The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer.jpgMichael Swanwich has been quoted as saying that “Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer of the English language alive today.”

That might be true but I have a hard time seeing it because I find his writing so opaque that I can’t understand it.

I’m sure for some people this book is wonderful and fascinating.

It started out promising. I found the initial parts of Severian’s life to be compelling and emotional. Severian is obviously an unreliable narrator and he tells his story with the strange lack of honesty that shows he has deceived himself more than anybody.

Gene Wolfe writes with a wonderful command of the English language and a vocabulary that is probably unrivaled by any other writer. There is not a single made-up word in this novel but you will think there are many of them because there are dozens of words that are almost unheard of.

The subtlety of the prose is also wonderful. Gene Wolfe is telling a story that has many layers and many of the layers are unknown to the characters. What feels like a fantasy story on an alternate world turns out to be a far future Earth when the sun is dying. He mixes information into his poetical prose so that often what sounds like poetic language is actually meant to be literal.

The problem is that all of this adds up to a book that is not just boring but also confusing and really hard to follow. The character motivations are completely opaque and I found Severian’s trip through the giant city to be completely incomprehensible.

I got the feeling that I was missing something very grand and wonderful the entire time I was reading this book.

Severian quickly becomes so self deceiving and so self-serving that he is more of an anti-hero and I found I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to him. Although that might have been due to the fact that I had no idea what was going on most of the time.

This book is definitely strange and also very well-written. It just is not for me. I understand that it’s probably my own fault. This is a book that requires a lot of attention. It is very subtle and Wolfe doesn’t hold the reader’s hand to teach them how the world works. Instead he just throws them into it and expects them to figure it out from the clues that he drops in his poetic prose throughout the novel.

I will read the next book. I might even finish the series and maybe, somewhere in there I will learn to appreciate this book. Right now I feel that the only thing to recommend it is Gene Wolfe’s wonderful prose style, which just isn’t enough to overcome the sheer boredom.

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