The Shadow of the Torturer
by Gene Wolfe
1981 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun series has an interesting distinction: each one of the four volumes (I can't count the later continuation as part of the story) won a separate literary award. I've already reviewed the Nebula winning second volume and I'm sure I'll get around to the third and fourth books when I deal with their awards. It's the only series that has won such a variety of awards and it's made more unique by a different award for each book.
For the World Fantasy Award winner we go to the beginning of the story. The Shadow of the Torturer begins the life story of Severian who is an orphan boy raised as to be a torturer, executioner of the Autarch's laws. His life is to be dedicated to meting out punishments. Shortly after taking up his position however he becomes close to one of his prisoners who is sentenced to die in the most agonizing way possible. He grants her mercy and for that is exiled. From there his foot is placed on the path to becoming the new messiah.
You could almost copy and past my review of The Claw of the Conciliator here and it would work. Since these original four books were written together as one story the strengths and weaknesses are carried across them all. As the series progresses Wolfe starts tinkering with the theme and structure but this first novel is all about establishing his dying world.
That might be the biggest problem with Shadow; it's all prologue and little story. An arc does very slowly develop in the second half of the book moving so gently that you might not even be aware that it exists until it reaches a climax. Wolfe spends a lot of time on diversions in the novel that pan out by the end of the series but appear to drift aimlessly over the course of this book. it feels awkward since the book lays down a goal that will occupy months early on and then spends the rest of it's length covering the events of the rest of that particular day.
Despite that slothful plotting Wolfe succeeds in making his characters very compelling. Severian as a young man who was raised in the absolute morality of the jailer has to deal with the conflict between his stark view and ones of relative morality. His position as punisher of the guilty colors his actions and Wolfe recognizes the complication of the legal punisher placing themselves above the judge and society. Severian's life could keep a dozen philosphers arguing for years and no simple answer is given in the book.
At this point I've read a lot of books where civilization reached a pinacle of marvels before collapsing back into a rotting heap where the story is set. I've read a massive pile of them just going through the award winning SF and fantasy. So far I think Wolfe's vision is the most effective of them and I think that has to do with his vision of how things grew and then fell apart. The Shadow of the Torturer, for example, features a city a hundred miles long but sparsely populated except for certain neighborhoods and falling into ruin. Some of the wonders of the past age still exist matter of factly alongside what people can use. Having the world shrouded in perpetual twilight was an ingenious choice as well for mood.
When I reviewed Conciliator I mentioned how it made me determined to read the rest of the series. I did go back and finish it after I concluded reading the Nebulas and despite what I felt was a minor downturn I enjoyed it quite a bit. The Shadow of the Torturer is definitely a book I'd recommend but be prepared to read the rest of the series if you do pick it up.