Pit Stop: The Shadow of the Torturer

No spoilers.

As someone who hasn't read lots of SF/F, Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is up there with the Malazan series as famously dense reads reserved for the future. The idea of books that involve re-reading as a major part of the experience also didn't appeal to me. They certainly seem to be divisive, receiving love and scorn in equal measure.

I spent a good couple of days trawling through forums and subreddits about Wolfe's magnum opus, in an effort to decide whether I should take the plunge. Well, here I am, exactly two days after I picked up The Shadow of the Torturer. Too quickly for real fans, I know, but I was absolutely hooked and couldn't pace myself.

This isn't meant to be a proper review, but rather a pit stop to gather my thoughts before moving forward. I intend to finish the rest of The Book of the New Sun, and I feel I can't judge it fairly in its entirety having only made it a quarter of the way through. Perhaps I won't be able to do so even after finishing it.

The story is written in the style of a memoir, and told from the first-person point of view of Severian. We follow his journey from the guild of torturers in the Citadel out into the strange city of Nessus.

It's so good! The first fifty pages were interesting but nothing too crazy, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and experience Severian's notoriously unreliable narration. But the surface plot really isn't difficult to follow, and the language, whilst peppered with archaic and obscure words, is poetic in the best way: precise, beautiful, simple.

The complexity, it seems, lies in the interpretation of the text. Allusions and allegories abound in every page, even though they flew over my head almost without exception. You also start to see weird cracks appear in the fabric of the story, and hallucinatory moments intrude upon the detached, calm recollections of Severian without warning. I read this with a strange mix of fascination and apprehension and it's really unlike anything I've ever read.

The mood and atmosphere of the story were what kept me hooked. The comparisons with Dark Souls are apt, both in storytelling and in tone. Severian's time is set far into the future when the world is slowly dying, and Wolfe paints images of strange buildings and wildlife that somehow manage to be both vivid and elusive at the same time.

There's lots of oft-conflicting advice out there for those who are considering a shot at the Book of the New Sun. Here's what worked for me: don't get bogged down in trying to figure things out immediately. I found my enjoyment soared exponentially when I stopped worrying about not getting every reference or deeper meaning. I'll save those for the inevitable re-reads. However, do pay full attention while reading and don't skim, as Wolfe rarely wastes a single word. Don't worry about dictionaries and looking up every archaic word as you go along, as a lot of their meaning can be gleaned from context. If you desperately need to find definitions, a simple Google search is best. The Lexicon Urthus, while a worthy addition, contains many spoilers that should be avoided on a first read. Don't look up the books online too much or you'll inevitably run into spoilers like I did.

As has been pointed out ad infinitum, this won't be for everyone. The plot is meandering, Severian is a deeply flawed character who doesn't show much agency, there is occasional sex and violence, and the archaic words can feel needlessly frustrating at times. None of those were really a problem for me, but I can't say the same for the portrayal of women in this book. Severian's attitudes to women are awful, which is perhaps unsurprising given his upbringing, but it doesn't make the odious sexism and misogyny any more palatable. It's a conscious struggle, but - and I know this comes from a position of privilege - if you manage to look past that, there's plenty else to enjoy in this book.

This first book feels more like setup than anything else and ends abruptly, but as far as setups go it achieves more in less than 330 pages what some struggle to do in more than 1000. All that said, I'm almost certain the weirdness is going off the charts in the subsequent books. I can't wait.

Day 16 of #100DaysToOffload

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