the Little Red Reviewer

Thoughts and Questions on Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer

Posted on: November 6, 2017

This blog post started here.

I didn’t realize I was reading through it so fast, I finished The Shadow of the Torturer (the first half of Shadow and Claw) last night. The first half seemed a bit trying to get through – strange language, a world that doesn’t quite make sense, episodic stories,  and then we get to the 2nd half of the story that goes much quicker.

But first, more new words:







Fewer unknown words in this second half.

And now for thoughts, questions, and spoilers!

Shadow of the Torturer ends very abruptly.  It’s going, it’s going, there’s a sort-of duel,  Severian gets to do his job, it goes a little more, slows down a bit, and then BAM it ends.  Yes, I get the whole concept of ending on a similar note as the start, but it was still weird.


Severian sure is easy to manipulate. Get a pretty girl to say hello to him, and he’ll do just about anything. And if she shows some leg?  He’s practically her slave.  He is an absolute idiot to trust anything Agia says to him, and he seems to trust everything she says!


The house on stilts that is in the botanical gardens – is this a view through time or into another dimension?  Robert and Marie seem of a more contemporary time.  They look out the window hoping to see mail plane, and Severian hasn’t any idea what a mail plane is. Everything about the botanical garden rooms is hella cool!  The rooms are bigger on the inside than you’d expect, it’s easy to get lost in them.  The doors to the rooms, are they doors across space and maybe time?

The execution, and the conversation Severian has with Agilus the night before. The entire thing, from the conversation with the condemned, to the burying of the body, has a feel of sacred ritual about it.  You have to do these things in this order, you have to say these words. And why shouldn’t execution be ritualized?  And good for Severian, to show his skills in this way.


Dorcas.  She’s been dead a long time, hasn’t she? When she stutters to say her name, is it because she’s shivering, because she’s having trouble remembering, or because she started to say the word “dead” instead of a name?   I feel so bad for her  I don’t know if I want her to remember whatever it was that happened to her, or if I’d do anything to make sure she doesn’t remember.


Who the hell is Dr. Talos and Baldanders?  Will they be important later, or are they just random characters that show up to do weird stuff?


The building in the sky that Severian and Dorcas see.  Seriously WTF!?


The gem which is the Claw of the Conciliator.  I feel certain Severian’s future will revolve around this object.  When their chariot crashed into the temple,  Agia stole the gem and put it in his pocket.  He needs to find the people it belongs to, and they are no longer in the city.   If he’d never met Agia the con-artist, he would never have gotten possession of the gem, and his life would have been boring. Everything he is to accomplish and experience from this day on, is all thanks to Agia.


The creatures inside the  wall when they go through the gate.  What kind of gate is this, exactly?


I love this bit from the Appendix Note on the Translation:

“This book – originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence”


Stay tuned!

8 Responses to "Thoughts and Questions on Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer"

Awww yeah. This is my favorite series of all time. You are totally on the right track if you are asking these questions! Wolfe’s books are a labyrinth. BOTNS in particular is not meant to be read as four separate books. It was written as one long book and split for publication.

As for the confusion about who’s who, why someone does that thing, what really happened, etc. It is always, always, 100% intentional with Wolfe. He wants to confuse you. You may not get all the most satisfying answers your first read through, but if you work hard to pay attention, the answers are there. I was still discovering tidbits about the story I wasn’t aware of on my third read-through of the series. This all ties into Wolfe’s philosophy as a writer. Direct quote: “I believe great literature is that which can be read and reread with increased pleasure.” I have always found this to be the case during my readings of the Solar Cycle.

A few important details to keep in mind moving forward: Severian is an egotistical young man, perhaps narcissist or even psychopath would better describe him. He isn’t always telling you, the reader, the truth. Like all of Wolfe’s work, this is not a series where the main character is written for author or audience appeal, but rather is more like the work of Nabokov, in which we are performing a character study of a fringe individual through that character’s own eyes. Don’t take everything he says at face value.

If something reeks of science fiction, it definitely is. You hit the nail on the head with the time travel question. It’s a recurring theme in BOTNS. I don’t remember the description of the creatures on display in the gate, but this series takes place in a declining world long AFTER man has gone to the stars and returned; and, man definitely brought alien species back to Urth with him. So, Severian’s concept of “creatures” is almost never the same as ours is today.

Keep reading closely and carefully. The series only gets better from here. Book 3 is my favorite. Looking forward to the rest of your posts!


“Severian is an egotistical young man, perhaps narcissist or even psychopath would better describe him. He isn’t always telling you, the reader, the truth. ”

I’ve not read any Nabokov, but reading this discription I was reminded of another protagonist in a series where we’re pretty sure he’s not telling the truth, or at least not all the truth – Kote/Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles. Add those doorstoppers to the list of books I’d like to reread one of these days.

The first time I read Shadow of the Torturer, I didn’t pick up on any of the Jack Vance style Dying Earth hints. I’ve read some other dying earth style sci-fantasy since then, so now I know some of what to look for.

There should be another post like this in about a week! Happy you’re enjoying them as much as I’m enjoying the Wolfe.


One of the best works of SF ever. IIRC, he didn’t make up any words; he used old words that have fallen out of use.

And some of the tidbits in here are just delightful. I vividly recall the old man who cleaned an ancient piece of art. We get a long paragraph describing the art, and then I realized “holy crap, I know this piece, and it isn’t a painting!”

GW will stretch your mind.

If you come across a fifth book, though, pretend it doesn’t exist and move on. These books went over so well that people demanded another, and it came out… about as well as could be expected. 😦


wait, it isn’t a painting??? now i need to go back and reread that scene!

I’ve been reading, and then flipping back through the pages looking for certain scenes and words (I suppose could just write down the page #s, but where is the fun in that??), so then I end up rereading certain scenes all in the wrong order. And even that, is fun, reading the stuff out of order, forgetting the order. I imagine older Severian has sort of forgotten the order most of this stuff has happened in anyways.


Personally, I really liked The Urth of the New Sun – just as much, if not more, than The Book. It’s true that Wolfe has said that it’s superfluous, in that everything in Urth is already implied in Book. But for those of use who DON’T have triple doctorates in literature, kabbalah and Catholic theology, it’s nice to have things explained in a slightly more clear and honest fashion. Reading Book without Urth seems to me like watching a murder mystery and turning off before the denuement, and saying “oh, all the details of the case are perfectly apparent if you just pay attention to the rest of the film”. But some of us aren’t Poirot. And even when we do work out what’s going on, it’s nice to actually have someone say it out loud!

[besides, it’s not as though Urth doesn’t leave plenty of questions and paradoxes for the interested reader in its own right…]

I also just liked having the same world portrayed from a different perspective, in a work more overtly mystical and less fantastical.


Some good questions!

– the botanical gardens are indeed interesting, and worth remembering! Aside from any direct plot relevence, they reveal/suggest a really interesting conceit that, once you discover it, will plague future readings of the novels. However, there’s no way you could be expected to think of it at this point, so I won’t spoil it…

– is/was Dorcas dead? Some questions that possibility might in turn raise include: is she still dead? Why isn’t she dead? How long has she been dead? Is she just a random woman? Does anyone else know anything about Dorcas that Severian doesn’t know (or doesn’t tell us)?

[woah. I just went back to remind myself of what you’ve read that might be relevent, and just discovered that some things are much more obvious and simple than I thought they were at the time (I’ve only read it once so far).]

– I like to think of the entire cast of the novel as “random characters who show up and do weird stuff”. But, not to spoil it too much, you will indeed meet Talos and/or Baldanders at a later point. I seem to recall that they’ve already basically told you who they are and why they’re important, but that the reader isn’t expected to understand at this point.

– pay attention to their play, though – pay attention to all plays, stories, novels, etc…

– ooh, I don’t remember them seeing a building in the sky? I’m sure it’s incredibly important though. Everything is…

– in your paragraph about the Claw, you say something that’s ironically true, but in a way you can’t imagine at the moment. I won’t tell you what it is…

– good thinking with the gate. Doors and things are certainly important! Although this gate may just be a gate. If any gate is just a gate?

– and the creatures inside the wall. Remember, Wolfe divides them into two classes: the cacogens, and the pandours. Maybe you know both words already – myself, I worked out ‘cacogen’, but not ‘pandour’. ‘Cacogen’ just means evil-born. More interestingly, a Pandour is a Croatian skirmisher serving in the army of Austria; I’m pretty sure the name is not chosen randomly…

– I just looked at the section and the gate and… oh my, I need to re-read this, don’t I? One of the delights of Wolfe is the paranoia he induces – when so many things are clues, it looks like everything is. Why, for instance, does Jonas say that Talos has discerned him better than he intended ‘as the man said when he looked in the mirror’ (paraphrasing)? Why, oh why, does the woman in the story throw the beans into the sea and why does that destroy the world!? Aaargh!

– that said, don’t worry too much about it all. Shadow is just the introduction; the foreshadowing you see around you here is only meant to be understood in hindsight (or not at all), and no matter how hard you try you’ll never be able to avoid missing things, since you don’t know which things are important yet.

– in any case, I think Wolfe is playing with us a bit my making us think like this. While I think The Urth is more overtly about questions and answers, I do think The Book is drawn more from the tradition of the picaresque, with the weirdness and the confusing connexions in the background being there to give an additional level of enjoyment – you don’t really need to follow him down every rabbithole to enjoy the books.

– speaking of which, I too remember finding Shadow slow going; I think the quartet just gets better.


Did you read the part where someone threatens to torture Severian? Is that in a later book? I totally can’t remember, but it was my favorite.


I must not have gotten to that scene yet. it’s creepy/weird, how beautifully written the torture scenes are. it’s described like artwork.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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