Review of The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)

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Gene Wolfe (writer).

Read in 2020.

There’s some of Jack Vance’s sterile and ostentatious pageantry in here, and some of mainstream pseudo-medieval fantasy’s sexism, with one hot woman after another chasing Severian, the incurious protagonist. He has little to recommend him beyond a rudimentary conscience and a gruesome skill set that seems designed to appeal to brooding teenagers.

Wolfe’s perspective on more ordinary people is similarly dark. The city of Nessus is full of poison, decay and greed, with people clinging to largely meaningless traditions in service to a corrupt and absent government. There’s a contrast to this cynicism from the very beginning, in Vodalus the revolutionary, followed by a few humble folk like Jolenta shining a light on social problems that seem ultimately fixable rather than comfortingly static.

Perhaps this was one of the first books to learn from the ideas of Dhalgren (1975). Wolfe does a good job keeping the world and story coherent and reasonably deep, rejecting Delany’s hollow fantasy but keeping some of his darkly organic playfulness. Wolfe is a less typical poet but uses entertaining neologisms a cut above the genre standard. His diction is easy to like, with frequent unexpected turns of phrase that fit right in, instead of trying to jar the reader as Delany did. The city library, which is built like a reified memory palace, is a weird and striking image, just the right mix of literary symbolism and worldbuilding. As an example of science fantasy, The Shadow of the Torturer is lacking in extrapolation but solidly crafted. It has all the emotional appeal of Elric of Melniboné with a stronger sense of internal logic, which is a fine thing.

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