I’ve had this book for a while, now – I bought it from a secondhand bookshop in Bristol when I was at university. I didn’t know too much about it. The front cover shows a man in a cloak with a huge sword slung over his shoulder, so I was expecting a fantasy novel, but really, it’s more science fictional.
The story takes place on a far-future Earth – known to the characters as ‘Urth’ – where advanced technology has been around for centuries and has often fallen into desuetude and incomprehensibility. Limited communication with other worlds or dimensions seems possible, but is as mysterious and menacing as trying to summon a demon. The moon sheds a green light because it was planted with forests in a previous age.
The feel of the novel – the first of a quartet, The Book of the New Sun - however, is more fantasy-like. The young hero, a junior member of the guild of torturers, is exiled to a distant posting after disgracing himself. His quest seems straightforward at first, but a bewildering series of events complicates it to near-impossibility. He is tricked into a duel to the death, crashes into a tent-temple on the way, accidentally joins a theatre troupe, is shown round a botanical gardens that may or may not be a series of portals to other worlds or times, and so on and so forth.
The world is just as confusing to the narrator’s young self as it is to the reader. It’s full of guilds and factions, intrigue and idiosyncrasy at every turn. Although Severian – the main character – is sent to this distant town, he doesn’t even get beyond the confines of his city – because of its vastness and labyrinthine detail. The narrator’s vocabulary is full of exotic words, nouns that heighten the sense of otherness of the setting.
The story is narrated from the point of view of an older Severian introducing his young adventures. The narration drops hints that in future volumes of his story, he rises far; it also suggests that his story itself is not entirely trustworthy.
All in all, <i>The Shadow of the Torturer</i>, for all the randomness of its plot and its unanswered questions, was a very engaging read. Expertly written, it trod a fine line between explicit story-telling and scene-setting on the one hand, and mystery and ambiguity on the other. It reminded me a lot of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, but without the same whimsicality; it also put me in mind, a little, of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (which, to be fair, I read a very long time ago).
I will definitely be purchasing the other three books, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch (the titles themselves demonstrate the baroque flavour of the story).