Several years ago I read Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s , a book of popular science whose title came from a theory about Napoleon’s botched invasion of Russia during the winter. The theory goes, as Le Couteur and Burreson reported, that the buttons of Napoleon’s soldiers, which were made of tin, turned to powder in the extreme cold, thus exposing their tender torsos to the wind. Though it seems implied, the authors don’t come down strong on either side of the historical reality of this. Though the confluence is in doubt—indeed, it seems unlikely—the individual components of the tale are true: there were a lot of dead Frenchmen that winter, and tin—a perfectly solid metal under normal conditions—does turn into powder in extreme cold.
By the time I read Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, it had been out for four years, garnered a critical mass of critical acclaim, and been followed up by a sequel both half again as late as expected and half again as long as its predecessor. The Wise Man’s Fear picks up almost exactly where the first book in the series left off. By way of summary: Kvothe, an extraordinarily intelligent and precocious gypsy child is orphaned by the brutal attack of a præternatural group called the Chandrian. His eventual enrollment in a university of engineering and magic lead him on a number of adventures both profitable (in many ways) and detrimental on his way to investigating and avenging the death of his parents. When we last left him, he had inadvertently called the True Name of the wind, which is the purest and most real form of magic.
The Name of the Wind came up, a little unexpectedly, on a list of the top 100 or so science fiction and fantasy books of all time. These are about as common as oxygen nowadays, but this particular list was from NPR, so I stopped to read. Among the obvious Tolkien, Heinlein, Herbert, Orwell, and other thoroughly entrenched authors were some surprises. I first learned of Gene Wolf’s The Book of the New Sun, which was new to me but an old book with its sci-fi bona fides. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind was more puzzling, being the debut novel of an unknown writer, published a mere four years ago. My curiosity was piqued.
Die Hard has been one of my favorite movies since on first saw it on TV as a child; it sparked my love affair with Bruce Willis and with antiheroes in general. When, only a few years later, I stood in a used book store in Fremont, Nebraska, and read the back cover of a old book called Nothing Lasts Forever and thought “Hunh, this sounds familiar” before putting it back on the shelf, I had no idea that Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel was, in fact, the inspiration for Willis’ break-out movie.
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.