that legend and history have become interchangeable.
In this world, Wolfe sends Severian, the Torturer, on a hero's journey. As must be so on such a journey, the hero never knows himself as hero. Instead we live with his perils, his self doubt, his cowardice and courage, the terrible brutality and emotional blankness with which he practices his "art," and the discovery and growth that slowly reveal a magnificent heart. Severian is as flawed as the gem called the Claw of the Conciliator, and as real as your highest aspirations. You will not forget him, nor the many characters he meets on his journey from boyhood to a seat of power that proves to be both vast and impotent.
This is a remarkable book. Well crafted, rich language, delicate narrative. Certainly not filled with slashing heroes or delicate heroines and certainly not for everyone, but then neither is 20 year old scotch. If you enjoy language and the magic of words you will love this book. The narrator does a beautiful job bringing the characters to life...perfection.
I read the 1st book before and was happy to see the series here. I started with the 2nd book as an audio book, and purchased this 1st one in audio soon afterward. I found that I had forgotten much of the 1st book. Also, the narrator is so compelling that I thought I would gain more by listening to it instead of re-reading it.
In the early 1980's, almost 30 years ago, I read the four books of the new sun as well as its sequel The Urth of the New Sun. Of the hundreds of books I've read in my life, this series has stuck with me, forming me in many ways.
I just finished listening to the four books of the new sun, starting with The Shadow of the Torturer, and I listened to 48 or so hours almost non-stop just pausing when I must to sleep or work. I loved this reading and still love the books the second time around.
This is not so much a plot driven book, though it has a strong plot that it follows in its patient, winding way. It's a book of stories, allegories, compassion, growth and hope. It's a story of pain and loss and change but of humanity and our hope for a better world. I am a richer human for having read the series and richer for having heard it again now that I am older.
I can't wait for Audible to come out with the fifth book, and I hope they get Jonathan Davis to read it, too.
There are plenty of helpful reviews here. I wanted to give the would-be listener a couple examples of Wolfe's writing style, which I chose nearly at random. The reason to read this book is for this style, which I found to be very lyrical and sharp, and not for plot or character. I thought the narrator was well-suited to this style, because he was slow and articulate--listen to the sample to see if you agree.
"We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in face to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all."
"I saw a caique, with high, sharp prow and stern, and a bellying sail, making south with the dark current; and against my will I followed it for a time—to the delta and the swamps, and at last to the flashing sea where that great beast Abaia, carried from the farther shores of the universe in anteglacial days, wallows until the moment comes for him and his kind to devour the continents."
Years ago, I was initially put off by the theme of torture as the calling of the protagonist. Luckily, I gave it a second try, and found the subject given a philosophically deep and fascinating treatment that earns respect. This first book sets the story in a surprising and inspired world where the sun is fading and dim, but about to go nova. The details of the aged Urth are amazingly resonant in the imagination, and I have read the entire series many, many times. I have hoped for years that it would someday be available on Audible.
I am so glad I have found another author that I can trust to deliver a worthwhile experience. It is really a bad deal to take a gamble on a new writer and feel you 'wasted' your credits.
When the reviews are skimpy, I run to other review sites to see what others say. It appears that the titles have been changed a bit from the original works. At first, I thought the book left off in a ridiculous place until I realized that I only d/l'ed the first of 2 parts. I have already d/l'ed the 2nd book so there will be no waiting.
I rarely write reviews but since there are so few, I thought I would say a word or two to others who spend their credits cautiously. This writer is sophisticated and dark. I think of Robin Hobb's strong character development mixed with Robert Jordan's poetic skill. Any would be writers would do well to humble yourself observing this writers mastery.
If you are looking for something after this, I strongly recommend R.R. Martin's "A Song of Fire and Ice" series. Pretty much, most works pale in comparison to R.R. Martin's.
I hope this is helpful.
I have listened to literally thousands of hours of audio books in the last half decade and this is my first review on audible. The reader was fine and did not distract or add to the story in any applicable way. I've read The Book of The New Sun multiple times in the past. Gene Wolfe has been called the best living writer of science fiction/fantasy in the world. If your taste inclines to the same poorly written partially plagiarized fare of orcs and elves you will probably find little to like in the world of Gene Wolfe. I think of this series as science fiction written by an author that could stand on a pedestal beside Charles Dickens. People hate or love his work. Look up some reviews about The Book of The New Sun online to decide if it's for you. You may have just found your next addiction.
The narrative style of this book is one that I don't really enjoy in the first place. There is no active voice to be found, and the plot advances by fairly insignificant and underwhelming things just happening rather than being effected by the protagonist. This makes the story hard enough to follow in print where you can flip back a few pages to remind yourself how things progressed from A to B, but I constantly lost the thread while listening and often found myself completely bewildered. The narrator does a great job, though, which is a big plus if this is your kind of book.
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