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The Shadow of the Torturer

(The Book of the New Sun #1)

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  18,856 ratings  ·  1,078 reviews
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume in the four-volume series, The Book of the New Sun. It is the tale of young Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers on the world called Urth, exiled for committing the ultimate sin of his profession -- showing mercy toward his victim -- and follows his subsequent journey out of his home city of Nessus.
Paperback, 262 pages
Published June 3rd 1984 by Pocket Books (first published 1980)
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Diego Davila Nah, you don't really have to worry about it. Although the two tetralogies obviously occur in the same universe, there is no plot crossover.

Nah, you don't really have to worry about it. Although the two tetralogies obviously occur in the same universe, there is no plot crossover.

Nonetheless, I would highly recommend reading the Book of the New Sun. It is a singular series.(less)

Community Reviews

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3.80  · 
Rating details
 ·  18,856 ratings  ·  1,078 reviews

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J.G. Keely
Apr 01, 2010 rated it it was ok
Wolfe has an almost legendary status amongst fellow authors; Gaiman called him 'a ferocious intellect', Swanwick said he's "the greatest writer in the English language alive today", and Disch called this series "a tetralogy of couth, intelligence, and suavity".

You can rarely trust the popular market to single out good authors, but you'd think it might be safe to listen to the opinions of other writers (especially an assemblage of Nebula and Hugo winners in their own right). I will give his fans
Kevin Kelsey
First off, the setting is awesome. Secondly, there are sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections of this book that are gorgeously written. Exquisitely crafted prose.

The first half of the book is entirely enjoyable, and builds up a world (Urth) that is entirely unique among any fiction I've come across. The second half spends some time meandering. There are enough mysteries here to keep me very interested in finishing the series, because I really need to know what's going on here. It's intriguing
Jun 25, 2017 rated it liked it
A dark jewel.

Reminiscent of Ursula Le Guin, Robert Silverberg and Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe’s 1980 high fantasy begins a four book series about Severian, an apprentice in the Guild of Torturers who shows mercy and is exiled as an executioner.

And like most fantasies, it’s about a lot more too. Wolfe explores themes of honor, guild loyalty and resurrection / rebirth. This can also be seen as a religious allegory, though his tone is somber and the redemption is subtle and hidden in his intricate writi
aPriL does feral sometimes
The title of this book really turned me away from reading this book for decades. However, it was selected as a club read so I decided to give it a try.

There are a few torture scenes and the violence is graphic but minimal. Overall, it is a pseudo-myth story, so the tone is dreamlike, and primarily a meditation on the pain of living as a human being rather than an adventure or coming-of-age story. The language is beautiful, poetic; however it's also a touch self-conscious. Whatever. The author d
Mark Lawrence
For 38 years I was under the belief that I had read this book and just couldn't remember much about it.

I got it from my school library in 1980. I know that much.

I am now sure that this is the first time I've read the book and that back in 1980 I read maybe 10% of it, reaching the first horrific if rather dry (and all the more horrible for that) torture scene (basically the only memory I have of the book). I have always found torture, both in real life and in fiction, deeply disturbing. I guess t
Jul 22, 2012 rated it did not like it
Recommends it for: masochists, literary snobs, Mievillites
I tried. Fuck it.

That was my original review, but not much to go on. Then again, if I took up 200 pages with flowery words of why this booked suck, I'd be doing the same thing the author of this piece of shit did.

The Torture of the Shadower:

Flowery prose? Yes. Gene Wolfe has it. He's a talented writer that can make a pretty sentence. I was often impressed with his word usage and some of the sentences were really enjoyable to read.

That said, you don't have to construct pretty sentences to impress
Bill  Kerwin
Jun 16, 2018 rated it it was amazing

The first volume of The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer, is a traditional picaresque fantasy, in which a young man, going forth to seek his fortune, gains mentors, weapons, magic jewels, and companions along the way. But this is a picaresque fantasy with a difference, for our hero Severian is no wide-eyed country boy from the shire, but an apprentice torturer, thoroughly schooled in his trade. He speaks of his young life as a thing long passed, and relates his adventures carefull
Oct 10, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016, fantasy
I have no idea what to say about this book. I don't even know what I thought of it.

I've heard that it's supposed to be difficult to read. I disagree.

I've heard that the writing is outstandingly beautiful. I disagree.

And so neither my positive nor my negative expectation was met. Moreover, the story was a mess, the main character was a mess and the setting was a mess. Somehow it was still good. The end.

Nick T. Borrelli
Sep 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
There are certain books that can be considered life-changing experiences. Gene Wolfe is an author who has written one of those for me. The Shadow of the Torturer may very well be my favorite fantasy book of all-time if you pinned me down and forced me to give you an answer. I first read it in my early twenties, and recently picked it up again because I wanted to visit the world of Urth again. In many ways, The Shadow of the Torturer has everything that I look for in a great read: awesome world-b ...more
I struggled through this book and spent most of it waiting for the end to redeem it. But then it had no end! It just stopped. If you've read any of my other reviews you may know that books that don't have proper endings are a major pet peeve of mine. I was extra annoyed this time because I'd been told that the beauty of this series lies in the twists and turns brilliantly laid out by Wolfe. I was sorely disappointed.

I found this book very difficult to read. I formed no attachment to the protagon
Mar 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
I was awash in strange expectations and assumptions before picking up this book, and after coming out the other side, I'm happy to say that this thoughtful novel pleased me.

It didn't wow me, but it certainly pleased me. I was very worried it wouldn't because the period of the late seventies and early eighties was a time of Fantasy that I just never really liked.

What? But this novel is SF!

Yes it is, and I loved all the old incorporation of alien life, our dying sun, quantum physics extrapolatio
5.0 stars. Along with The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, the book that set the standard for the "science fantasy" epic. The Book of the New Sun Tetralogy is one of the great achievements in science fiction and is a MUST READ for fans of the genre. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION!!!

Winner: World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (1981)
Winner: Britsh Science Fiction Award for Best Novel (1982)
Nominee: Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel (1981)
Nominee: John W. Campbell Award for Best Science Fictio
Mar 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2016
I had no idea what to expect from this book, but I wanted to read outside my normal comfort zone in order to broaden my horizons. (Thanks, John, for the suggestion!) Well, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised. I immediately connected with both the style of writing and how the narrator presents the story as reflecting back upon his life and the choices he made or did not make. I also loved the ancient feeling of this world, although (view spoiler) ...more
Kat  Hooper
Aug 13, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: audiobook
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

For those of you enjoy audiobooks, this is the perfect time to finally read (or to re-read) Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Audible Frontiers recently put it on audio and the excellent Jonathan Davis is the reader.

The Shadow of the Torturer introduces Severian, an orphan who grew up in the torturer's guild. Severian is now sitting on a throne, but in this first installment of The Book of the New Sun, he tells us of key events in his boyhood and yo
Vit Babenco
Apr 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Shadow of the Torturer is like a Preraphaelite canvas – the ancient perishing world, painted in unbelievably vivid colours, is washed in the sanguine rays of a long fatal sundown.
Only Gene Wolfe limns with words:
“The necropolis has never seemed a city of death to me; I know its purple roses (which other people think so hideous) shelter hundreds of small animals and birds. The executions I have seen performed and have performed myself so often are no more than a trade, a butchery of human bei
Apr 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
I'm really drawn to decadent, crumbling civilisations in literature, especially those of the far distant future. Those who know my tastes know how much I love Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" books, set in a world where the days of the starfaring and ambitious aims of humanity have long dwindled away and in fact the sun itself has ceased to be the warming, welcome beacon it once was but has grown feeble and weak over millions of years. Let's ignore the fact that human life would probably have long exp ...more
Mike (the Paladin)
Okay...what do I say about this book?

I read it first back in the '70s and found that I have very little memory of it. Possibly it was at a time when things were a bit stressful...the '70s were like that. Anyway, I decided to reread it.

The Shadow of the Torturer is a novel where we are dropped into the middle of a world and get to know it as we go, sort of like "on the job training". I won't give away details as..."what would be the point of learning things as you go" if I spill the beans? What I
Dec 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
As much as I find myself confounded by Wolfe’s method (or is it madness?) in writing I always find myself coming back to his works and finding in them enjoyment that is somewhat unique. Upon reflection I think that perhaps “enjoyment” is not quite the right word, though I am struggling to find the mot juste whatever it may be. Perhaps satisfaction? (Admittedly mixed with a fair measure of frustration.) Anyway…my point is that for however difficult I may find Wolfe, and however unfriendly to the ...more
May 02, 2010 rated it it was amazing
After suffering through the verbal flagellation of The Name of the Wind, I was really jonesing for some literary fantasy, if such a thing existed. A friend at work (where people ought to know about such things) tipped me off to Gene Wolf and told me to start here.

Gene Wolfe is indeed a literary author: it's clear that significant thought was given to the characters, story arc, linguistic style, and thematic elements before he began writing this four-part story. It's a post-historic future-histor
Oct 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fantasy
I stumbled over Gene Wolfe and the Book of the New Sun via Neil Gaiman, who was praising it highly. I can definitely see why. The prose is beautiful. Gene Wolfe has a wonderful way with words. It's almost like reading poetry. Not much happens in this first of four books, but it was an easy read, immersive and beautiful. I connected with the narrator almost immediately and can't wait to find out what happens to Severian the Torturer.
Nov 15, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016
3.5 for personal enjoyment, 4.5 for depth of writing and research. While constantly impressed with the references and allusions littered through the story and the resonance of the world Wolfe builds, the book in the end failed to engage my emotions alongside my brain.
Dec 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-in-2017
I don't even know whether I liked this one or not.

The story is weird and the MC's a mess. The prose is not difficult to read but dense. The writing is beautiful at times but tedious at others.

From a detailed desription of a building or a landscape the author takes you smack right into an equally exquisitely detailed description of say the technique of a proper "socking" (method of torture not article of clothing) or the correct way to suture a stump. Perhaps it is because of the author's partic
What fascinated me most about this was the overall tone of the narration. It was sorrowful and introspective and I loved that. I did feel that Sevarian was a bit too trusting of every single person he met! My only real complaint is that there are hints that he's writing this from someplace and for some reason but we're given no information on that. I'm sure we'll hear about it later but I would have appreciated a bit more info.
Ryan Mishap
Dec 17, 2008 rated it did not like it
Shelves: garbage
Okay, like many an SF book, this plunges us into a nebulous world not wholly rendered--in a grave yard no less. Now that's a good start: the protagonist encounters rebels in the graveyard robbin' bones and then goes back to his guild. The Torturer's Guild, mind. From here, the book drags like a fucking stone weight around your brain as our would be torturer becomes obssessed with a captive and eventually leaves to find some other destiny. I got to the end after hundreds of pages and realized not ...more
Oct 09, 2014 rated it it was ok
Wow... this book took me a VERY long time to plod my way slowly through and it was certainly not an easy read. This is regarded by many great writers and readers to be a fantastic SF book and the basis for a lot of modern interpretations and influences in the genre, for me, it was a bit of a messy and convoluted story regarding a torturer who wouldn't stop rambling.

Whilst I can certainly appreciate aspects of this writing, for example Gene has a wonderfully lyrical prose which makes Death sound
Mattia Ravasi
Apr 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Video review

Magnificent worldbuilding and some brilliant reflections on the nature of narrative, symbols, and meaning-making justify the obscure lexicon, baroque style, and slow pace. Know what you're getting into - this is heavy fantasy and will require lots of work on your part to even make sense - but to the right kind of reader, it's the book of a lifetime.
Geoff Sebesta
Sep 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
I think this was probably one of those books that was so revolutionary at the time that everybody spent thirty years ripping it off and now it seems less original than it really was.

Nevertheless, it's a crackin' good book. Wolfe is a rare stylist with the English language, and he has an ability to communicate difficult concepts that approaches genius. There is one part, early in the book, where the main character is looking at a faded old picture in a museum. Somehow Wolfe manages to convey, in
Oct 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I have very strong memories of this book. I picked it more or less at random years and years ago when I used to have the time to wander aimlessly through a bookstore and explore new titles and authors. The chronicles of Severian (there are four books in this series, I think) were so unlike any kind of fantasy book I'd read that I was really haunted by them, especially the first book. There are images in it, scenes, that actually live up to that word that is so overused now: "surreal." The settin ...more
Sep 28, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: science-fantasy
Another book joins Hyperion, The Blade Itself, and The Black Company in the "Books that everyone loves but I don't understand why" book club.

This is the third time I have tried to read this book over the last 20 years and today I finally read the whole thing.

Don't get me wrong: Gene Wolfe is an extremely skilled writer. His prose is terrific and his worldbuilding is top-notch. The tone of this novel is true dark fantasy done better than perhaps anyone else before or since.

The problem, however
Apr 03, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I tried reading this in paperback a couple of times over the years & it always bored me early on. I thought I'd try it in audio & see if I can get through it since it is a group read. No go. I was alternately bored & horrified. Sick world, boring characters. I made it about 10 chapters, over an hour in. Definitely not for me.

That's unfortunate since the alternate group read is Titus Groan which falls into the same category for me.
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Gene Wolfe is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, to which he converted after marrying a Catholic. He is a prolific short story writer and a novelist, and has won many awards in the field.

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award is given by SFWA for ‘lifetime achievement in science fict

Other books in the series

The Book of the New Sun (5 books)
  • The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun #2)
  • The Sword of the Lictor (The Book of the New Sun, #3)
  • The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun #4)
  • The Urth of the New Sun (The Book of the New Sun, #5)
“...I rejoiced in the flaws that made her more real to me” 19 likes
“Men are said to desire women, Severian. Why do they despise the women they obtain?” 11 likes
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