World Fantasy Award, Best Novel, 1981
Favorite Audiobooks of 2010 (Fantasy Literature)
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By Peter on 09-08-10
Gene Wolfe's classic masterwork
Gene Wolfe's 4-volume 'Book of the New Sun' (5 volumes, when you add 'The Urth of the New Sun') is arguably one of the finest works of 20th century fiction, not just SF/fantasy. Like Jack Vance's 'Dying Earth' series (to which it respectfully nods), Wolfe sets his story so far in the future that SF and fantasy meld. Our own and subsequent ages survive only in garbled myth and archaeology. The story is beautifully written, and brims with stunning ideas, literary influences and inventiveness. Once appreciated, it lingers forever in the memory. On one level it can be read simply as a superior SF/fantasy story. However, new readers should be aware that it's much more tricksy than it first seems. Every sentence is carefully and deliberately crafted, the narrator can not always be relied on for accuracy, characters are often much more than they seem, and what appear to be inconsequential details assume huge significance later in the work. It repays multiple re-readings in a way few works do. If you get to the end and have enjoyed it, track down 'Solar Labyrinth' by Robert Borski and 'Lexicon Urthus' by Michael Andre-Driussi, and prepare to be gob-smacked and delighted by what you've missed. Then re-read it from the beginning!
The narration is high quality and admirably serves the series. Just the right amount of voice characterisation without 'over acting'. Bravo audible!
6 of 6 people found this review helpful
By Stephen on 03-04-10
Very, very good
I've been waiting and hoping that Wolfe's Book of the New Sun would get an audiobook version. In terms of the original text Wolfe's work stands alongside that of Tolkien and Herbert, among the greatest and most rewarding of authors, one whose profound work repays the reader in direct proportion to their own effort. Now we get to listen to this lengthy meditation on love, memory and identity...and what a listen it is!
The narration is smooth and measured and fits very well the tone and tempo of the book in my opinion. The complexity of Severian's character and the original text are well-served by Jonathon Davis and I would heartily recommend this to any fan of Wolfe. And if you're not already a fan of Wolfe this just might change your mind.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
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By Jefferson on 21-10-12
"All of you are torturers, one way or another"
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), the first of the four books that comprise Gene Wolfe's science fiction masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, is a rich, moving, and challenging novel. Just in the first few chapters we learn that narrator Severian (who is writing his life story) was an orphan apprentice of the guild of torturers (the Seekers for Truth and Penitence) in the Citadel of sprawling Nessus (the City Imperishable) in the far future of Urth (earth?), under a dying sun; that the towers of the Citadel are long-derelict spaceships; that Severian has an eidetic memory; and that his youthful encounter with the rebel leader Vodalus set in motion events that will lead him to betray his guild, become an exile, and sit on the throne.
The novel is disturbing! There are glimpses of the appalling "excruciations" the guild performs upon its "clients," and many characters are afflicted with grief, including Severian, who is cursed to remember every detail of his sad experiences. But it is also funny, as in the eccentric and grotesque characters like Dr. Talos and Baldanders and the banter between Severian and Agia.
Severian's history is a demanding read. As in novels like A Voyage to Arcturus, everything seems to bear symbolic as well as narrative meaning. And Severian is not a completely reliable narrator, for he often lies and may be insane, and although he remembers everything, he selectively tells his story, at times eliding painful things and alluding to them later while narrating different events. And some things he recounts question the reality of his world (and ours).
Severian has much to say about reality, memory, history, story, art, culture, justice, religion, meaning, and love. Provocative lines punctuate his text. Symbols "invent us, we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges." Or "time turns our lies to truths." Or "the charm of words … reduces to manageable entities all the passions that would otherwise madden and destroy us."
Additionally, the richness of the novel's language, the elegance of its style, and the fertility of its imagination require slow savoring. In Severian's text common words rub shoulders with archaic or obscure ones, evoking the exotic texture of his world, as in names for officials (autarch, archon, castellan, chiliarch, lochage) and beasts of burden (dromedaries, oxen, metamynodons, onagers, hackneys).
Numerous descriptions yield shivers of pleasure: "She sighed, and all the gladness went out of her face, as the sunlight leaves the stone where a beggar seeks to warm himself." Or "Behind the altar rose a wonderful mosaic of blue, but it was blank, as if a fragment of sky without cloud or star had been torn away and spread upon the curving wall." Or "(A spell there was, surely, in this garden. I could almost hear it humming over the water, voices chanting in a language I did not know but understood.)"
Numerous scenes impress themselves on mind and heart, as when Severian visits the blind caretaker of the Borgesian library, finds a horribly wounded fighting dog, connects Thecla to the revolutionary, receives the black sword Terminus Est, falls into the Lake of Birds in the Garden of Everlasting Sleep, performs for the first time the mysteries of his guild's art, or witnesses a miracle with Dorcas.
Jonathan Davis adds so much to the novel with his witty and compassionate reading, modifying his voice to enhance each character without drawing attention to himself. And it's a pleasure to hear him relish Wolfe's beautiful prose or say words like anacreontic, carnifex, epopt, fuligin, fulgurator, hipparch, paracoita, and psychopomp. (Though it does help to have the text handy!)
At the end of The Shadow of the Torturer, Severian says he cannot blame his reader for refusing to follow him any more through his life, for "It is no easy road." Nevertheless, the next three novels reward the effort to read them manifold.
33 of 36 people found this review helpful
By Ryan on 20-03-10
great writing, won't appeal to everyone
There was a time when the fantasy genre didn't just exist to entertain, but sometimes aspired to a higher level of artfulness. The Shadow of the Torturer is such a book. Set in a far distant future, when Earth's sun is fading and human society has lost much of its technological aptitude, Wolfe's novel has a haunting, elegiac quality. It's written in a voice reminiscent of 19th century writers like Poe or Dickens, which adds to the melancholy beauty. Fortunately for the squeamish, though torture is part of the story, it's not described in much detail.
In terms of plot, The Shadow of the Torturer isn't a complex novel. The protagonist grows up under the protection of a strange, cloistered society, learns a few things about the outside world, betrays his guardians, and is thrown out to seek his own fortune -- familiar fantasy stuff. But what sets the book apart from standard swords-and-sorcery fare is the richness of its language and the great imagination in its details; the difference is like comparing a fine oil painting to a crude computer graphic rendering. It has subtlety that forces the reader to pay attention. Wolfe messes with time and space, contemplates philosophical ideas, writes long exchanges whose import isn't immediately clear, and relies on the audience to make sense of the strange, slightly dreamlike events that unfold in the story, rather than spelling out how they're connected.
Without a doubt, this is a book that will absorb some readers and alienate others. Wolfe's ornate, college-level English, though not difficult, is not for everyone. Nor will everyone relate to the protagonist's detached, clinical voice. Basically, if you're looking for a light, Harry Potter-style book with instantly charismatic characters, you're better off going elsewhere. But, for readers who appreciate sophisticated writing and atmospheric, textured imaginary worlds, this is a great read.
107 of 119 people found this review helpful