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 Tortu..Show More »rer 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.
If ever there was a "marmite" series in fantasy, it would be Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. To its admirers, it's one of the most brilliant, litera..Show More »ry works in the genre; to its detractors, it's frustrating and overly cryptic.
Either way, Wolfe's creation is like nothing else in fantasy. Set eons in the future, when the planet is covered in the remnants of long-forgotten civilizations and the sun is beginning to go out from some mysterious ailment, the cycle follows the journeys of Severian, the torturer's apprentice cast out of his guild for showing mercy to a captive. Gifted (or cursed) with an exceptional memory, the older Severian recounts his experiences to readers with the assumption that we're from his own time.
The style takes some getting used to. Severian's recollections often have a dreamlike quality, with seemingly insignificant events described in detail, and important occurrences sometimes mentioned only in passing. Between that and the odd, archaic terminology, the reader has to pay close attention to keep up with what's going on. The little background details have a way of becoming important later, and not everyone is what they seem at first -- even the protagonist.
Yet, Wolfe's world-creation rivals Tolkien's in its richness and color. Everything Severian glimpses seems infused with the half-forgotten history of a very old planet, where some technology remains but seems on a level akin to magic. I loved the strange, wondrous background and trying to guess at the significance of semi-familiar legends and encounters with odd beings or characters. In my opinion, too many contemporary fantasy writers hold their readers’ hands and *explain* everything -- Wolfe keeps a lot tantalizingly mysterious, and leaves us to make small connections ourselves. More of that, please.
This is the second book in the series, continuing the picaresque travels of Severian and his companions, including a new one, north from the city of Nessus. While the first volume explored his childhood and turned him loose in a world he didn’t fully understand, this one thrusts him into different dangers and intrigues, including several romantic liaisons. We learn more about the strange Doctor Talos and his ad hoc performance troupe, about the titular gemstone’s powers, about the rebel Vodalus, and about the autarch and his underground citadel. Thecla, from book one, returns in a way that’s quite original. There's even a story-within-a-story, a play that reveals a little about the mythology around the idea of a New Sun (though it’s somewhat confusing). As before, Wolfe's grasp of language is amazing, switching between horror, subtle humor, profound observation, and recognition of small, meaningful moments.
There are clearly multiple layers to this story, so don't expect to have fewer questions when you get to the end than you did after the last book. Which is to say, Wolfe answers some questions, but throws new puzzle pieces onto the table. At this point, I'm definitely hooked on Severian's tale, but I'm not sure if I can properly "review" any of these until I've grasped the entirety of this whole ambitious cycle.
Audiobook narrator Jonathan Davis, whose cool, ironic voice I'm already a big fan of, is very well-suited to Severian's detached written voice. He might even humanize him a little more.
Not a usual Science Fantasy reader, I approached this The Book of the New Sun tetralogy with no slight hesitation, but it came highly recommended from..Show More » a friend whose judgement I trust. I loved the first half (Shadow of the Torturer and the Claw of the Conciliator). The third book however just didn't do it for me. It was brilliant at times, but more muted in certain middle sections and occasionally it almost seemed phoned-in. I have enough faith in Wolfe and the reputation of this work to finish, but if I had started with book three, I might have given the rest of the series a pass.
Still, I think Wolfe brings more to genre writing than most SF/fantasy authors, so I probably need to cut him a little slack. My expectations after the first two novels was pretty high and I'm almost certainly judging him against über-high standards which he set with his earlier New Sun novels.
So with this book, I have finally finished Gene Wolfe's tetralogy 'The Book of the New Sun'. While I don't think it quite measures up to Tolkien's 'th..Show More »e Lord of the Rings' or Dan Simmons 'Hyperion Cantos', and while I'm not a big fan of science fantasy (mainly due to my huge bias against fantasy), I was still kinda amazed at the sheer amount of what Wolfe pulled off with this novel. He played with the form, with the genre, with almost everything he began with. He explored time, love, relationships, pain and power. For me, 'the Sword of the Lictor' (book 3) almost discouraged me from continuing, but 'the Citadel of the Autarch' (book 4) pulled it all together.