What is one to make of a book entitled The Shadow of the Torturer? This famous 1980 novel by Gene Wolf, the first of a four-part series, is paired with part two, The Claw of the Conciliator, to form Shadow & Claw.
The title is not sensationalistic in the manner of some recent books, but genuinely reflects the topic of the book. The “hero”, Severian, is in fact a member of the “torturer’s guild”, and does in fact torture and execute a number of people. That he commits a grievous offense against his order/build—by allowing one of his charges to commit suicide—is the most we can say about Severian as a human being; there is not much otherwise to recommend him as a protagonist.
Wolf’s The Book of the New Sun, of which Shadow & Claw comprises the first half, is considered a canonical book of science fictional fantasy. I use a wishy-washy phrase like that because the text is difficult to pin down in either camp. The immediate text, that of sword-swinging, castles, and magic, seems like something firmly fantastical, a direct child of the sword-and-sorcery genre. And yet, Wolf drops subtle clues and sidelong references to the story taking place in the far, far future (with the sun noticeably dimmer), and mechanical contraptions that sound vaguely like engines or firearms, and manned spaceflight.
Unfortunately for readers, much of the world-building that goes on is entirely in the form of subtle clues; having read through the first two books, I still cannot say for sure what Wolf’s created world is aside from a far-future dystopia; the rules which govern Severian’s universe remain largely unspoken, and we learn very little of them by praxis. In my research of the series, I’ve found this to be a common complaint; I can only hope the picture becomes clearer in the second half.
As I mentioned, Severian is a young apprentice of the Torturer’s Guild; perhaps in part to his youth or Wolf’s desire to make him a protagonist we could relate to, early Severian takes care of a disabled dog, and falls in love with Thecla, a prisoner and subject of the guild’s ministrations. When he affords her the limit of his power as a torturer apprentice—a contraband knife with which she can take her own life—he is unofficially booted from his guild, but given the trademark fuligin (a color “darker than black”) cloak and a sublime executioner’s sword known as Terminus Est, and sent to a distant city called Thrax to serve as a lowly executioner.
This new sojourner Severian seems a different man than the apprentice we know; he is clipped in manner, amoral, and swift to anger. He is no longer an immediate foil to the corrupt world in which he lives: a empire run by an Autarch whose power is so absolute that citizens are compelled (either by fear or mandate—it’s not clear which) to follow every invocation of his name with some ridiculous honorific like “whose forbearance knows not walls nor seas” or “whose pores outshine the stars themselves”. This state of affairs reminds me not a little of North Korea, where a repressed citizenry are compelled to worship Dear Leader as a god, inventing stories about birds mourning his death, &tc. Severian then, becomes a protagonist not because he seems to be one, but because the narrative centers around him, and Wolf’s continuing hints make it clear that he’s supposed to be one.
After a number of strange, rather disjointed adventures, Severian ends up in the service of Vodalus, a revolutionary and a traitor to the Auturch, whose life Severian saved in the opening pages. Early on, Severian professed to follow Vodalus, even though we’re never quite sure what Vodalus stands for aside from being against the Autarch; I suppose our innate sympathy with the little guy—Rebels v. Empire—is supposed to inform our feelings as readers. Vodalus tasks Severian, who is still technically on his way to Thrax, to deliver a message to a servant in the Autarch’s massive castle-cum-city, the House Absolute. Captured by guards, they are thrown into the “Antechamber”, essentially a prison, and at this point the story begins to get really strange; I won’t go into details, since they would only be more confusing in this context, but it has to do with Koreans, robots, space-travelers, and lots of allusions to Kafka. Severian meets the Autarch himself, and swears service to him (isn’t it rather difficult to swear service to Vodalus and the Autarch at the same time?).
There is a long interlude wherein Severian and his traveling companions perform a play, the entirety of which is reproduced in the book, and I’ve never seen a more absurd stretch of obviously-allegorical but maddeningly-opaque verbiage. Imagine Waiting for Godot but with the entirety of the play imbued with the febrile incoherence of Lucky’s monologue. Given how the story has progressed thus far, this seems duly appropriate.
Jonathan McCalmont writes,
The great mystery behind The Shadow of the Torturer is that there is no mystery. It is an entirely solipsistic piece of writing that does not seek to comment upon the real world or the human condition. It has no deep spiritual meaning or political significance. Instead it is a monument to the author’s skill at controlling the perceptions of his readers. His use of pseudo-mystical imagery seeks us scurrying here looking for hidden meanings, his repetitions of certain phrases and images make us consider them to be somehow significant. We read and re-read his words trying to make sense of them and when nothing concrete can be coaxed from the text Wolfe benignly pats us on the shoulder and says that it is not easy trying to work out what someone as clever as him is trying to say.
While I cannot deny the possibility that the second half of the series will tear away the veil, so the speak, I can’t help but nod my head in agreement.
(If you enjoyed Jonathan’s superb write-up of The Shadow of the Torturer, see also his critical reading of The Claw of the Conciliator).