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Book Review: Shadow of the Torturer

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on March 24, 2016

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If I am being honest then this book should probably be reviewed under the heading of my Classics Reviews. However, it has had plenty of praise heaped on it by the literary community, disqualifying it for that reason, and also it seems appropriate that this review contains at least a small fraction of the dishonesty to be found in the book.

The Shadow of the Torturer is the first book in Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun series and up until this sentence everything that you have read is true. Beyond this point be wary of deception. It is framed as a fantasy book, chronicling the beginning of the incredibly coincidental misadventures of a young man named Severian as he goes from being an apprentice torturer to becoming the Autarch, ruler of the commonwealth. In fantasy absolute truths and rules are vital. Magic must have limitations or a story degenerates into madness swiftly. While in other genres you can deliberately mislead your reader to preserve mysteries it is always a dangerous game in the realm of speculative fiction because reality and strangeness already blend there so readily that your deception may be perceived as truth and your truth as deception. The book is not a fantasy story, rather it is set in a future so distant that the human race has travelled to the stars and the sun itself is on the verge of death. The towers, so freely spoken of, gradually resolve themselves in your mental image of the world as un-launched space ships. Magical artefacts become technology so distantly futuristic to us as to be indistinguishable and so long forgotten to the characters that they loop back around to being magical all over again. If this was the end of the deception then we are left with a fascinating setting, interesting characters, beautiful lyrical writing and a plot so contrived that it makes me flinch just thinking about it.

Then comes the second layer of lies, for The Shadow of the Torturer is written with that most beloved of literary devices, the unreliable narrator. Severian contradicts himself repeatedly through his retelling of events. Often to paint himself in a more favourable light but just as frequently through a mere lapse of memory. The first few times that the reality of his situation do not match reality it is jarring. The sudden shift from what the writer has told us is true to a new scene where anything may be, is startling to say the least. As coincidence layers upon coincidence you begin to believe that Severian is merely trying to make himself look good in this biographical account of his rise to power but after a time another truth, hinted at here and there, begins to emerge, it is entirely possible, if not likely, that Severian is insane. Perhaps driven to that point by watching someone that he loved being tortured. Perhaps damaged mentally by his accidental drowning prior to his first wild invention. It is impossible to say reading just the first book, which leads Severian only from the brink of manhood to his first time leaving the city of Nessus.

If you can tolerate a book that is a game of mental cat and mouse between you and your deceptive hero then The Shadow of the Torturer is a rare treat, with a richness of character easily on par with Gormenghast. If you can't put up with second guessing every event then I can hardly blame you.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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