The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume in the four-volume epic, the tale of a young Severian, an apprentice to the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession - showing mercy towards his victim.
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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 Torturer 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.
I must have read the entire four-book series at some point in the 90s, and I recall that i was fascinated by the story. Fast forward to 2012. I accidentally happened upon the Shadow of the Torturer while perusing some books lists. Wow. I was very pleased to see that Audible has the entire series. The author has written a compelling story, combining sheer horror, symbolism, philosophy. Hearing Jonathan Davis's excellent narration of the author's beautiful prose is a pleasure.