Monday, May 10, 2010

1981 World Fantasy Award and BSFA – SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe

This is the first novel in The Book of the New Sun tetraology, which is arguable the most award-winning science fiction series of all time. The only series that comes close to racking up as many awards is Bujold’s Vorkagasian saga, which required several more novels to do so (though New Sun never won a Hugo, but Bujold’s series won three). My copy also has a cover blurb from Neil Gaiman declaring it “the greatest science fiction novel of the twentieth century.” Plenty of hype here.

I assume Gaiman meant the entire Book of the New Sun. It’s clear by the end of Shadow that the series is meant to be read as a single story unfolding over four novels. I, on the other hand, am reading and reviewing each in turn. Not surprisingly then, my biggest problem here is that the novel feels so incomplete.

The story takes place in the far distant future. The sun is dying, and society is pretty low tech (though there are several genetically engineered – or alien? – creatures running around). The main character, Severian, grows up in the Torturers Guild. Yes, he is raised to maim and execute for interrogation or as punishment, but he’s a torturer with a heart of gold. He falls in love with the first “client” with whom he interacts. As a result, he leaves the guild and begins a journey to a new assignment. He meets a few eccentric characters, attains some valuable items, and as he is preparing to move on….the novel ends abruptly with a promise of more to follow.

It’s an entertaining story, interesting world, and Severian is a fascinating character, even if he remains a bit of a cipher despite being the narrator. The plot and world felt a tad generic – actually, I wondered if this novel was huge in Japan, considering that 90% of the anime from the last quarter century have involved an anti-hero wandering across a dying world. I think it was:

The main attraction is the prose though. The details are rich and evocative, Severian’s thoughts range from the philosophical to the brutally frank, and yet the novel always propels the reader forward. I’m not ready to anoint Wolfe the Faulkner of sci-fi yet, and the book does wander along the edge of pretension every now and then (we can’t talk about “historians;” we have to talk about “historiographers” because it sounds better. Who cares if it has a different meaning?) But, it was a very nice read.

Also, best cover ever?

Grade: A-

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