Ryan's Reviews > The Shadow of the Torturer

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
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's review
Nov 05, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: favorites, fic-weird, fic-speculative, fic-literary, fic-fantasy, i-like-big-books-and-i-cannot-lie
Read in February, 2010

Though the fantasy genre is known primarily for entertaining, it 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 -- just alluded to.

In terms of plot, The Shadow of the Torturer isn't a terribly complex novel. The protagonist grows up under the protection of a strange, cloistered society (one that seems rather normal in its day-to-day routines, considering what they do), 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, 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 (though he *is* a torturer). 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. Be patient, the tale doesn't really become involving until past the halfway mark. And I suggest you get a copy of the sequel, as well. I think that Wolfe intended them both as one book, but divided them on behest of the publisher. As with The Fellowship of the Ring, don't expect much resolution in this one.
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