Interpretations someone wondered what the disturbance was at the gate of Nessus toward the end of book one. My theory is that he has loosed some sort of creature that is causing quite a commotion. Unanswered Questions Simon and Schuster hardcover: Jacket flaps: "One expects any book from Gene Wolfe to be a classic -- and here it is. Disch In a stunning blend of the lyric extravagance of fantasy and the keen edge of science fiction, meeting in a future so distant that it seems like the ancient past, Gene Wolfe begins his chronicle of Severian the Torturer, in this the first volume of The Book of the New Sun. In the great Citadel built of unsmeltable gray metal, young Severian and his fellow apprentices study to achieve the rank of Master Torturer learning the ancient mysteries of the guild, sworn to torture whom the Autarch says to torture, and to kill whom he says to kill.
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I will give his fans one concession: Wolfe is an author who defies expectations. Unfortunately, I was expecting him to be remarkable and interesting. Few live up to their reputation, but most at least deliver part of the promise. His language and structure serves its purpose, only occasionally rising above mere utilitarianism, and then he rushes to florid flourishes that fall flat as often as they succeed.
Sometimes, it is downright dull. The prose of the second book is stronger than the first, but its plot and characters are more linear and predictable. He is better than the average fantasy author, but he resembles them more than he differs from them.
His protagonist started off interestingly enough: an apparently weak and intelligent man, which made it all the more disappointing when he suddenly transformed into a laconic, wench-loving buttkicker who masters sword-fighting, finds the Super Magic Thing and follows the path of his Awesome Foretold Fate. It relies on the same tricks over and over: any time a character is about to give important information to us, there will be a sudden attack or other interruption, as convenient and annoying as the moment when the dying man says "I was killed by.
He also seems to suffer from the same sexual discomfort that plagues so many fantasy authors. There is an undercurrent of obsession with women and their sexuality, complete with the sexualization of rape and murder. The women always seem to end up as playtoys for the narrator, running around naked, desiring him, sparring with him coyly, but ultimately, conquered; and the camera pans away.
It descends on the characters suddenly and nonsensically, springing to life without build or motivation. The word never comes up in connection with any psychological development, nor does it ever seem to match the relationships as they are depicted.
Several times, the narrator tries to excuse himself for objectifying women by mentioning that he also objectifies ugly women. The narrator seems very interested in this fact, and is convinced that it makes him a unique person. It made it very clear to me why the most interesting antiheroes tend to be gruff and laconic, because listening to a chauvinistic sociopath talk about himself is insufferable. Then there is the fact that every character you meet in the story turns up again, hundreds of miles away, to reveal that they are someone else and have been secretly controlling the action of the plot.
It feels like the entire world is populated by about fifteen people who follow the narrator around wherever he goes. If the next two books continue along the same lines, then the big reveal will be that the world is entirely populated by no more than three superpowered shapeshifters.
Everyone in the book has secret identities, secret connections to grand conspiracies, and important plot elements that they conveniently hide until the last minute, only doling out clues here and there.
There are no normal people in this world, only double agents and kings in disguise. Apparently, this is the thing his fans most appreciate about him--I find it to be an insulting and artificial game. In order for unreliable narration to be effective, there must be some clear and evident counter-story that undermines it. If Severian is meant to be a subversion of the grim antihero, I would expect a lot of clever contradiction which revealed him. His unreliability would have to leave gaping holes that point to another, more likely conclusion.
Human psychology and politics are fraught enough without deliberately obfuscating them. Unfortunately, Wolfe does not have the mastery of psychology to make a realistically complicated text, only a cliched text that is meta-complicated. After finishing the book, I tried to figure out why it had garnered so much praise. I stumbled across a number of articles, including this one by Gaiman and this one by an author who wrote a book of literary analysis about the New Sun series. Both stressed that Wolfe was playing a deliberate meta-fictional game with his readers, creating mysteries and clues in his book for them to follow, so that they must reread the text over and over to try to discern what is actually happening.
The plot itself is apparently unremarkable. If Wolfe is capable of writing an original and interesting story, why cover it with a dull and occasionally insulting one?
I have enjoyed complex books before, books with hidden messages and allusions, but they were interesting both in their depths and on the surface. There were interesting ideas and moments in the book, and I did appreciate what originality Wolfe did have, but I found it strange that such a different mind would produce such hidebound prose, tired descriptions, convenient plots, and unappealing characters.
It has usually been my experience that someone who is capable of thinking remarkable things is capable of writing remarkable things. Overall, I found nothing unique in Wolfe. Perhaps I just got my hopes up too high. I imagined something that might evoke Peake or Leiber at his best , perhaps with a complexity and depth gesturing toward Milton or Ariosto.
I could hardly imagine a better book than that, but even a book half that good would be a delight--or a book that was nothing like that, but was unpredictable and seductive in some other way. I kept waiting for something to happen, but it never really did.
It all plods along without much rise or fall, just the constant moving action to make us think something interesting is happening. I did find some promise, some moments that I would have loved to see the author explore, particularly those odd moments where Silver Age Sci Fi crept in, but each time he touched upon these, he would return immediately to the smallness of his plot and his annoying prick of a narrator.
I never found the book to be difficult or complex, merely tiring. Ah well, once more unto the breach.
The Shadow of the Torturer
On his way back to the Citadel, Severian and several other apprentices sneak into a necropolis where Severian encounters Vodalus, a legendary revolutionary. Vodalus, along with two others, including a woman named Thea, are robbing a grave. Vodalus and his companions are confronted by volunteer guards. Shortly before Severian is elevated to journeyman he encounters and falls in love with Thecla, a beautiful aristocratic prisoner. The Autarch ruler of the Commonwealth wishes to use Thecla to capture Vodalus.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolf 8. To say that Gene Wolfe is a difficult author is both a compliment and a knock. From character names to descriptions to articles of clothing, Wolfe uses language in the most deliberate fashion. Much of the first half of the novel takes place in a decrepit, dark city of medieval-style towers known as the Citadel, which is where the guilds are traditionally make their home. From the lightless tunnels to the freezing necropolis, the Citadel can be seen as emblematic of a dying culture and a dying world. The guilds that exist in this world are a throwback to the late-medieval, early-Renaissance trade unions that took in people and trained them all their lives for specific duties.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolf
On extraordinary occasions, the strength of the lochus was doubled Also attrib. Have I got that right, do you think? But certainly, Wolfe wrote "The mensal of the monachs" for the wonderful, alliterative way it rolls off the tongue. The OED has no reference.