In this episode of SF Crossing the Gulf, we tackle Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, the first volume of the Book of the New Sun quartet, published in 1980.
This is the first-person narrative of Severian, a lowly apprentice torturer blessed and cursed with a photographic memory, whose travels lead him through the marvels of far-future Urth, and who–as revealed near the beginning–eventually becomes his land’s sole ruler or Autarch. On the surface it’s a colorful story with all the classic ingredients: growing up, adventure, sex, betrayal, murder, exile, battle, monsters, and mysteries to be solved. … For lovers of literary allusions, they are plenty here: a Dickensian cemetery scene, a torture-engine from Kafka, a wonderful library out of Borges, and familiar fables changed by eons of retelling… The Book of the New Sun is almost heartbreakingly good, full of riches and subtleties that improve with each rereading. It is Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece. –David Langford
Despite reading this book in isolation from its series — which means that we are looking at all the set-up and none of the payoff — we find a lot to discuss and a lot to love in this classic novel.