Sunday, September 10, 2006

"The Shadow of the Torturer" - Gene Wolfe

After years of dillydallying I've just finished the first volume of Gene Wolfe's "Urth of the New Sun" tetraology. I remember trying to read it back when it came out in 1980 but found it too stylized for my adolescent taste. Now, however, I get to wear big boy pants and I can read adult books. And this time I liked it a whole bunch and breezed through it in a few days.

"The Shadow of the Torturer" is the first volume of the recollections of journeyman torturer Severian as he travels the environs of a earth so deep in the future that the sun is turning red, food and resources are scarce, and glaciers are moving north from the south pole.

Much of the atmosphere of Wolfe's book is derived from Clark Ashton Smith's tales of a red sunned Earth (his, unfortunately unavailable, Zothique stories) and Jack Vance's Dying Earth" stories and novels. Both series portray an incredibly ancient Earth with little real knowledge of the past and presents deeply immobilized by ritual and that lack of historical understanding.

There is a clear parting of ways, though, after Wolfe's Urth is created. Smith and Vance's stories are both arch, cynical and tend to be peopled entirely by rogues and mountebanks. Wolfe is going for something else and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.

Severian presents himself as someone possessing a perfect memory as he begins his memoirs but also someone capable of lying. He is also writing with the advantage of hindsight but appears unwilling to reveal too much before he deems it appropriate.

Severian is a journeyman of the torturers' guild who is exiled to become a small town headsman after he sneaks a knife into a noble woman being tortured to death. The first volume details Severian's adventures and the insights he makes as he begins his trip to his new home. There are traveling players, duels with poisonous flowers and secret notes and lost religious artifacts.

Wolfe's prose is dense at times and demands close reading to maintain a piture of what's occurring at a given time. It's also beautiful at times and combined with his general inventiveness provides a heady, often drunk inducing vision of a world slowly, and with juggernaut like implacablity, winding down to its absolute end. Can't wait to finish the second volume, "The Claw of the Concilliator".

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