Monday, 10 April 2017

Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

I'm already a little ways into the second book, The Claw of the Conciliator, as I got the two volumes as part of an omnibus for last month's Tor.com book club. I had never read any Gene Wolfe before, but I'd seen his name come up repeatedly on the list of Hugo nominees in the past, the full list of which I'm still trying to work my way through. (I think I'm up to 46%!)

I think I sort of knew that it was an odd blend of science fiction and fantasy, if you look at it from the perspective of an era far in the future well in decline, with the scientific artifacts of a spacefaring society acting almost as magic for the people who have long ago come to see them as immutable facts of life and not as discoveries.

So, one book in, and where do I stand? I want to go on and read more - not because the first book filled me with enthusiasm and adoration, but rather because it was stand-offish without being downright rude. It didn't let me into its secrets or the stories behind the stories, keeping me at less than the level of knowledge of the main character, but it wasn't so opaque that it began to grate.

But still, the book is less than forthcoming. And weirdly paced. And kind of short, despite its length. A lot like the beginning of a story, but definitely not anything like an end. You might be able to make an argument for the middle. (Literally - the story just truncated in the middle of a scene with no real sense of rising action over the preceding pages, and certainly no denouement or resolution. It feels, in fact, like one book was hacksawed in two rather haphazardly, and no effort was made to alter the narrative structure so it fit two books instead of one. And yet, there are weird issues with the beginning as well.

(If I make typing mistakes, my old kitty is nuzzling one of my hands as I type, and occasionally resting her head on my fingers for prolonged periods.)

This is the story of Severian, the titular Torturer, from his early life being brought up in the guild of the torturers, his expulsion from them, and the start of his journey outside the city, but certainly not the journey in full. The prose is full of vaguely-archaic phrases used mostly to denote high science vestiges on this world (probably still Earth, although spelled Urth?). The city is ruled by an Autarch, but other than that that's the guy who is in control, we're not really given an in into the larger political structure of the world. We get what Severian chooses to think about as he's narrating, but growing up there, you'd expect him to know more than what crosses the story, so we know less than he does. It seems vaguely feudal with large doses of medieval guilds.

In the first few chapters, while returning to the guild of the Torturers after an illicit swimming trip, he comes across Vodalus in the cemetery and saves him from betrayal. If you ask "who's Vodalus?," you'd be in exactly the same position as I was when this happens. And then when Severian steps forward and professes his loyalty as a Vodalarian, willing to betray his guild and larger political structure, that means...well, it means very little. I'd need to know who Vodalus is and what he's doing and what he stands for for this to make sense. By slightly into the second book, I kind of know, but not really. I'm not thrilled with the choice to not let the reader into the world.

I get that Wolfe is trying to immerse us in something and leave us at sea. I even get that he wants his readers to only slowly realize that for all the trappings, this is not high fantasy, and the magic portals are teleportation of some sort, that some of the torturers' guild machinery uses radiation, etc., etc. I'm willing to put up with it for a bit longer, but not letting readers know what's going on is a trick that I am never fond of.

We then see Severian in his training, and his first betrayal of the guild, and how he is exiled to go and serve a far-off city. We begin to get peeks of how huge this city is, and how different this world is. But about a third of the book is taken up with his travels to the city walls, not even outside them, and I start feeling a little like I'm in a George R.R. Martin story, wondering if anyone is ever going to arrive anywhere. He meets a couple more buxom women on the way who try to seduce him and/or kill him, and the mystery behind one of them is interesting, but the bare bones of it easy to figure out. Not how it was done, but who she really is.

Of course, that interesting story of Dorcas is not, so far, followed up with at all. She just becomes part of Severian's story and puts all her needs and wants at his disposal. All the women are kind of props aimed at occupying various niches of Severian's tale.

But there's something here. I'm interested enough to see where it's going, but this is not a book to go to if you like something tightly plotted or in any kind of real narrative structure. Once I've finished the second, I'll report back if the structural problems are fixed (i.e. If it really were one novel broken into two, which I'm sure I could just look up) or what else might be going on.

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