The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) by Gene Wolfe

Shadowofthetorturer1“It’s a pity you are a torturer,” Ultan said. “You might have been a philosopher” (p. 47).

I think Gene Wolfe is talking about himself. Again.

But torturer, he is, and my casual, unstudied approach to reading SF has failed me in this instance. With Wolfe, heuristic reading is the worst way to go. The Shadow of the Torturer requires preparation.  A briefing. Nobody told me this is no superficial fantasy story.


“If there are layers of reality beneath the reality we see, even as there are layers of history beneath the ground we walk upon…” (p. 103).

Well, hell. You’re talking about this book, aren’t you?

“… everything, whatever happens, has three meanings… The book is saying that everything is a sign” (p. 190).

So, you’re saying “the book” is actually this book, and any mystical generalizations you make about the ways of Urth can be attributed to this story on the “reflective” level, and to life and spirituality on the “transsubstantial” level? Are you getting meta on me?

“Her gown had been torn by a branch, exposing one breast…” (p. 124).

Okay, so maybe not everything has a deeper meaning.

“We… imagine ourselves… our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves” (p. 110).

Have I said that time turns our lies into truths?” (p. 111).

Is it safe to assume that Severian, our ambivalent torturer, isn’t exactly as he appears? Maybe that will inject him with a little personality.

’Now everyone is here! The show will begin in a moment or two. Not for the faint of heart! You have never seen anything like it, anything at all! Everyone is here now’” (p. 191).

But it’s nearly the end of the book! What do you mean the show is about to begin?

 “Do you think there are answers to everything here?” (p. 125).

Uh, well, er… maybe I should read the rest of the tetralogy first?

“Dr. Talos demanded much from the imagination with narration, simple yet clever machinery, shadows cast upon screens,… reflective backdrops, and every other conceivable sleight” (pp. 191 -192).

So you’re saying I need to read this again…

“And in the end, I threatened to strike her if she did not desist… (p. 151).

“If we desire a woman, we soon come to love her for her condescension in submitting to us…” (p. 162).

Dude, this was published in my lifetime. You need to stop that shit.


The Shadow of the Torturer, and likely the rest of The Book of the New Sun series, is like those autostereogram posters from the nineties. At first glance, it looks like a garbled mess, a simple three-color smear. But, those basic colors are allusory, and those who relax their gaze to see beyond the surface will find more than the bizarre story of an outcast torturer getting from Point A to Point B, by way of Point 9, Point 37, Point Σ, and Point #@!, checking out a few breasts along the way.

Those surreal, fragmented Points come from layered universes, quite literally, according to Severian, whom I doubt we can trust. But the text also hints (no, it actually states, quite clearly, but I’m too dumb to notice) at “reflective” and “transsubstantial” meanings. The story tells you about the story and, in turn, it tells you about life—or, likely Gene Wolfe’s personal and metaphysical interpretations of life.

shadowofthetorturer2“Triumphing in all this, he yet failed. For his desire was to communicate, to tell a great tale that had being only in his mind and could not be reduced to common words” (p. 192)

Seems a bit full of himself, doesn’t he?

I know about this double and triple meaning stuff because I read others’ reviews, something I usually avoid until I have posted my own. (I like to see how I do without the help of my favorite reviewers.) But this case proved too puzzling—many authors and bloggers and readers, whose opinions I respect, hail this series as a masterpiece. At first read, I found this first novel curious but stale, interesting in places, but I was distracted by major breastage. Now I know I missed the point. How embarrassing.

Now, aware of its allusive content, I look back at my highlighted passages and see the truth glaring at me, floating on top of the main tale, just like an image on an autostereogram poster. That second layer, Wolfe’s so-called “reflective layer,” speaks volumes of foreshadowing and symbolism. And the third layer? I don’t much care about Wolfe’s transsubstantial third layer, but let’s see where this goes…

“Here I pause. If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road” (p. 210).

Shut up, Gene Wolfe, with your thinly veiled challenge. You can’t get rid of me, no matter how many breasts you’ve got flopping around your tale. Go select your weird, razor flower weapon. I’ll be there.

More to come…

39 thoughts on “The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) by Gene Wolfe

  1. romeorites says:

    I bloody love this series and this book (breasticles aside). Its one i had to re-read just to get a grasp on some of the archaic language and triple meanings but its influence can be greatly seen, I feel, in Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series. That razor flower duel was awesome as well, something i could Imagine Gaiman using.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      It seems that all fans of this series suggest multiple readings in order to fully appreciate Wolfe’s talent, and I can see just from re-reading my own highlighted bits that they’ve taken on new meaning. It’s quite a feat, actually, and I hope I’m able to get more out of the next novel.

      I believe Gaiman is one author who hails this series as a brilliant masterpiece, and considering his love for Shakespeare, I should have been better prepared for such allusive content. Even the flavor of this novel is quite Shakespearean– the play, the archetypal characters, the flat plot with embedded threads.


      • romeorites says:

        Its a great series, and yes there is a Shakespearean feel to it. I also believe its a book that you could have some fantastic discussions/debates about. For me when reading it, one can imagine it being a lost ancient text, which made me think, “Has our Earth or Urth been here before?” if you know what I mean. Wolfe has had a big influence on even my own writing (minus gratuitous breasts.) Your review was brilliant, and great commentary alongside the quotes.


        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Hmm, the “lost ancient text” advice seems like a good approach. I think I’ll approach Claw of the Conciliator with that mindset. Thanks!


  2. I’ve seen The Book of the New Sun referred to as the science fiction equivalent of Ulysses, and while that’s not entirely accurate I know what they mean. As much as I love it, Book of the New Sun is hard to recommend… reading it is jumping into the deep end of literary SF. At least there’s plenty of analysis and a half-dozen reference tomes that attempt to understand and explain it, but that’s not really a selling point.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks for the references, holy geez. I knew that people have literally written dissertations on this series, so I’m not sure why I approached this book so casually. (Probably because people have done dissertations on Tolkien, so it can’t be that bad.) I plan to do a real review once I finish the series, but I’ll do my homework first. In the meantime, expect more of these informal reaction posts. I will need your guidance… 🙂


      • Ahh still reading your way through them? Hopefully things will start making sense as you progress… though, it does get weirder, and Wolfe is stingy with explanation. I recall less boobage in the other books at least.

        The first time I read Book of the New Sun, I was all “I like that but I have no idea why.” I’ve re-read it three or four times now, and I still feel like I’m finding new layers. It’s a weird and dense series. Best of luck.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. hestia says:

    I wandered the internet for a while after reading this, trying to figure out what it was I had missed. The best I got was that you need to read it more than get the allusive qualities. Severian was such a nasty piece of work, though — I’m not sure I could force myself through it again…

    As for the persistently ubiquitous mammaries, there was a time, around this time, when a number of authors seemed fascinated by a Barbie-like ideal, while dimly recognizing that that body type was physically… improbable. I seem to recall some of that in Piers Anthony and Jack Chalker, too. Ew. Just — ew.

    The set-pieces were imaginative, even if it seemed like the same five characters inhabited all of them. Could have used a plot, though.


  4. Sounds over my head. Except for the boobies.


  5. sjhigbee says:

    lol… I haven’t read this Wolfe offering – and while I LOVED the review (they don’t normally make me laugh out loud) I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to get hold of it. At his best I think he’s awesome. (The Sorcerer’s House, The Demon in the Forest…) but there are times when he just plain loses me…


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      That seems to be the consensus with his other books, (besides THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS, which seems to be equally, if not more, acclaimed)– that he just loses readers. But I’ve seen people’s opinions of this series change dramatically by the final book, so I hope that happens to me.

      Glad I could make you laugh!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The only real torture is waiting until next week for your next review, amirite? …Anybody?


  7. Rabindranauth says:

    From the reviews Ive checked out of this book, for every 3 that hails it as a masterpiece, there are at least 2 saying Gene Wolfe blows hot air. So I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Maybe it’s something that grows on you over the course of the series?


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      That’s what I’m hearing. I’ve seen dramatic changes in opinion between the 1st and the final installments. I don’t think the big picture happens until the final piece clicks into place. We’ll see.


  8. hestia says:

    From reading about it, one of the reasons for its enduring interest is that is was extremely groundbreaking at the time (and certainly still influential.) But today, the whole science fiction masquerading as fantasy/but really horror genre melange is common — just another idea China Mieville had and then discarded before lunch.

    If you like the mashup, and haven’t already, try Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman books. All the gooey mixed-genre deliciousness, much less of the gratuitous boobs.


  9. Marc says:

    External allusions create depth and meaning as well. Confused about Dorcas’ appearance? Look up some religious resonances and pay attention to chapter titles. Wolfe is extremely deep and subtle, and while some of these mysteries are tied up in narrative, many are implied. The transformative aspect of his works are almost magical, when you come back to them with a fuller understanding. The very second chapter has all the themes you need (a magical light coming, engendering life in a brush that will run up a tree), and the very first quote “A thousand ages in thy sight …”, if researched in context, also reveals much of what will happen thematically. Even the heliocentric metaphors resonate with a central purpose and conceit.

    I hate to say it, as it is the condemnation that most irritates me, but those who criticize Wolfe most vehemently simply don’t comprehend what he is doing, for a variety of reasons, including the intertextual allusions and religious symbols which almost intentionally obfuscate. There is much more going on here than simple “science fantasy”. However, because of the accumulation of symbolic resonance slowly and almost in non sequitur style, rereads are a necessity.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      All of the things you mention are exactly the reasons why I am not giving up on this series. Thanks for your helpful input. Hopefully all will be revealed by the end of the series, and it seems like everyone suggests rereads.

      As for Dorcas, I have my own theories about her, although they seem too obvious, so I’m probably barking up the wrong scaffold. We shall see…


  10. If people say something needs a second or third reading to understand it, I say maybe it needs a second or third writing instead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marc says:

      Well then, there goes Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, and Beckett and so many other self conscious artists held up as paragons of artistry. Depth and reflection, working at a problem, critically engaging with themes and ideas instead of receiving them passively, are all things some artists want you to do. When you have struggled with a complex idea and come to a conclusion, it is a sign of the richness of the art and your own intellectual growth. Why must everything be “simple” and straightforward to be considered good? If you want simple themes, there are plenty in fantasy- in fact, the vast majority of escapist literature serves just such a function. wolfe should not compromise his artistic process for the lowest common denominator, a facile surface understanding for complex themes.


    • Marc says:

      And Wolfe does at least three drafts to all his works, sometimes over five. The layering and depth this creates is actually quite extraordinary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        I’m looking forward to discovering these layers as I read the rest of his series. I’ll be doing Claw of the Conciliator this month. And I may have to add The Book of the New Sun as an annual reread, since that seems to be the general recommendation.


  11. […] a conversation between From Couch to Moon and Gene Wolfe. Not really, but just go with me on this. (Click here to see the first part of this […]


  12. Anastasia says:

    😀 😀 😀 Ahahaha great review!
    Hmmm I read this just a while ago as they had new pretty editions of this trilogy published. I did not enjoy the first part as much but I can’t leave it unfinished so I guess I will read second one soon


  13. […] Wolfe has credited Vance with inspiring the setting of The Book of the New Sun, and this particular set of stories most brings to mind the lush decay and disconnect of […]


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